Syrian peace talks come close to collapse on the first day

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 6:32am


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Syria's first peace talks came close to collapsing before they began yesterday, with the opposition refusing to meet President Bashar al-Assad's delegation and the government threatening to bring its team home. Figures on both sides later expressed a willingness to meet their enemies.

The opposition said early yesterday it would not meet Assad's delegation unless it first agreed to sign up to a protocol calling for a transitional administration. The government rejected the demand outright and said its negotiators would return home unless serious talks began within a day.

"If no serious work sessions are held [by today], the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side's lack of seriousness or preparedness," Syrian state television quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying.

Yesterday was meant to be the first time in three years of war that Assad's government and foes would negotiate face-to-face.

But plans were ditched at the last minute after the opposition said the government delegation must first sign up to a 2012 protocol, known as Geneva 1, that calls for a new interim government.

"We have explicitly demanded a written commitment from the regime delegation to accept Geneva 1. Otherwise there will be no direct negotiations," opposition delegate Haitham al-Maleh said.

The government delegation met UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi separately, and said it rejected the opposition demand: "No, we will not accept it," Information Minister Omran Zoabi said.

But both sides later said they were still prepared to sit down in the same room. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said his side was going to meet the opposition today. Asked if that would be in the same room, he replied: "Yes." Burhan Ghalioun, former President of the Syrian National Council and an influential opposition figure, said: "There is no problem, we will sit at the same table."

The opposition said it has come to discuss a transition that will remove Assad from power. The government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism - the word it uses for its enemies.