Syria Talks Appear Deadlocked as Sides Disagree Over Goals – By Anne Barnard
GENEVA — The first face-to-face peace talks by antagonists in the Syria conflict appeared to deadlock on Monday, with enormous differences over the basic purpose of negotiations as well as a government relief gesture for civilians that the opposition denounced as a ploy. But both sides expressed willingness to resume talking.
The negotiations in Geneva, overseen by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, adjourned Monday evening, and Mr. Brahimi conceded to reporters at a news conference that the talks so far “haven’t produced much.” Still, he said that neither side was walking away and that they would reconvene on Tuesday.
Opposition delegates said the talks on Monday had been meant to focus on what they considered the central issue of the conference: the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria with “full executive powers,” chosen “by mutual consent.” But Mr. Assad’s delegation appeared to reject even talking about such an issue.
Asked to submit opening statements, the government delegation produced a document calling for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, defending Syrian sovereignty and suggesting that Syria is already a democracy governed by the rule of law. The opposition presented its own document — a copy of the original communiqué of June 2012 that helped form the basis for the current talks.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a close adviser to Mr. Assad, said in an interview that she was surprised the opposition rejected the government’s statement. “There is nothing to reject — what are you, American?” she said.
Monzer Akbik, an opposition spokesman, said the government document had nothing to do with the purpose at hand. “We respect the international community and its resolutions,” he said. “If there is a breakdown in the talks, it will not be us.”
Earlier Monday, disputes emerged over a government proposal to allow women and children to vacate blockaded areas in Homs, a resilient epicenter of armed resistance to Mr. Assad. Opposition figures called such a proposal a deception to depopulate the area and arrest Mr. Assad’s foes.
The opposition said the government’s proposal, concerning the Old City of Homs, was not a substitute for allowing international aid convoys to enter the area, as United Nations mediators have proposed. The opposition’s international backers said that international law required the Syrian government to allow unimpeded aid access without conditions.
“It is a simple thing they can and must do, but so far they have refused to allow humanitarian convoys into the Old City,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman here. “The armed fighters in the Old City have made clear that they will allow these convoys in. Thus, there should be no reason for delay. The regime must act now.”
But Syrian officials called the focus on Homs a minor issue and said that they were doing everything possible to aid people throughout the country, an assertion strongly disputed by some United Nations aid organizations.
That left the two sides no closer to an agreement on Homs, or anything else other than consenting to sit in the same room.
Mr. Brahimi told a news conference afterward that despite the lack of progress, “My expectation from this conference is that the unjust war will stop. But I know this is not going to happen today or tomorrow or next week.”
At the same time, many government opponents inside Syria say the talks are a distraction that further legitimizes the government and that neither side will deliver on any agreements. Western diplomats acknowledge that the opposition coalition lacks control over many fighting forces on the ground and that the government delegates have no decision-making power, which ultimately rests with Mr. Assad.
Opposition delegates and their Western backers here said that under international law, civilians had a right to stay in their homes and to receive food and medical aid. They said they had received guarantees from all the armed opposition groups in Homs that they would not fire on aid convoys.
“What the regime has proposed — an evacuation of women and children from the Old City — is not sufficient,” Mr. Vasquez said in a statement. “Civilians must be allowed to come and go freely, and the people of Homs must not be forced to leave their homes and split up their families before receiving much needed food and other aid.”
He said that the government had long been carrying out a “kneel or starve” campaign, a reference to slogans scrawled on concrete barriers at government checkpoints isolating areas in the Damascus suburbs where malnutrition has taken a growing number of lives. “For example, in Moadhamiya, there was a limited evacuation but still no food aid or other humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Vasquez said. “That cannot happen in Homs.”
Jon Wilks, a British diplomat involved in the talks, said in a Twitter message: “Let’s keep it simple on Homs. Regime should let the humanitarian convoy in. Then the population should decide to stay or leave.”
Ahmad al-Jarba, the opposition coalition president, said on Twitter that the government had often employed a strategy of “allowing women & children to leave, then massacring & imprisoning the men.”
The opposition and its Western backers are calling on Russia to increase pressure on the Syrian government. A Western diplomat here said that if the convoy to Homs is not allowed by the end of the week, opponents of Mr. Assad could return to the Security Council — where Russia and China, his backers, have vetoed or diluted efforts to pressure the government — both to press fortheowing aid access and to condemn tjhe government’s human rights violations.
“We may have to take this back to the Security Council and say there is clear noncompliance with what we have all agreed,” the diplomat said. “Russia should do more with the regime, if the regime does not allow this convoy in.”
He added, “This is the lowest-level test of whether the regime is going to do anything constructive in these negotiations.”
It was impossible to ascertain how the Geneva diplomacy was resonating with the besieged residents of Homs, once Syria’s third-largest city. But some civilians reached byunderwayid there were no preparations under way to either receive an aid convoy or start an evacuation, and that many residents mistrusted both the government and insurgents.
“We don’t know yet if the fighters inside will be taking care of the distribution, which means that civilians will get a small share,” said one resident, Samer, a civilian. He said he had tried to persuade a woman suspicious of Mr. Assad’s motives to accept the government’s offer to evacuate with her three children, but that she had refused.
“What woman will accept to leave with her children and husband if she knows that detention and rape are awaiting her?” he quoted her as saying.
There were also indications that even some Syrian relief officials mistrusted the government’s proposal. A Syrian Arab Red Crescent worker, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals, said in a text message on Monday that the organization disagreed with the Homs evacuation idea. “We don’t feel it is in the best interest of the civilians to separate the families first and escalate violence on what’s left of them inside!” the worker said.