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.
In a letter reviewed by Reuters on Monday, Brahimi increased pressure on the two sides to show willingness in a peace process sponsored by Moscow and Washington that made no progress in the first round.
He said he would talk to the two Syrian sides on their own for the next few days in hope of improving the negotiating atmosphere.
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.
In the eight-page document, dated February 7, which was given by Brahimi to both delegations at the weekend, he asked them to make a commitment at the start to deal with the two main issues: stopping the fighting and working out discussions of a transitional governing body.
“The two issues are among the most complex and sensitive and both subjects need treatment over several sessions and long discussions,” the document said.
“But the future of this political process and the possibility of its success require a clear declaration from the outset that the two parties have the full and strong political will to deal with these two issues, with all that they require – courage, persistence and tenacity and openness to reach successful solutions to all the issues, no matter how complicated and thorny.”
During the second week of talks, Brahimi plans to expand the scope of the discussion to two other issues: how to manage the continuity of Syria’s state institutions and how to handle the process of national dialogue and reconciliation that would arise from any eventual agreement in Geneva.
Brahimi hopes to capitalize on the Homs agreement to find some way of closing the vast divide separating representatives from President Bashar al-Assad’s government 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 100,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes. Casualty numbers are hard to verify in the war-torn country, and the UN stopped updating its death toll in July due to the lack of reliable sources.
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 government’s “violence, crimes against humanity and state terrorism”.
The report claims among other things that government forces, especially through their 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.
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 government delegation instead maintains that the negotiations must be about stopping the violence and “terrorism” – its term for the revolt, which it says has been fueled by foreign jihadis and Gulf money.
The opposition, in turn, wants discussions to address government actions such as starving out opposition-held areas, raining explosives-packed “barrel bombs” from helicopters, and deploying foreign fighters.
“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-Assad militiamen in neighborhoods 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 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.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)