International mediators opened a series of meetings with the Syrian Government and Opposition on Thursday in an 11th—hour bid to secure their participation in peace talks scheduled for the next day.
Arab League and UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and a team of diplomats met separately with Damascus and the Opposition in Geneva in a bid to reach a consensus over the framework of what would be the first direct talks between the two sides since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011.
The mediation came a day after an acrimonious start to the talks in Montreux, during which the two sides swapped accusations and challenged each other’s legitimacy, clashing over the intended focus of the US— and Russia—backed talks in an opening ceremony attended by more than 40 countries.
But Brahimi said both sides expressed a willingness to open talks with discussions about a prisoner release and easing humanitarian aid access to besieged towns, two points in an 18—point agreement over a wider political transition initially agreed upon by the two sides in July 2012.
The Opposition and the United States demand the talks centre around the formation of a transitional government and the departure of President Bashar al—Assad, a stipulation that has been ruled out by Damascus as a “red line.” The Syrian government maintains that discussions should be devoted to “combating terrorism” in the country.
Brahimi said the two sides faced “a long road ahead,” acknowledging that mediators might not be able to reach a consensus ahead of Friday, the date set for the start of the direct negotiations in Geneva.
“The most important thing is that we get the two sides in the same room together and discussing the major issues in the interest of the Syrian people, ... but this takes time,” Brahimi cautioned.
In addition to a prisoners release, Damascus and the Syrian National Coalition of the Opposition (SNC) have a wide range of issues on their agenda, including ceasefires, the formation of a transitional government and constitutional reform, paving the way for a directly elected government.
Pressure on Opposition
But the opposition faced growing pressure Thursday from inside and outside Syria to pull out of the talks after a first day that rebels and opposition groups claimed exposed Damascus’ “insincerity” in the process.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the Syrian National Coalition, a key opposition group and member of the SNC, announced its withdrawal from the umbrella body to protest its participation in the talks.
Its president, George Sabra, declared it would not support the negotiations, which he said were unable to secure “the Syrian people’s rights.” Rebel and Islamist groups within Syria also called on the SNC to bow out of the talks over what they described as Damascus’ unwillingness to discuss the major issues facing the country.
The Syria Islamic Front, a coalition made up of several Islamist groups in Syria, urged the SNC to exit the talks to protest Damascus’ insistence to devote the negotiations to tackling “terrorism.” “Under the regime’s definition, every rebel, every fighter, every opposition member and every Syrian is a terrorist,” spokesman Abu Mohammad al—Bakr said.