UN bids to bring Syria warring sides together

UN bids to bring Syria warring sides together

GENEVA - Agence France-Presse
UN bids to bring Syria warring sides together

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi awaits peace talks in Montreux on Jan 22. AFP photo

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi meets Syria's warring sides behind closed doors Jan. 23 to gauge if they are willing to negotiate face to face after the first day of a peace conference ended in bitter exchanges.

Brahimi was set to meet separately with delegations from President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition in Geneva before full talks resume on Jan. 24.

The U.N.-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.

Brahimi was set to first meet with opposition chief Ahmad Jarba Jan. 23 afternoon and subsequently with the head of the Syrian regime's delegation, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, the U.N. said.

It remained unclear if he would be able to coax them to sit down at the same table for direct talks, or if their respective international backers, the United States and Russia, would need to shuttle between them.

"Do we go straight into one room and start discussing or do we talk a little bit more separately?... I don't know yet," Brahimi said.

Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the conference, 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 some progress and could be an important first step.

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.

Opposition benefits from 'agressive tone'

Hadi Al-Bahra, a member of the opposition National Coalition's delegation, meanwhile told AFP the opposition felt it had benefitted from the regime's aggressive tone at the start of the conference Jan. 23.

"We have heard very positive feedback from inside Syria and it is the first time we've felt so much support from Syrians for the Coalition," Bahra said.

In a vehement attack during his opening speech that went long beyond his alloted time, Foreign Minister al-Muallem accused the opposition of being "traitors" and agents of foreign governments.

The regime delegation behaved "like the mafia, with a style very far from diplomacy," Bahra said.

Syrian state media meanwhile slammed the Montreux conference, with the Tishreen daily charging that most of the speeches from the more than 40 nations and international bodies present had lobbed "dishonest accusations... at the Syrian government." "The imposters were unmasked. They spoke out in favour of terrorism while making speeches about justice and human rights," the Al-Thawra daily chimed in.

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