GENEVA/BEIRUT – A tumultuous week of peace talks aimed at stemming Syria’s bloodbath ended Friday with no progress to show and a lingering standoff over President Bashar Assad’s future.
Assad’s delegation refused to commit to return to Geneva for the next round of talks in 10 days — as the U.N. mediator had proposed — and the opposition chief accused the Syrian government of posturing to gain time.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi struggled to find positive words as the first face-to-face talks between the warring sides concluded. Uncertainty over his proposed Feb. 10 date for a second round of peace talks and mutual accusations between the delegates over the talks’ lack of progress underscored the tremendous challenges of finding a way out of Syria’s deadly impasse.
More than 130,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in a conflict that has destabilized neighboring countries and forced millions of people from their homes. Activists said Friday that 1,900 people — including at least 430 civilians — were killed in Syria during the peace talks alone.
The rebellion against Assad’s rule has been sapped by deadly infighting among moderates, Islamic groups and al-Qaida-inspired militants competing for control of territory, weapons and influence. Much of the world appears to have lost faith in the rebels, largely because of the growing influence of Islamic extremists who reject the leadership of the Western-backed opposition.
Fears that the civil war is reaching a point where it can no longer be contained has forced the U.S. and Russia to cooperate to try and end the conflict.
Opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba said Assad was pressed by his Russian backers to take part in the talks but could not engage toward finding a real solution because “he knows that would be his end.” He said the opposition will never accept having Assad — whose family has ruled Syria since 1970 — stay in power.
“For us, this family is finished from the memory of the Syrians, all that is left is blood, fire and terrorism,” he said. “We will not accept for this man or anyone from his family to rule the country again.”
Al-Jarba spoke before leaving for Munich, Germany, where he was to meet with the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers and ahead of a trip to Moscow. He said he was pinning his hopes on a positive role by the Russians, who have long been a key ally of Assad.
Earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem denied the government had succumbed to Russian pressure by agreeing to attend the talks.
“We are here to find a political solution. We were unable to achieve that,” he said.
Brahimi tried to put a good face Friday on the talks, telling reporters at the end of the eighth consecutive day of negotiations that despite a lack of tangible results, he found 10 areas of possible “common ground.”
“Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build,” Brahimi told reporters at the U.N.’s European headquarters in the Palais des Nations.
“The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground — perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize,” he said. “Things have gone so far down that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight.”
Brahimi said the opposition has committed to joining a second round of talks in Geneva on Feb. 10. Al-Moallem, however, said before the government decides to return to Geneva, Assad will hear a report on what took place during the past week in Switzerland.
The minister also dismissed the opposition’s demand for a new governing body to eventually transfer power from Assad.
“We already have a government. When we see there is a real partner with which we can forge a future for the country, they are welcome to join this government,” he said.
The weeklong negotiations had been strained over the opposition’s demand for — and the government’s resistance to — a transfer of power in Syria. They also failed to achieve any concrete results, especially on possible humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the city of Homs.
Al-Jarba said the talks would not be open ended, adding that the second round will determine whether there is sufficient ground to continue.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the death toll indicated that violence barely paused as the warring parties met. The figures were reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Its director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the week’s bloody toll was about average at this point in the three-year conflict.
The number included at least 430 civilians, killed by bombs, snipers, missiles and other causes. The rest were rebels and forces loyal to Assad. The Observatory obtains its information from activists on the ground, and also keeps a running total.