Syria’s warring sides on Thursday got bogged down in a dispute over who was responsible for the violence in the country, as peace talks in Geneva focused on “terrorism.”
While the mere fact the rivals agreed on a topic of discussion was seen as a step forward, the first round of talks are expected to wrap up Friday with no concrete progress on ending the violence, agreeing on a political transition or ensuring humanitarian aid to millions in need.
“There is of course agreement that terrorism … is a very serious problem inside Syria, but there’s no agreement on how to deal with it,” UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters ahead of the seventh and final day of talks.
The two sides have been brought together in Geneva in the biggest diplomatic push yet to end a civil war that has left more than 130,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
“This is really the beginning of our process,” Brahimi stressed.
“I hope that when we come back we’ll have a more structured discussion,” said the UN mediator, who on Friday is expected to announce a second round of talks in Geneva after about a week.
During the interval, Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba will visit officials in Russia, his top aide told AFP Thursday evening.
Just getting the warring sides to sit down together for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011 is however seen as an important step forward.
“The important thing is that the parties meet in the same room,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Berlin Thursday.
The sixth day of talks had gotten off to a positive start, with the two sides sharing a minute of silence for all the victims of the Syrian tragedy.
But even that symbol of unity was shattered when both sides insisted they were the ones who had requested the gesture.
The government delegation then went on to present a text it wanted the other side to agree on, urging all states to “prevent and stop the funding of terrorist acts.”
The text, obtained by AFP, also insisted that “fighting terrorist organizations and driving them out of Syria is a common objective and duty for every Syrian.”
The opposition rejected the communique as “one-sided” and “unacceptable,” delegation spokesman Louay Safi told reporters, pointing out that the text failed to denounced “the regime’s crimes against humanity.”
He insisted it was useless to discuss how to rein in violence before setting up a transitional government, called for in the never-implemented roadmap to peace adopted in 2012, without Assad.
The current government “wants to keep the head of the regime at the expense of destroying the whole country,” he said.
The government delegation has said Assad’s position is not up for debate in Geneva.
A Human Rights Watch report published Thursday meanwhile accused the government of razing thousands of homes in areas that support the opposition as “collective punishment.”
Despite a constant combative tone, Brahimi had said Wednesday “the ice is breaking, slowly,” between the two sides.
This did not however mean that he had seen “any change in the position of the two interlocutors,” he said Thursday evening.
No progress was meanwhile seen towards fulfilling the only tangible promise of the talks so far: the government’s promise to allow women and children safe passage from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs.
UN bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they are on standby with aid but are waiting for approval to move in.
“I am disappointed, very disappointed,” Brahimi said Thursday, lamenting the dire situation for some 3,000 people living with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies in the areas that have been under siege since June, 2012.
Elsewhere though, a food convoy finally gained entry Thursday to the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, where dozens have died from shortages of food and medicines.