Syria talks end first round, government not committed to return
GENEVA: A contentious week-long first round of Syrian peace talks ended on Friday with no progress towards ending the civil war and the government delegation unable to say whether it will return for the next round in 10 days.
Complicating matters further, the United States and Russiaclashed over the pace of Syria's handover of chemical arms for destruction with Washington accusing Damascus of foot-dragging, putting the plan 6-8 weeks behind schedule – and Moscow – President Bashar al-Assad's big power ally – rejecting this.
U.S. 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 Assad was acting "in good faith" and a June 30 deadline for eliminating the chemical agents remains viable.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who has tirelessly pursued a peace deal that other diplomats consider "mission impossible", said the opposition delegation would be back on February 10, but President Bashar al-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," Brahimi told a news conference.
Brahimi listed 10 simple points that he felt the two sides agreed on in the talks and said he thought there was more common ground than the sides recognized.
But neither side has budged an inch from their main positions: the opposition wants the talks to focus on a transitional administration it says will remove Assad from power; 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," Brahimi said.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem blamed the lack of tangible results on what he called the immaturity of the opposition delegation and their "threats to implode" the talks, as well as blatant U.S. interference.
He said there was no pressure on his delegation from Russia, a key ally, but there was coordination between Damascus and Moscow.
Expectations had always been low for a breakthrough on political issues at the talks, the first between 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 from their homes.
The sides also failed to achieve more modest aims, 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," Brahimi said.