Syria: UN banking on small deals to achieve peace

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. Picture: Getty
UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. Picture: Getty
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UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has met both government and opposition representatives in Geneva in a bid to save Syrian peace talks by focusing on local ceasefires and prisoner swaps rather than a political deal.

The first day of talks on Wednesday was dominated by fierce rhetoric from president Bashar al-Assad’s government and its foes. Brought together for the first time in almost three years of war, each accused the other of atrocities and showed no sign of compromise.

Mr Brahimi yesterday met leaders of the Syrian opposition and representatives sent by Damascus to discuss the agenda for further talks today. The opposition then went to meet officials from the United States, France and Britain.

Officials hope to salvage the process by starting with modest, practical measures to ease the plight of millions, especially in areas cut off from international aid. More than 130,000 people are believed to have been killed, nearly a third of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes and half are in need of international aid.

Wednesday’s opening ceremony saw global powers vigorously defend their sides, with western countries, Arab states and Turkey all joining the opposition in demanding a transitional government that would exclude Mr Assad.

The main negotiations, expected to last up to a week, are not due to begin until today.

One opposition negotiator, Haitham al-Maleh, last night said the mood was positive despite the tough first day. He spoke of practical steps such as prisoner swaps, ceasefires, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and setting up aid corridors, being dealt with first, before the political future.

The talks remain fragile, however, with both sides threatening to pull out: the government says it will not discuss removing Assad, while the opposition says it will not stay unless Assad’s removal is the basis for talks.

“There is an international willingness for this to succeed, but we don’t know what will happen,” Mr Maleh said. “It is possible that [the government] might withdraw. We will withdraw if Geneva takes another course and deviates from the transition, to the government narrative that they are fighting terrorism.”

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov played down the contentious speeches that opened the talks, and emphasised the positive. “As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional rhetoric. They blamed one another,” he told reporters.

“For the first time in three years of conflict, the sides, for all their accusations, agreed to sit down at the negotiating table.”

Meanwhile, at another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called for a new election in Syria. “The best solution is to organise a free and fair election in Syria” and once the ballots are cast “we should all accept” the outcome, he said.

Iran, a close ally of Mr Assad’s, which has given him billions in aid, including weapons and Shi’ite fighters to aid him against the largely Sunni Muslim rebels, was barred from participating in the talks to end Syria’s civil war

In a further development, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has called on rebels in Syria to stop fighting each other, as a faction linked to his group pushed rival insurgents from a northern town yesterday.