Syrian peace talks are off to “a good beginning,” U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said after a day’s negotiations Saturday. “One is on the right and the other is on the left” side of the room, he said of the two warring sides.
At one point, he said, the two sides “have talked to each other,” but he seemed to back off that assertion. “They talk through me to one another. This is what happens in civilized discussion. You talk to the chairman or the speaker. This is what happens and I think this is a good beginning.” He added: “I’m looking forward to the discussions tomorrow and pray we have some good news.”
Syrian peace talks will continue Sunday and focus on issues of “prisoners and people that have been been kidnapped to see if something can be done to secure the freedom of not all but at least some people who have been deprived of their freedom,” Brahimi told reporters Saturday in Geneva. Earlier.
The fragility of the process has been made clear since both sides arrived in Switzerland this week.
Earlier on Saturday, Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jafari, told reporters the Syrian government delegation was heading to the talks “with an open mind … to try to thaw the ice.”
In comments made to Syrian state television, he dismissed all talks about negotiating based on the Geneva I communique, which called for a transitional government and for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
“We came here to fight terror so let’s stop the personal contempt and the provocation by the opposition, their childish play, thinking the Syrian delegation will withdraw from the talks if they up their demands,” Jafari said.
Echoing that, Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi told Syrian state television: “From day one, we said we had reservations on Geneva I and we are surprised of the childish behavior of the so-called opposition where they try to force us to accept that, when we didn’t”.
Ahead of the start of the second Saturday meeting, Loauy Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition, told reporters “we have started the first phase of consultation, not negotiation.”
He said among the topics to be put forward was Syria’s humanitarian situation and the release of prisoners.
“Negotiations will start Monday on forming a transitional government,” he said. “A good number of the regime delegation did not turn up to the table.”
While Saturday’s meetings represented progress to overcome such an early hurdle, it also demonstrated the difficulty of even getting the two sides into one room to start negotiations on ending violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2011.
Syrian state TV had reported that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Brahimi that if a serious meeting was not held Saturday, “the Syrian official delegation will leave Geneva because of the lack of seriousness and readiness” of the opposition.
Meanwhile, the opposition delegation warned that it would not take part in any direct talks unless it saw movement on the issue of a transitional government — that is, that the government shifts on its position that al-Assad will remain in power.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed the news of the Saturday talks, saying “such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process.”
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “we know it’s going to be very, very hard.” At the same time, Kerry noted that diplomacy had already shown some hope by leading the al-Assad regime to turn over its known chemical weapons stockpile.
The fighting has made Syria “the world’s greatest single individual magnet for jihad and terror,” Kerry said, making clear that the United States supports the opposition position that al-Assad must go.
“Because of the havoc he has wreaked on his people, Assad will never have the legitimacy to govern Syria,” Kerry said.
The war has become increasingly sectarian, drawing in Syria’s regional neighbors and forcing out more than 2 million refugees, many of them children.
However, the warring Syrian sides remain far apart.
In a preliminary international session held Wednesday in nearby Montreux, Syria struck a defiant tone, laying a record of atrocities — rape, arson, even the destruction of Syrian culture itself — at the feet of rebels and chiding outsiders for trying to interfere.
No one had the right to withdraw al-Assad’s legitimacy, Moallem said.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition made clear that it sees no role for al-Assad in a transitional government.
Ban: Nobody said this would be easy
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to persist with the talks.
“We had extremely hard negotiations this week on Syria; nobody said this would be an easy process,” Ban told CNN’s Richard Quest in Davos.
He also said that Iran was “one of the important regional powers who can contribute to this process” but that he believed he made the right choice in rescinding an invitation to Tehran to join the talks in Geneva.
The Syrian National Coalition had said it would pull out if Iran was invited, because Tehran has not signed on to the framework agreed in 2012 that envisages a political transition.
“I regretfully made the decision I did. It was of greater importance to have the two sides together,” Ban said, referring to the Syrian government and opposition.
While the stakes for the talks are high, observers see little likelihood that the conference will find a way to end the violence in Syria. But analysts say there is hope that progress can be made on improving the situation for the most vulnerable victims of the civil war.
The Syrian National Coalition does not represent all the opposition groups in Syria, making it uncertain that any agreement it may reach in Geneva would be respected on the ground.
A military representative may join the Syrian opposition team, opposition members said.