Syria: No breakthrough in talks as war kills 1,900

A CONTENTIOUS week-long first round of Syrian peace talks has ended with no progress towards ending the civil war and the government delegation unable to say whether it will return for the next round in ten days.

Images from the northern town of Aleppo are said to show the devastation wreaked by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian regime forces. Picture: Reuters
Images from the northern town of Aleppo are said to show the devastation wreaked by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian regime forces. Picture: Reuters

An activist group yesterday estimated almost 1,900 people had been killed while the talks have been held so far.

The United States and Russia have also clashed over the pace of Syria’s handover of chemical arms for destruction, with Washington accusing Damascus of foot-dragging to put the plan weeks behind schedule, and Moscow – president Bashar al-Assad’s big power ally – rejecting this.

Sign up to our World Explained newsletter

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Syrian authorities had no excuse for delays in shipping its poison gas arsenal abroad under a deal reached last year. Moscow said Mr Assad was acting “in good faith” and a 30 June deadline for eliminating the chemical agents remains viable.

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday said the opposition delegation would be back on 10 February, but Mr Assad’s delegates had told him they would have to check with Damascus before agreeing to return.

“They didn’t tell me that they are thinking of not coming. On the contrary, they said that they would come but they needed to check with their capital,” Mr Brahimi said.

He listed ten simple points that he felt the two sides agreed on in the talks and said he thought there was more common ground than each side recognised.

But neither side has budged an inch from their main positions: the opposition wants the talks to focus on a transitional administration post-­Assad; the government wants to talk about fighting “terrorism” – a word it uses to refer to all its armed foes.

“Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner,” Mr Brahimi said.

Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem blamed the lack of tangible results on the immaturity and narrow composition of the opposition delegation and their “threats to implode” the talks, as well as blatant US interference.

“There are huge divides between [the opposition delegation] and what is happening on the ground in Syria. They are not in touch with what is taking place in Syria … and have no control over anybody on ground,” he claimed.

The Friends of Syria, an alliance of mainly western and Gulf Arab states that back Mr Assad’s foes, faulted the Syrian government for the lack of diplomatic headway.

“The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the first round of negotiations. It must engage constructively in the second round,” they said in a statement.

Expectations had always been low for a breakthrough on political issues at the talks, the first between Mr Assad’s representatives and his foes in an almost three-year-old conflagration that has killed 130,000 Syrians and driven a third of the population to flee their homes.

The sides could not even achieve more modest goals, such as an agreement to allow aid convoys into Homs, Syria’s third largest city, where thousands of civilians are trapped with no access to food or medicine.

“Homs was extensively discussed, although unfortunately there has been no breakthrough yet,” Mr Brahimi said.

Underscoring the relentlessness of the carnage, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said 1,870 people had been killed during the week of talks, including 450 civilians and 40 who died from inadequate access to food and medicine in areas besieged by government troops.