Syrian peace talks reach impasse; US, Russia spar

AP News
Posted: Feb 14, 2014 2:06 PM

GENEVA (AP) — Peace talks aimed at forging a path out of Syria's civil war have reached an impasse — with no guarantee of continuing — after five days of sparring over responsibility for mounting violence back home and President Bashar Assad's future, government and opposition delegates said Friday.

Echoing the position of the rival camps, senior U.S. and Russian officials traded accusations over who was to blame for the stalemate, adding to the polarization of a war that has killed 130,000 people, displaced millions, destroyed a country and threatens to engulf the Middle East in religious conflict.

It was unclear Friday how long the weary sides were willing to continue with the talks, which have been on the verge of collapse since they were convened last month. Despite the rancor, both sides left the door open for more negotiations, including a possible final session Saturday before breaking up.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that "talks for show make no sense" but told reporters there was still "enormous" energy for a political solution, adding that perhaps what was needed was "a few days of recess" for people to reflect. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity in keeping with rules established by the U.S. administration.

Both the U.S. and Russia have kept the talks going, knowing that it was the only option on the table — at least for now.

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. Assad's forces are solidifying gains, but the battle lines are largely stalemated — leading to a growing sense internationally that neither side is close to victory.

For the Americans, backing down from a threat to strike militarily following a chemical weapons attack in August has left the Obama administration with little choice but to pursue a diplomatic track to end the carnage.

The opposition, which holds little sway among the dozens of rebel groups on the ground, is under pressure to come away with a deal rather than risk Assad holding on to power in a grinding war of attrition.

"Unfortunately we have reached a dead end," said opposition spokesman Louay Safi following separate meetings Friday between U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi with opposition and government delegations. "I hope we can still find an opening in that wall," he added, saying that for now government "belligerence" was making it impossible to forge ahead.

Safi said it was too early to say whether there would be a third round of talks.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, also announced "with deep regret" that the talks were not going anywhere.

"We came to Geneva to implement Syria's declared position to reach a political solution to the crisis. ... Unfortunately the other side came with another agenda, an unrealistic agenda," he said.

The charges underscored just how far out of reach a political solution for Syria's ruinous civil war remains. It also demonstrates the clashing interests that go far beyond Syria's borders to the warring sides' international sponsors — Russia and the United States —which both have their own interests in pushing the negotiations.

U.S. and U.N. officials have said merely getting the two sides in the same room was something of a victory. Some credit the talks, now in their second round in Geneva, with leading to an evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the embattled Syrian city of Homs. Other than that they yielded little more than acrimony.

That's largely because the Syrian delegates have a fundamentally different interpretation of what the talks are about.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition agreed to the Geneva talks only if the focus were on an end to the Assad dynasty through the establishment of a transitional governing body. The Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism before anything else.

Instead of hard bargaining behind closed doors, the two sides did most of their haggling in public, finger-pointing and repeating long-standing positions over and over again to reporters.

Still both sides have tried to soften their approach in the last few days. On Wednesday, the opposition delegation submitted a paper to Brahimi with its vision for a post-war Syria that surprisingly omitted any mention of Assad — ignoring its longtime demand that he step down and stand trial.

The government said it was willing to discuss a transitional government but in due time.

While haggling continues in Geneva, violence has escalated in Syria, with both sides blaming each other for a soaring death toll.

The U.S. and Russia tried to put the onus on each other to exert influence their Syrian patrons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of using the talks for the sole purpose of "regime change," while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested Moscow was backtracking on earlier commitments.

"The only thing they want to talk about is the establishment of a transitional governing body," Lavrov said after meeting the German foreign minister in Moscow. "Only after that are they ready to discuss the urgent and most pressing problems, like terrorism."

Kerry said in Beijing that agreeing on a transition government was the sole purpose of the Geneva talks. He said Lavrov had stood beside him several times when Kerry said that was the goal.

"There is no question about what this is about, and any efforts to try to be revisionist or walk back or step away from that frankly is not keeping work or keeping faith with the words that have been spoken and the intent of this conference," Kerry said.

Lavrov insisted that the talks should have no "artificial time constraints or deadlines."


Associated Press writer Mathew Lee in Beijing and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.