January 27

Tense talks break off over Syrian transition issue

The two delegations were supposed to begin discussing thorny political issues such as President Bashar Assad’s future.

By Zeina Karam
The Associated Press

GENEVA — The first meeting meant to discuss the contentious issue of a Syrian transitional government broke up less than an hour after it began Monday following a tense session that one delegate described as “a dialogue of the deaf.”

click image to enlarge

Bouthaina Shaaban, adviser to Syrian President Assad, gestures as she leaves after meeting with the Syrian opposition at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday. Syria’s opposition says there has been no progress on aid convoys reaching a besieged city in central Syria and the release of prisoners from government jails.

The Associated Press

The Syrian government has said it will not discuss replacing President Bashar Assad as the leader of a country his family has ruled since 1970.

The opposition insists he must step down in favor of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that would lead the country until elections are held.

The U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, managed to get both sides to sit in the same room over the weekend to discuss humanitarian aid to besieged areas of the besieged central city of Homs and a possible prisoner exchange. But the opposition said little progress has been achieved.

On Sunday, after three days of talks, a tentative agreement was reached about the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in, although as of Monday night there had been no progress on the ground.

Brahimi cited security problems for part of the delay. The opposition delegation does not control armed groups inside Syria, including al-Qaida-backed militants, who do not feel bound by agreements reached in Geneva.

On Monday, the two delegations were supposed to begin discussing thorny political issues such as Assad’s future.

As the meeting got under way, the government delegation put forward a paper focusing on the need to combat terrorism and halt funding and shipments of weapons to rebels fighting to topple Assad, delegates said.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an Assad adviser, called the paper an “expression of good will” in search of common ground and said she was surprised the opposition rejected it.

“Either these people have no capacity to express their love and care for Syria, or they are ordered by foreign powers to ignore what is most important and most urgent for their country,” she said.

The opposition called the paper a deviation from the main goal of the talks: a transitional government.

Murhaf Joueijati, a member of the National Syrian Coalition opposition group’s negotiating team, criticized the government negotiators. “They began to get even more confrontational and began to lecture in a very dictatorial manner,” he said.

“We thought there was no point in continuing this since it was going to be a dialogue of the deaf,” he said.

Brahimi broke up the meeting and was scheduled to meet with both sides separately later Monday.

The inability of the two sides to discuss Assad’s future was expected.

One of the key guiding principles for the talks in Geneva —which are aimed at stopping three years of bloodshed in Syria that has claimed over 130,000 lives, and forced millions from their homes — calls for the creation of a transitional government that both sides accept.

“Today we will start talking about a new Syria, about transition from starvation to freedom, from torture to human rights and rule of law,” an opposition spokesman, Monzer Akbik, said Monday.

But Syria has said any discussion of a transitional government excluding Assad would cross “a red line,” insisting the talks should focus instead on combatting terrorism.

Militants, including foreign fighters, have flocked to Syria to join the fight to topple Assad. The most powerful rebel groups include two the U.S. has formally designated as foreign terrorist organizations: the Iraqi State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In setback to the rebels last year, the U.S. suspended deliveries of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition after al-Qaida-linked militants seized warehouses that had been under the authority of a key U.S.-backed leader.

(Continued on page 2)

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