Syria peace talks end in rancor, uncertainty

“We haven’t made any progress to speak of,” the U.N. mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said after a final round of talks.
“We haven’t made any progress to speak of,” the U.N. mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said after a final round of talks.

GENEVA — Syrian government and opposition teams ended their first attempt at peace talks Friday with rancorous recriminations and uncertainty over whether they would even return for further face-to-face negotiations.

During a week of talks, they failed to make headway toward political compromise or action that could alleviate the suffering inflicted by the nearly three-year-old civil war.

“We haven’t made any progress to speak of,” the U.N. mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said after a final round of talks with both delegations.


He expressed hope they had at least identified sufficient common ground to resume the discussions at a later date.

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Brahimi said he had proposed that the talks reconvene in Geneva on Feb. 10 but left some doubt whether the Syrian government had accepted.

“They didn’t tell me that they are thinking of not coming. On the contrary, they said that they would come, but they needed to check with their capital,” he said.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, speaking to reporters soon afterward, was noncommittal. He did not rule out returning for another round, but he said the decision would be made by President Bashar Assad after hearing the delegation’s report and in discussion with his Cabinet.

That ambiguous outcome was as close to a tangible result as Brahimi could identify after sometimes-acrimonious talks that began in the lakeside town of Montreux with a government denunciation of the opposition as terrorists.


The final day of talks was punctuated by a volley of hostile comment from both sides, while pro-government demonstrators gathered below the canopy of a giant Syrian flag outside the U.N. offices where the meetings were held.

In between, the talks failed to make progress on efforts to send humanitarian aid into the besieged Old City of Homs and on prisoner releases. Even the basic purpose of the talks — discussion of a transitional government — was a matter of dispute and differing interpretations.

“The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise,” Brahimi said.

The failure to achieve any kind of humanitarian pause that could allow food and other relief supplies to reach hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped by fighting drew a swift protest from the top U.N. relief official, Valerie Amos.

“While the discussions continue to try to find a political solution to the crisis, ordinary men, women and children are dying needlessly across the country, and others are desperate for food, clean water and medical care,” she said in a statement.


Amos made clear in the statement that she blamed government obstruction for preventing U.N. teams from gaining access to some areas of acute need.

“The situation is totally unacceptable,” she said.

Striving to find some positive outcome from the process, Brahimi said that government and opposition delegations had at least become used to sitting in the same room and listening to each other. There had even been moments when one side had acknowledged the point of view and concerns of the other.

“Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build,” he said.

Each side continued to blame the other for the carnage that has by some estimates killed more than 130,000 people and driven more than 6 million people from their homes.

Moallem attributed the lack of results to two causes: what he called the opposition delegation’s immaturity, and Western aid to rebel groups that describe themselves as moderate.

“There is no moderate opposition; there is only terrorist organizations,” he said.

The opposition delegation’s spokesman, Louay Safi, said the peace talks could progress only if the government negotiated the formation of a transitional governing body.

But Assad’s side “does not want a political solution,” he said, accusing the government forces of deadly assaults on civilian populations, including the dropping of 60 barrel bombs over the past six days.

With the conclusion of the first round of talks, attention was already turning to preparations for a second round. Brahimi was due to leave for Munich within hours of the end of the talks to meet with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and then with Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.