Syria peace talks make faltering start

Powerful Islamist groups have denounced the opposition team, made up mainly of political exiles, as traitors.

FILE: UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon attend a press conference closing the so-called Geneva II peace talks dedicated to the ongoing conflict in Syria, on 22 January, 2014, in Montreux. Picture: AFP.

GENEVA/BEIRUT - A second round of Syria peace talks got off to a shaky start on Monday, with the two sides complaining about violations of a local ceasefire and an Islamist offensive respectively in separate meetings with the international mediator.

Ahead of the talks, mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told delegates to commit first to discussing both ending the fighting and setting up a transitional government.

The government side said combating "terrorism" - its catchall term for the revolt - should be agreed first. In a further bad sign, Brahimi cancelled a planned news conference.

During the first round of talks in nearly three years of civil war last month, Brahimi had tried to break down mistrust by focusing on agreeing a truce for a single city, Homs.

A three-day pause only began on Friday, and aid workers were fired upon as they evacuated civilians on Saturday.

The Syrian Red Crescent said 450 more people had been evacuated on Monday, taking the total to leave the city after more than a year under government siege to around 1,100, and the UN said the truce would be extended through Wednesday.

The UN World Food Programme underlined how far there was to go. "The old city of Homs is just one of 40 besieged communities in Syria. Altogether a quarter of a million people have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months," it said.

Attempts to draw up a draft Security Council resolution to increase access for humanitarian aid in Syria suffered a setback in New York when Russia and China failed to attend negotiations, in a rebuff to the United States, Britain and Freance.

A letter from Brahimi given to the delegates over the weekend said the new round aimed to tackle the issues of stopping violence, setting up a transitional governing body, and plans for national institutions and reconciliation.

It included a plea: "Will the two sides ... contribute even at a minimum, toward lessening the manifestations of violence, stopping the use of certain weapons and reaching ceasefires in some areas, even for a short period?"

The opposition says a transitional governing body must exclude President Bashar al-Assad. The government says it will not discuss his leaving power.


The opposition also said there had been an escalation in the government's use of "barrel bombs" - oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments and usually dropped from helicopters. It said more than 1,800 Syrians had been killed by them last week, half in rebel held parts of Aleppo.

"It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to peace talks while it is killing our people in Syria. This must stop," opposition spokesman Louay al-Safi told reporters after the delegation met Brahimi.

Representatives of fighters on the ground joined the delegation for the first time, a senior opposition member said on Monday, but they did not include the Islamic Front alliance, the biggest faction fighting Assad's forces.

Powerful Islamist groups have denounced the opposition team, made up mainly of political exiles, as traitors, undermining any prospect of lasting peace.

The mediator plans to keep meeting the two sides separately in Geneva over the next two to three days in hopes of improving the atmosphere at the talks and aims for a second week focusing on the continuity of state institutions and reconciliation.

The Syrian government delegation urged Brahimi to condemn an Islamist offensive on Sunday which it said killed 42 people in the town of Maan in central Syria populated mainly by Assad's Alawite sect.

Islamist fighters not represented at the talks seized a village in the central province of Hama on Sunday, trying to cut off supply routes from Damascus to the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 41, 21 of them civilians and the other 20 from the pro-Assad paramilitary National Defence Forces.


Activists and rebels said an al-Qaeda splinter group had withdrawn its forces from Syria's oil-rich eastern province of Deir al-Zor after days of heavy fighting with its rivals.

Islamist opposition groups joined forces with some secular rebel units to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with whom they have territorial disputes and ideological differences.

The civil war which grew from a crackdown on protests against Assad has killed more than 130,000 people, forced millions from their homes, and destabilised neighbouring countries.