GENEVA — The opposing sides in Syria’s peace negotiations have agreed to meet “in the same room,” the chief United Nations mediator announced Friday, following a turbulent first day of talks during which the two camps remained apart and the Syrian government threatened to withdraw.
“We are going to meet tomorrow,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria, told journalists, dismissing speculation that the long-awaited peace initiative was unraveling.
“I hope that it will be a good beginning, and that we will continue until the end of next week,” he said. “Nobody will be leaving on Saturday, and nobody will be leaving on Sunday.”
Brahimi confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Saturday’s meeting between the two warring sides would be face to face. The sensitive architecture of the talks emerged as a key point of contention Friday, after plans for direct talks that day were scrapped.
The conference has been billed as the first time that the sides will sit down together after almost three years of war have left tens of thousands dead, sown instability throughout the Middle East and turned parts of Syria into breeding grounds for al-Qaida-linked militants.
The widespread expectation had been that the two sides would meet Friday, the first day of scheduled talks after opening speeches Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux.
But the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition balked at sitting down with its adversary unless the government of President Bashar Assad explicitly endorsed a plan to yield power to a transitional government, a stated goal of the talks. The opposition bloc here is demanding that Assad step down, a condition rejected by the Syrian president.
The government, meanwhile, threatened to walk out if serious negotiations did not get under way by Saturday. Damascus also said it would not agree to what it called “preconditions” for talks. Assad’s future is not up for discussion, the government says.
“The problem is that these people do not want to make peace, they are coming here with preconditions,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters. “Of course we are ready to sit in the same room. Why are we coming here then?”
On Friday, Brahimi met separately in closed-door consultations with representatives of Assad’s government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition. At day’s end, Brahimi called the talks encouraging, but added that discussion of specific issues had yet to take place.
“We knew that it was going to be difficult, complicated,” he told reporters, referring to “bumps in the road” during the session. “We never expected this to be easy.”
Diplomats say the likelihood of a major breakthrough at the talks is remote, given the deep differences and profound animosity between the two sides. But officials hope for some kind of progress, including possible agreements on localized truces, prisoner exchanges and improved access for humanitarian aid.
The U.N.-backed talks were initiated by the United States and Russia in a bid to find a political solution to the conflict. Washington backs opposition demands that Assad cede power, whereas Russia remains a major supporter of Assad’s government.