GENEVA – The U.N. mediator trying to broker peace after three years of civil war in Syria said the agreement by the antagonists to face each other at peace talks for the first time Saturday is an accomplishment to be measured in “half-steps.”
Lakhdar Brahimi also said the painstakingly choreographed conference would continue Sunday, focusing on humanitarian aid – the one topic the Syrian government and the opposition could agree to discuss.
“We haven’t achieved much, but we are continuing,” Brahimi said after about three hours acting as a buffer between the two sides. “The situation is very difficult and very, very complicated, and we are moving not in steps, but half-steps.”
Sitting face to face at a U-shaped table and separated by Brahimi, President Bashar Assad’s delegation and the Syrian National Coalition avoided directly touching on the war dividing them – or discussing Assad himself.
Their movements choreographed, they entered by separate doors and said they would speak only to Brahimi, and not to each other.
“One is on the left and one on right and they face one another and they talk to each other – through me, to one another,” he said. “This is what happens in civilized discussions.”
The peace conference intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago. On Saturday, the talks avoided the main issue of Assad’s future, with both sides appearing to soften their approach after days of escalating rhetoric.
The coalition agreed to the Geneva talks only if the focus was on an end to the Assad dynasty, while the Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism – disputing any claims that it had agreed to the talks’ stated goal of a transitional government.
Louay Safi, of the coalition, described the talks as “consultations – it’s not negotiations.”
“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 and for the sake of the Syrian children,” said Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition’s representatives. He said everyone remained calm during the first brief meeting at which only Brahimi spoke.
Diplomats said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising.
First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled.
Brahimi said there was no firm agreement – local officials also needed to be involved – but he hoped for a delivery to Homs by Monday.
The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011 after Assad responded to largely peaceful protests by unleashing the military. A quarter of the country’s population has been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the United States have taken opposite sides in the war, with Moscow selling Assad military hardware and using its influence on the U.N. Security Council, where as a permanent member it has a veto. Washington has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaida-inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.
Complicating any truce efforts, a medley of rebel groups fight from Homs and nearby opposition-held areas, ranging from al-Qaida hardline extremists to conservative Muslim brigades, to the more secular fighters of the Free Syrian Army. They are mostly holed up in or near the old city.
By Saturday afternoon, there was no sign of violence halting in Homs, nor had humanitarian aid entered rebel-held areas blockaded by Assad-loyal forces, said a Homs-based activist and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist identified himself by pseudonym, Firas Homsi, as is typical for those who fear reprisal.
Homsi said there were about 800 Syrian families still in the old city, under blockade for the past 20 months.
“Our situation here is very bad. There’s no food and we are using outdated medicine,” said Homsi, who had heard rumors of a truce, but saw no evidence of it.
Assad’s forces and – to a lesser extent – rebel groups have blockaded enemy areas, harshly punishing the poorest and most vulnerable civilians for the gunmen in their midst.
Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.