Syria’s government handed an ultimatum to a UN mediator hoping to broker peace in the country’s civil war, vowing to leave if “serious talks” do not begin by today.
The delegation chosen by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met for less than 90 minutes yesterday with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi as part of a peace conference with the Western-backed opposition. The meeting has been on the verge of falling apart ever since it was conceived.
In Geneva, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Brahimi that if “serious talks don’t begin Saturday, the official Syrian delegation will have to leave because the other party is not serious or ready,” according to Syrian state television.
Direct talks planned for yesterday between the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition were scrapped, and the opposition was to meet separately with Brahimi later at the UN European headquarters. The Syrian government blamed the coalition for the lack of direct negotiations, which were seen as the best hope for an eventual end to the three-year civil war that has killed at least 130,000 people.
As the peace conference faltered, fighting raged throughout parts of Syria, including near Damascus. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists said.
In Switzerland, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to al-Assad who traveled to Geneva for the talks, questioned whether the opposition coalition — made up largely of exiles based in Turkey — was prepared to negotiate an end to the violence.
“We came here with Syria and the Syrian people on our mind, only while they came here with positions and posts on their mind,” she said.
The coalition’s head, Ahmad al-Jarba, said late on Thursday that he was committed to the talks and would give his negotiators full authority on their pace and scope. However, his chief of staff yesterday said the negotiations were never expected to be easy or quick, insisting that the coalition was simply not yet prepared to meet directly with the government.
“Everyone knows that these are proximity negotiations,” said the aide, Monzer Akbik. “And for the time being, that’s the way it is going to be.”
Both sides have spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting. They blamed each other for turning a once-thriving country into ruin and called each other terrorists.
However, their willingness to meet with Brahimi — even separately — gave the first sense that the negotiations might bear some fruit.
Brahimi himself has said both sides had shown willingness to bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local ceasefires — even if the terms were still murky.