The on-again, off-again Syria peace talks are on again, again.
Syrian opposition leaders sat down in the same room as representatives of the government of Bashar al-Assad for the first time Wednesday, and the session went off the rails so quickly – with the two sides trading insults and completely ignoring United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – that it seemed like they wouldn’t gather in the same room again.
On Friday, though, Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria offered what amounts to good news: the two sides have agreed to sit down in the same room Saturday for actual negotiations over the country’s political future. Though it remained unclear whether they would actually speak to one another or communicate through Brahimi.
"We have agreed that we will meet in the same room," Brahimi told reporters at a packed press conference. "The discussions that I had with the two parties were encouraging and we are looking forward to our meetings."
Speaking at a packed press conference, Brahimi also shot down reports that Syria’s delegation, led by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, intended to walk out of the talks. Moualem had raised eyebrows Wednesday when he accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and blew off Ban’s pleas that he stop talking after his allotted time had passed
Brahimi, a U.N. troubleshooter who has led peace talks in Afghanistan and Iraq, provided few details on the substance of the ongoing talks, saying he didn’t want to share his "secrets" with the press at such an early stage.
Still, Brahimi said that he expected the talks to continue through next week and that the Syrian parties would likely suspend the talks for a few days at some stage to brief allies and officials back in the region.
The "meat" of the discussions, he said, would address the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, which obliges combatants on both sides of Syria’s civil war to halt the fighting, and which calls for the creation of a transitional government with "full executive powers" led by an individual accepted by both sides.
There appeared virtually no prospect for movement on a political transition, with Syrian officials insisting that Assad would remain in power and the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the loose-knit set of Syrian opposition groups, saying they will not accept a deal that leaves Assad in power. U.S. officials have also said that Assad will have to give up power as part of the political transition process.
So far, the two parties have yet to discuss the "core" issues contained in the Geneva Communique, Brahimi said. But he suggested that he would start the talks with less controversial issues, seeking to build on ongoing U.N. efforts to ensure that humanitarian relief workers could reach communities trapped behind enemy lines.
"We are going to talk about [humanitarian] access," he said. "We are going to talk about ending violence."
The Syrian government and some armed opposition groups have laid siege to several towns, cutting off hundreds of thousands civilians from food, medicine or other relief supplies.
In advance of this week’s talks, the Syrian government had proposed a plan for a ceasefire around Aleppo to enable some access to U.N. relief workers. Opposition sources say they would welcome any steps that would lead to the distribution of relief to civilians. But they say Syria is obliged to lift the siege on these towns, and that this weeks talks should focus on the need to establish a transitional government and force Assad from power.
Brahimi appeared irritated by a barrage of questions from pro-Syrian government reporters at the press conference, one of whom questioned Brahimi’s commitment to address the threat posed by foreign extremists.
"Nobody wants…terrorism to continue in Syria; nobody wants that except the terrorists themselves," Brahimi responded. "If we manage to save Syria, saving Syria will also mean saving it from terrorism."
The diplomat, a veteran of other seemingly hopeless talks, said it was too early to completely give up hope.
"We never expected it to be easy and I’m sure it’s not going to be," he said. "The two parties understand what is at stake: their country is in very, very bad shape. So, the huge ambition of this process is to save Syria…Wish us luck."
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