Syria foes meet face-to-face for first time at Geneva II
Syria's government and opposition finally met face-to-face on Saturday as difficult UN-sponsored peace talks inched forward in Geneva.
After a false start on Friday, the two sides came together in the same room with mediator Lakhdar Brahimi at the UN's headquarters in Europe, his spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian said.
The meeting, during which Brahimi spoke while the two delegations listened, wrapped up in under half an hour. The two sides then broke up into separate rooms with Brahimi expected to shuttle between them.
"It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus, but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people," said Anas Al Abda, a member of the opposition negotiating team.
The two sides were expected to be back in the same room on Saturday afternoon for a session the opposition says will focus on humanitarian issues -- especially the situation in the besieged central city of Homs -- but the regime says will be more general.
Despite being so short, the meeting still marked progress after a difficult first day for the talks saw President Bashar al-Assad's regime accuse the opposition of obstructing the negotiations and threatening to walk away.
Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides are meeting for the first time, in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem the bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war in Syria.
Brahimi announced late Friday that the two sides had agreed to come together, admitting that the process was proving difficult.
"We never expected this to be easy," Brahimi told reporters, adding that "I think the two parties understand what is at stake."
The opposition insists the talks should focus on Assad leaving power and the formation of a transitional government based on an agreement reached during a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.
The regime says Assad's role is not up for debate at this conference -- dubbed Geneva II -- and denies the initial Geneva deal requires him to go.
Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the talks, which are expected to last about a week, but diplomats have said simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is an important step.
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.
Opposition officials have said they want Saturday's afternoon session to focus on the central city of Homs, where hundreds of families are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
"We will talk exclusively about... how to put an end to the siege of Homs, ensuring humanitarian corridors to besieged areas and stopping the regime's bombing and killing," Opposition National Coalition official Ahmad Ramadan said.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad denied the talks would focus on Homs.
"The situation in Homs, in Aleppo and elsewhere deserves to be discussed, but today we will not discuss these issues, which need time and consultations," he said.
"We will talk about general questions," he said, refusing to elaborate.
The preliminary stage of the conference in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday was marked by fiery exchanges, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem labelling the opposition "traitors" and agents of foreign governments.
Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
Pitting Assad's regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.
It took months of efforts to convince the two sides to come to the conference, with the opposition National Coalition only deciding at the last minute to attend.
Questions have been raised about whether the opposition delegation is truly representative of Assad's opponents and if it would be able to implement any deal with rebel fighters on the ground.