Syria talks meet their first hurdle – setting the agenda

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 23, 2014 

— Two protagonists in Syria’s bitter civil war will sit down in the same room Friday at the start of U.N.-sponsored peace talks, but the first item on the agenda – the agenda itself – could present a tremendous hurdle, Western diplomats said Thursday.

The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, was to convene the talks at the cavernous Palais des Nations, the U.N.’s European headquarters, and his top priority, other than to prevent either side from walking out, will be to try to develop forward momentum. The talks are to start at 11 a.m. (5 a.m. EST).

The Syrian Opposition Coalition wants the talks to focus on replacing President Bashar Assad with an interim government agreeable to both sides in line with an “action plan” agreed to by the United States and Russia in June 2012.

But there is no sign that the Syrian leader is prepared to step down.

“Obviously he is not ready at this point in time,” Secretary of State John Kerry told Al-Arabiya television during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But he noted that there is “no way the opposition is ever going to consent to Assad being part of any future government.”

Instead of joining a debate over the makeup of a new government, the Syrian government’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, said he plans to focus on so-called confidence-building measures, such as prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires and humanitarian relief.

In an interview with Al Monitor, an online daily, he emphasized the government’s chief interest is in reaching agreements on combating terrorism.

After greeting the two sides, Brahimi will ask them to give their comments, and they almost certainly will separate.

Western officials said the Syrian opposition easily won the public relations battle, in back-to-back speeches by Moallem and opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, at a one-day international conference in Montreux, a nearby resort town, on Wednesday. Moallem’s speech, lasting over 45 minutes, attacked the opposition and many of the 40 participants at the conference, most of whom back the opposition.

But in late afternoon, Moallem returned to the podium to make a much more businesslike statement, and then the Syrian U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said his country had come to discuss the entire action plan.

Western diplomatic observers said Moallem probably changed his tone because nearly every country at the talks had called for implementation of the action plan, including Russia and China, which have vetoed a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government.

A Western diplomat who briefed reporters here Thursday night said “it’s clearly a possibility” that Russia put pressure on Moallem to change his public stance. The diplomat asked not to be identified by name because he was unauthorized to speak publicly.

Jarba, the president of the opposition coalition, said Thursday night that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, told him in Paris last week that Russia “is not holding on to Assad.”

Jarba told reporters that the Assad regime was “staggering and dying” and was “a part of the past.”

One big question is how long the talks will last. Jaafari told reporters that Moallem is prepared to stay “not one or two or three sessions,” but for a long-term dialogue, “whatever it takes.”

But Jarba made clear the discussion would not be open-ended, saying his negotiating team would decide how long to let the negotiations run. The Western diplomat briefing reporters said the opposition was concerned that the Syria talks not become an endless process like the Arab-Israeli negotiations, which have been going on for decades.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Thursday was another day of carnage. The Local Coordinating Committees, run by opposition activists, said 83 people were killed.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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