Syria’s warring sides launched a new round of peace talks on Monday, as an agreement from the first round last month was being implemented with aid convoys evacuating the besieged city of Homs.
The UN and Arab League mediator, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, began the latest session in Geneva by shuttling between the government and opposition teams.
It was not clear when or if the two sides would sit down for the sort of mediated face-to-face negotiations they held for a week in January.
Brahimi hopes to capitalise on the Homs agreement to find some way of closing the vast divide separating representatives from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the fractured opposition.
There was little optimism that the tone would be more constructive this time. Both sides have shown themselves to be obstinate and quick to engage in blaming the other side.
This time, Brahimi wants to nudge the teams towards discussion of the core issues: stopping fighting and agreeing a transitional government in Damascus.
The initial round late last month was the first time the Syrian government and opposition sat down face-to-face since the outbreak of their vicious war nearly three years ago.
More than 136,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes.
The government side is again headed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem while the opposition negotiators were headed by Hadi al-Bahra.
Syrian state daily al-Watan said its sources expected “no progress”, after the first round “failed... due to the stubbornness of the coalition’s delegation.”
A source in the opposition delegation told AFP it planned to submit a report about the Assad regime’s “violence, crimes against humanity and state terrorism”.
The report claims among other things that the regime, especially through its campaign of “barrel bombs” – canisters of high explosive dropped by aircraft – has killed more than 1,800 people since the beginning of the first round of talks in Switzerland on January 22.
International push to end war
The so-called Geneva II talks – spurred by the United States, which backs the opposition, and Russia, a key ally of Syria – mark the biggest international push so far to end the war.
The aim is to build on an international conference held in Geneva in 2012 which did not include both the warring parties but ended up with world powers calling for political transition in Syria.
That issue is highly contentious in the Geneva II talks.
While the opposition sees a transitional governing body as excluding any role for Assad, the Syrian government insists that the president’s future is not up for negotiation.
The regime delegation instead maintains that the negotiations must be about stopping the violence and “terrorism” – its term for the revolt, which it says has been fuelled by foreign jihadists and Gulf money.
The opposition, in turn, wants discussions to address regime actions such as starving out opposition-held areas, raining explosives-packed “barrel bombs” from helicopters, and deploying fighters from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia.
“Fighting terrorism for the Syrian people [means fighting] the terrorism of the regime who resorts to warplanes, rockets and barrel bombs,” National Coalition secretary general Badr Jamous said in a statement Monday.
The ceasefire permitting the Homs operation proved fragile on Saturday, when the first aid convoy coming under attack and mortar shells raining down on a rebel-held district on Sunday, killing five people. Red Crescent teams on Sunday managed nevertheless to evacuate some 600 people.
On Monday, they were readying to go back in again for the final day of the agreed operation.
Activists accused pro-regime militia-men in neighbourhoods bordering the besieged districts for the attacks, while Syrian state television said “armed terrorist groups” had fired during the evacuations.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday his country would propose a UN Security Council resolution demanding the immediate opening of humanitarian corridors to besieged cities like Homs.
“It is absolutely scandalous that we have been discussing this for some time but the people are still starving,” Fabius said.