Huge Gulf Between Syrian Sides as Talks Set to Begin

The two delegations will be in different rooms, with UN envoy Brahimi shuttling between them.

Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury

Talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition will open in Geneva on Friday under the auspices of United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

The two Syrian delegations will be in different rooms, with Brahimi shuttling between them. His first task will be to get them to agree on arrangements that would enable them to sit in the same room – after which they can start discussing issues actually related to the Syrian civil war.

Brahimi and his staff held preparatory talks with the two sides on Thursday. The efforts thus far have been aimed primarily at trying to establish a basis of trust that would allow the talks to go forward. However, the two Syrian delegations remain very far apart on even the basic issue of what the talks are supposed to accomplish, a senior opposition leader told Haaretz from Geneva.

Sources involved in the conference don’t expect it to begin with issues such as the composition of a transitional government or the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on which there is no basis for agreement. Prof. Burhan Ghalioun, a member of the opposition delegation, said he foresees lengthy and very difficult negotiations.

But the sources said it might be possible to reach agreements on local ceasefires, first in Aleppo and then in other cities, like Homs, as well prisoner exchanges and the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid. Both delegations have drawn up prisoner lists to give to Brahimi.

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s media advisor, said the opposition delegation doesn’t represent the Syrian people and would not win enough votes to get into parliament, were it to run in elections. A loyal, nationalist opposition that cares what happens to Syria and its people does exist, she said, but it wasn’t invited to the conference.

Interviewed Thursday by the Saudi television network Al Arabiya, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his view that Assad could not be part of the solution. The Syrian president, he charged, was guilty of war crimes and being an obstacle to peace. He added that the international community would protect Syria’s minorities after Assad’s departure, including members of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese channel that is considered pro-regime, reported on Thursday that Kerry had a stormy meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov regarding the pressure Washington exerted to get UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to withdraw his invitation to Iran to participate in the Geneva talks. But the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation, Ahmed Jarba, said Thursday that Moscow had informed the opposition it wouldn’t insist on Assad remaining in power.

The head of the Syrian opposition on Thursday called the regime of President Bashar Assad "dead" on the eve of the first direct talks to end the conflict.

"This regime is dead. And we have a saying that the best way to honour a dead person is to bury them," Syrian National Coalition (SNC) head Ahmed al-Jarba said during a press conference in Geneva.

SNC sources said the opposition pushed the mediators to secure an agreement from the regime for the release of prisoners and detainees as a "confidence builder" before the direct talks begin on Friday.

"We need real, concrete concessions from the government to know that they are actually serious and willing to talk," said an SNC member close to the delegation who asked to remain unnamed.

The closed-door discussions came a day after an acrimonious start to the talks in Switzerland, during which the two sides swapped accusations and challenged each other's legitimacy.

"This is the main cause, this is why we are here, and we will not enter any talks that do not address this issue," Burhan Ghalioun, second lead delegate for the SNC, told dpa in Montreux, referring to the future of Assad.

Brahimi said both sides expressed a willingness to talk about a prisoner release and easing humanitarian aid access to besieged towns, two points in an 18-point agreement over a wider political transition initially agreed upon by the two sides in July 2012.

A demonstrator near the venue of the of the Geneva II peace talks, January 22, 2014.Credit: AP

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