GENEVA -- Long-awaited negotiations between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-backed opposition got off to a rocky start Friday as face-to-face talks were put off and a U.N. mediator met with the opposing camps in separate rooms.
Various reports indicated that the opposition delegation balked at meeting with the government contingent until Assad's representatives explicitly signed on to the goal of creating a transitional government in Syria, one of the aims of the conference.
The exiled-based opposition bloc here, backed by Washington and its allies, wants iron-clad assurances that Assad will cede power as part of any peace agreement. The Syrian president, closely allied with Russia, says he has no intention of stepping down. That fundamental disagreement has cast a shadow on intense diplomatic efforts to jump-start negotiations to bring an end to the almost three-year Syrian conflict.
The Syrian government said its negotiators would return home unless serious talks begin by Saturday.
The United Nations' special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, was said to be holding separate, closed-door sessions with the two delegations at the U.N.'s headquarters here. The veteran mediator had previously expressed reservations about initially placing the two sides in the same room, given the mutual antagonism evident in public statements.
It was unclear if U.N. officials would be able to bring the two negotiating teams together on Friday or in succeeding days. The initial failure to arrange face-to-face talks underscored the difficulties inherent in the nascent Syrian peace process.
The peace conference began Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux with each side and their allies launching verbal broadsides at their rivals. The biting opening comments and shared hostility did not bode well for a successful outcome.
Diplomats from the United States, Russia and the U.N., who worked for eight months to put the talks together, are hopeful that neither side walks out and that the talks result in some progress.
There is, however, little hope of a major breakthrough here. Instead, officials are looking for the approval of some confidence-building steps, such as limited cease-fires, prisoner exchanges and improved access for humanitarian aid into war-ravaged Syria. But even those steps may be difficult to achieve given the lack of trust between the two sides.