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Question of Assad’s future stymies Syria talks

Negotiations yield no progress on siege of Homs

An estimated 1,200 women, children, and elderly people are trapped in besieged areas of Homs, according to observers.

Yazan Homsy/REUTERS

An estimated 1,200 women, children, and elderly people are trapped in besieged areas of Homs, according to observers.

GENEVA — The key issue of a transitional government to replace President Bashar Assad blocked any progress Monday in contentious Syrian peace talks, but both sides pledged to continue the negotiations.

The chief UN mediator expressed frustration over inflammatory public remarks by the two sides as he sought to identify some less-contentious issues in hopes of achieving any progress at the bargaining table.

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But even the most modest attempts at confidence-building measures faltered — including humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs and the release of detainees. Veteran mediator Lakhdar Brahimi somberly declared at the end of the day that he had little to report.

‘‘There are no miracles here,’’ Brahimi said, adding that both sides nevertheless appeared to have the will to maintain the discussions. Asked how he planned to bridge the enormous gap between the two sides, the veteran diplomat quipped: ‘‘Ideas, I’ll take them with great pleasure.’’

The gulf between the two sides was on full display at a turbulent morning session in which the delegations from the opposition and the Syrian government faced off on the question of Assad’s future.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition wants an interim replacement for Assad, reiterating at every opportunity that the stated goal of the peace conference, agreed upon by international powers in preliminary talks in June, is to establish a transitional government with full executive powers.

But Assad, whose troops have a tenuous upper hand in Syria, has said he has no intention of stepping down and, on the contrary, may run again for president later this year. His delegates have capitalized on the rise of Islamic militants, saying the priority at the peace conference was to finds ways to combat terrorism.

‘‘We came here with the intention of discussing a transitional governing body and they came with the intention of consecrating Bashar Assad’s presence,’’ said Rima Fleihan, a member of the coalition’s negotiating team.

Murhaf Jouejati of the coalition said the meeting ended on a ‘‘sour note,’’ and the session was broken up by Brahimi after the government delegation became confrontational.

Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests that eventually turned into an insurgency and full-blown civil war after a harsh military crackdown. The war has become a proxy conflict between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia, with hints of a throwback to the Cold War as Russia and the United States back opposite sides.

Despite the rancorous rhetoric outside the conference room, both sides have said they will not withdraw from the talks.

Brahimi said the parties were talking to the media ‘‘too much,’’ adding that he asked them to respect the confidentiality of the discussions and avoid exaggerations. Still, all signs pointed to impasse.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was ‘‘realistic about how difficult this is going to be, but we are completely convinced that this is the only way forward for Syria, and that’s through negotiations.’’

‘‘What’s important is that the two parties have sat in the same room over the past several days to discuss critical issues. And this process is ongoing. And I would expect quite a few ups and downs along the way,’’ Carney said. ‘‘But it is the only way to end the conflict in Syria. It has to be ended through a negotiated political settlement.’’

On Sunday, after three days of talks, a tentative agreement was reached for the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in. As of Monday night, there was no progress on the ground.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 1,200 women, children, and elderly people were trapped in besieged areas of the old quarter of Homs.

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