Few hopes as Syria warring sides due for first talks

AFP , Friday 24 Jan 2014

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, background right, and U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, background left, listen to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, front, as they wait for lunch during a break in the peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Syria's warring sides are due to hold their first talks aimed at stemming the country's bloodshed Friday, in what are likely to be long and difficult negotiations with little hope of success.

Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, delegations from President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition battling to oust him are expected to meet.

The UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, met behind closed doors with both sides on Thursday to lay the groundwork for direct talks, but few details emerged about how they will proceed.

A senior State Department official said Brahimi was to meet both sides again on Friday.

"He hopes to have them at the table tomorrow and we'll see what happens," the official said. "We knew this would not be an easy process."

According to diplomatic sources, Brahimi will bring both delegations in the same room at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva.

"He will give an introductory speech of about 30 minutes," said one diplomat, adding that the Syrians would not speak during that opening session.

Each delegation was then expected to be led back to separate rooms, with Brahimi shuttling back and forth before bringing them back together for negotiations to begin in earnest.

This first round of talks is meant to last "until the end of next week... but it could of course all collapse as early as Friday," said one Western diplomat.

The UN-sponsored conference -- the biggest diplomatic effort yet to resolve Syria's devastating civil war -- opened in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday with heated disagreements among the two sides and world powers.

Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the discussions, which officials have said could last up to 10 days, but diplomats believe that simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is a mark of progress and could be an important first step.

"We've begun the process, getting the parties in the same room is significant, having them in Geneva is significant," the State Department official said.

With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be looking for short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.

Brahimi said he "had indications" from both sides that they were willing to discuss these issues.

The opposition arrived in Switzerland with a sole aim -- toppling Assad -- while the regime says any talk of removing the Syrian leader is a "red line" it will not cross.

The start of the conference on Wednesday was marked by fiery exchanges, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem labelling the opposition "traitors" and agents of foreign governments.

But UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged the two sides to work together, saying: "Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate."

Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

Pitting Assad's regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.

Shiite Iran and its Lebanese militia ally Hezbollah have backed Assad; the mainly Sunni Arab Gulf states have supported the opposition; and the violence has often spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.

It took months of efforts to convince the two sides to come to the conference, with the opposition Coalition only deciding at the last minute to attend.

The debate over whether to take part exposed deep divisions within the opposition, with its biggest bloc, the Syrian National Council, quitting the coalition after the decision was taken.

Questions have been raised about whether the opposition delegation is truly representative of Assad's opponents and if it would be able to implement any deal with rebel fighters on the ground.

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