Syrian peace talks are on the verge of collapse with the Syrian government threatening to leave Switzerland after the opposition refused to meet face-to-face until it agreed to the creation of a transitional government.
The so-called Geneva II talks got under way on Friday and were due to bring together representatives from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the main opposition bloc for the first time.
However, the opposition demanded the government endorse the Geneva communique of June 30, 2012, which calls for a transitional governing body to be established, before direct talks began.
That led the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, to say: “If no serious work sessions are held by [Saturday], the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side’s lack of seriousness or preparedness.”
The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, met the government representatives separately before the threat to leave was announced.
Alessandra Velluci, a UN spokeswoman, said: “There are no Syrian-Syrian talks at the moment. I cannot tell you anything about what will happen in the next few days.”
The government says it will not discuss removing Assad, while the opposition says it will not stay unless Assad’s removal is the basis for talks. One of the government delegates said on Friday that Assad would remain president until the next election, when anyone could run for election.
In his remarks on Thursday, Ahmed Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said the international community now realised that Assad could not stay in power.
“We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now. Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead,” Jarba said.
He said the negotiations would be long and difficult, and would look at all the “core issues” as a package deal, including the creation of a transitional governing body.
“This is the basis of our negotiations and we will demand it,” he said.
Syria government officials, who left talks with a UN envoy on Thursday evening without making any statement, have insisted that Assad is not going anywhere.
Few expect the peace talks to result in a breakthrough to end the war, since Sunni religious fighters who disdain the Western and Arab-backed opposition are not present at the talks, and nor is Iran, Assad’s main regional backer.
Officials hope they can salvage the process by starting with more modest, practical measures to ease the plight of millions of people on the ground, especially in areas cut off from international aid.
More than 130,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, nearly a third of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes, and half are in need of international aid, including hundreds of thousands in areas cut off by fighting.
Against this backdrop, the UN humanitarian chief has urged the Syrian delegations to remember their people and try to reach local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians in dire needs.