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Syria peace session ends with no progress

No date is set for third round of negotiations

GENEVA — The UN mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, wrapped up the second round of peace talks here Saturday without breaking a longstanding deadlock or setting a date for a third round, and urged the parties to think seriously about their commitment to the negotiations.

Brahimi said the talks had broken down primarily because the Syrian government balked at his suggestion that the negotiators discuss both sides’ top demands early on, rather than spending days on the government’s demands.

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“I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat who has spent decades negotiating thorny conflicts, said after a last-ditch 45-minute meeting with the two sides ended in disagreement. “I apologize to them that on these two rounds we haven’t helped them very much.”

The dispiriting finish called into question the future of the talks. In two rounds, the talks have produced no negotiations on resolving a conflict that has killed more than 135,000 people and driven 9.5 million from their homes, even though they are sponsored by Russia and the United States and backed by dozens of other countries.

“It’s not good for Syria that we come back for another round and fall in the same trap that we have been struggling with this week and most of the first round,” Brahimi said. “So I think it is better that every side goes back and reflect and take their responsibility: Do they want this process to take place or not? I will do the same.”

He said he would report to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and push for a meeting with Ban, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Some Western diplomats have suggested that Brahimi, 80, might be worried about harming his legacy by presiding over empty talks, and that he might recommend ending them. But others pointed out that he is famous for his patience.

Western officials were quick to call for new pressure on the Syrian government. Minutes after Brahimi spoke, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, tweeted that the UN Security Council “must now act to address the humanitarian crisis urgently.” But Russia, the Syrian government’s most powerful backer, sees Western attempts to require access for aid workers as a pretext for military action, and it has blocked previous Security Council measures on Syria.

Brahimi said the two sides had agreed that the next round would address both the government’s top-priority issue, what it calls terrorism, and the opposition’s, a political transition. But then, he said, the government rejected his proposal that the negotiators spend the first day on terrorism and the second on transition.

Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations in New York and the government’s lead negotiator, said it was impossible to resolve the issue of terrorism in one day, and that the government wanted to reach “a common vision” on the subject before moving on to others.

But Brahimi said he had made it “very clear” that both topics would take far more than one day, and that his aim was simply to ensure that the two sides at least began to discuss each other’s demands. He said he told the government that this would reassure the opposition, which is “very suspicious” of the government and believes it does not want to discuss transition at all.

“I hope that this time of reflection will lead the government side in particular to reassure the other side that when they speak of implementing the Geneva Communiqué” — the July 2012 document that is the basis of the talks — they mean that “the main objective” is a transitional governing body with full executive powers, Brahimi said.

“Ending violence, combating terrorism is extremely important, indispensable,” he said. “But I think that every side has to be convinced that, yes, we are going to implement all the elements in the communiqué.”

Each side blamed its opponents and their international backers for the lack of progress.

“We are here to negotiate,” said Louay Safi, an opposition spokesman. “We have been disappointed completely, not only by the regime.”

Russian officials “have not prevailed over the regime that wants to stall,” Safi said, adding that Russia “continues to supply” the weapons that the government is using to bombard rebel-held towns and neighborhoods.

Jaafari, the government negotiator, said that recent comments by President Obama and members of his administration, who mentioned the possibility of increasing efforts to help the opposition, meant US officials were “not committed” to the success of talks.

The Syrian government has long said that the first step toward ending the conflict is the cessation of support for insurgent groups by the United States and allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Jaafari said the government recognized that the opposition delegation could not single-handedly stop terrorism in Syria because it does not control many of the insurgent groups. But, he added, officials want to hear that the opposition is committed to stopping it.

The opposition has condemned violence against civilians and pointed to recent battles between its affiliated fighters and jihadist groups. But the crux of the dispute is the definition of terrorism, which the government says includes all armed opposition.

“That is a subject for negotiations,” said a progovernment analyst based in Damascus, who spoke anonymously in order to be more open.

Both sides have legitimate points, the analyst said: The government is correct that continuing violence will not allow a smooth political transition, and the opposition is correct that violence cannot end, so speaking about both terrorism and transition makes sense.

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