Syria’s government and opposition sat at the same U-shaped table today for their first face-to-face meeting at peace talks mediated by the United Nations.
The meeting, which began at 10 a.m. Geneva time, lasted less than an hour and will be followed by another this afternoon, Rafif Jouejati, an opposition spokeswoman, said by phone.
Each delegation was addressed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian official who leads the UN mediation effort, Jouejati said. There was no handshaking or any interaction between the two groups, she added.
Speaking shortly before the talks began in Geneva, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told state TV that he was optimistic even though “today won’t be a decisive day.”
The UN is leading international efforts to bring an end to Syria’s civil war, which has killed at least 130,000 people and caused 2.4 million to flee their homeland. Since talks began in Montreux, Switzerland on Jan. 22, the two sides have remained far apart on whether President Bashar al-Assad can play a part in the transitional government that is the goal of the UN-backed process.
Brahimi acknowledged that the two sides have different interpretations of what a transition should involve. The opposition says Assad can have no role, a position backed by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies. Russia, one of Assad’s main allies, disputes that view, arguing that a political transition doesn’t mean regime change.
The Syrian opposition will offer the government a cease-fire in the central province of Homs during the afternoon talks, opposition member Anas al-Abda told reporters in Geneva.
“We are ready to start a ceasefire in Homs as of tomorrow,” Abda told reporters. The opposition delegation has a signed statement from leaders of armed groups in Homs “saying that they will abide by the ceasefire if it’s proposed, implemented and respected by the Syrian regime,” he said.
Abda said that in the afternoon session and possibly the following meetings, the talks will be “like a court: you address the judge, you don’t directly address the other side. This is how it will carry on for some time.”
Brahimi has assured the opposition that the government side agreed to discuss a political transition, Louay Safi, a member of the rebel coalition, told reporters in Geneva late yesterday. Starting today, the two sides will discuss the formation of a transitional body, while the opposition will also press for the release of prisoners, he said.
There will be no direct negotiations during a weeklong “opening phase,” with communication to be conducted via Brahimi, Safi said.
Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government’s ambassador to the UN, said today’s meeting won’t discuss the terms of the 2012 Geneva I agreement, which calls for a transitional government by mutual consent.
Brahimi had “agreed with us and with the other party on a series of measures for today’s meeting, and the objective of these is to break the ice,” Jaafari told Syrian state television.
Mekdad told journalists in Geneva yesterday that the government team is willing to discuss the formation of a transitional authority, though he rejected calls for Assad to step down. “President Assad is elected by the Syrian people and it is the Syrian people who will decide the future of their country,” he said.
The U.S. sees the agreement to meet today as a “step forward,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.