GENEVA — Representatives of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and members of a U.S.-backed opposition bloc held their first-ever face-to-face meetings Saturday, as a nascent peace process finally seemed to move to the crucial phase of negotiations.
There was no immediate official word on what was discussed in a pair of gatherings mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria.
[Updated 11:05 a.m. PST Jan. 25: In a news conference after Saturday’s talks, Brahimi described the day’s two sessions as a “good beginning” and as a “prelude” to more substantive discussions in the days to come. During the talks, Brahimi said, the two sides faced each other in the same room but directed all questions through him.
The veteran Algerian diplomat voiced the hope that the talks could help expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in the Old City of Homs, a longtime rebel bastion that has been under government siege for months. A convoy of food, medical aid and other essentials is ready to enter the zone, Brahimi said. In Homs, as in some other besieged areas of Syria, each side has accused the other of not allowing trapped civilians to leave safely.
On Sunday, the U.N. mediator said, the contentious issue of the release of prisoners by both sides will be on the agenda as the two delegations meet for the second day.
“I'm looking forward to the discussions tomorrow and praying we will have some good news,” Brahimi said.]
Plans to hold face-to-face talks Friday were scrapped amid deep disagreements between the rival camps. Both sides have been exchanging rancorous allegations in public pronouncements since the so-called Geneva II peace conference opened Wednesday in Switzerland.
U.N. officials and others have cautioned that any major breakthrough is unlikely during the talks.
The process is aimed at crafting a political settlement to the almost three-year-old Syrian conflict, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and sown instability throughout the Middle East. Opposition forces backed by Washington and its allies are fighting to oust Assad, whose major foreign backers are Russia and Iran.
Diplomats were hopeful that demonstrable progress could be achieved during the talks, perhaps an accord on providing increased access for aid to besieged civilian populations inside Syria. More than 250,000 Syrians live in blockaded communities lacking regular supplies of food, medicine and other necessities, according to the U.N. Both sides in the conflict are engaged in cutting off communities as a strategy of war, the U.N. says.
The rival negotiating teams present in this Swiss city met once Saturday morning and then again in the afternoon, U.N. officials said.
The Geneva talks have been strongly backed by both the United States and Russia. The two nations first called for the discussions eight months ago. But major disagreements between the two sides and the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition contributed to the long delay in organizing the conference.
The opposition bloc here seeks a process that will guarantee the removal from power of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades. The Syrian government says Assad’s future is not negotiable. There has been no sign yet of an easing of that fundamental disagreement.
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