Syria peace talks end with little headway but some hope

Geneva: The United Nations wrapped up a week of fraught and largely unproductive peace talks between Syria's civil war foes on Friday, citing as the biggest achievement the fact that the two sides still were speaking.

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he had little progress to report, but he also said he had detected some beginnings of hope for a solution to the war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and continues to rage unchecked.

"This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build," he said. "I thought I observed a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides recognised or realised."

But, he added: "The gap between the sides remains wide. There is no use in pretending otherwise."

The talks, which began on January 25, focused mainly on the contentious issue of what they are supposed to be about, with the government pressing its view that fighting terrorism should be the priority and the opposition stressing the need to focus on a political transition that would take power away from President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Brahimi cited as progress the consensus reached by the two sides that future discussions should be based on the Geneva I communique, the blueprint for a solution to the war that Russia and the US agreed to in 2012 and on which the talks were premised. The communique stipulates the need for a comprehensive cease-fire to end the violence as well as providing the outlines for a political transition from Assad's rule.

For the Syrian government even to agree to discuss the Geneva communique signalled progress, said opposition spokesman Louay Safi, because it had repeatedly declined to do so before the talks.

But members of the government delegation also made it clear they had no intention of offering any significant compromises in future rounds of the talks, which diplomats say could last months.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi pledged to a crowd of pro-Assad demonstrators outside the UN headquarters where the talks have been taking place that Damascus would make "no concessions".

"They will not get through politics what they couldn't obtain by force," he said, referring to the rebellion's failure to topple Dr Assad.

Mr Brahimi set a date of February 10 for the talks to resume, which the opposition immediately accepted.The Syrian government delegation said it would have to return to Damascus and consult Dr Assad before deciding whether to come back, prompting a sharp response from the US State Department.

"The opposition has once again shown a seriousness of purpose in these negotiations by quickly committing to participate in the next round of talks, while the regime continues to play games," spokesman Edgar Vasquez said. "The people of Syria are watching and will determine who truly has their best interests at heart."

The break will allow for a flurry of fresh international diplomacy aimed at prodding the talks forward.

Mr Brahimi was to fly to Munich for talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The two men will then meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to further discuss the talks. Russia and the United States are the joint sponsors of the peace process, and their pressure was instrumental in persuading their respective allies to attend at all.

A key question now will be whether the Russians are prepared to exert more pressure on Dr Assad's government to compromise further, diplomats say. In a sign that they will, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, has accepted an invitation to visit Moscow on Monday, continuing a thaw in ties between Dr Assad's opponents and his chief patron.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, the head of the government delegation, said: "I can tell you there is no Russian pressure on our delegation. There is co-ordination. We respect the opinion of the other side, but at the end of the day, the decision will be Syrian."

Washington Post

This story Syria peace talks end with little headway but some hope first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.