GENEVA — The Syrian government’s expectation that attending peace talks with its foes would serve to affirm President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power appeared to have backfired Friday, as the first round of talks concluded with little progress to report.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi called the past week of sessions a “modest beginning” and acknowledged that the talks’ main achievement was that they had taken place at all.
Hopes for some early goodwill gestures — such as an agreement to deliver humanitarian aid to starving citizens in the city of Homs or to release women and children from government jails — did not materialize. There was no progress, either, on the more contentious political issue of forming a governing body that would take power away from Assad.
But Brahimi said both sides had agreed that the framework for their next round of talks, set for Feb. 10, would be the Geneva I communique sponsored by the United States and Russia. That document outlines the need for a transition of power in Syria, marking the first time the government has agreed, even indirectly, to talk about changing Syria’s power structure.
The Syrian opposition, which had voted to attend the talks only days before they began, immediately said it would show up for the next round. The government, which stressed before the talks that it had no intention of surrendering power, said it would have to consult with Assad before deciding whether to return.
That hesitation is evidence that the regime is rattled by the way the talks have gone, a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“I find Minister Moualem’s reluctance to make a commitment telling, and it probably is an indication of their understanding that they have a very hard case to defend,” the official said, referring to Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, the head of the Syrian delegation.
The Syrian government had portrayed its attendance in Geneva as an opportunity to rally support against terrorism, and regime figures had expressed confidence that the international community, alarmed at the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, would be ready to back Assad’s efforts to counter extremism.
Instead, the government has confronted demands — from the opposition, from Brahimi and from the 39 nations at the conference launching the peace talks in the Swiss town of Montreux last week — for the talks to focus on a transition of power. It has been obliged not only to sit in the same negotiating room but also to share the international limelight with opposition figures it labels terrorists, and it hasn’t emerged well from the encounters.
Government officials have appeared tense, lecturing reporters, responding testily to blunt questions and accusing critics of supporting terrorism. In contrast, opposition leaders have been calm, assured and usually polite, aided by a posse of nearly a dozen mostly British media advisers.
A Syrian journalist traveling with the government delegation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the government did not feel unduly alarmed by the transition talk, because it has the upper hand on the battlefield and is confident that Western powers will never intervene militarily to help the rebels.
“They have time on their side, they have nothing to worry about and they are winning on the ground,” he said of the government forces. “They are safe in Damascus, they are winning in Homs and they are making progress in Aleppo.”
Syrian opposition leaders, however, say they have been gratified by the way the talks have unfolded. Though there has been no concrete progress, “the regime now is sitting in a process dedicated to the implementation of a communique that can lead to only one end, which is the fall of the regime,” said Munzer Akbik, a top coalition adviser. “This means the regime is now under pressure for the first time.”
He and other opposition members say they doubt that the government seriously intends to negotiate an end to Assad’s rule, a view echoed in comments made by Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, to pro-Assad demonstrators outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva on Friday. He assured them that Damascus will make “no concessions” in the talks.
“They will not get through politics what they couldn’t obtain by force,” Zoubi said, referring to the armed rebellion’s failure to oust Assad.
The opposition cannot afford to sit in talks indefinitely with foes who don’t intend to compromise, said Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition’s negotiating team. But, he said, it is at least worth trying.
“Time is measured by blood in Syria. We do not have the luxury of time,” he said. “In two to three months we will know if the regime is serious or wasting time, and my gut feeling is they are wasting time.
“But who knows? They may surprise us, and the Russians may put pressure on them to compromise.”
Russia and the United States are the joint sponsors of the peace process, and their pressure was instrumental in persuading their respective allies to attend.
The break allows for a flurry of fresh international diplomacy aimed at prodding the talks forward. Brahimi, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Munich on Friday night to discuss the peace effort. And the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, has accepted an invitation to visit Moscow on Monday, continuing a thaw in ties between Assad’s opponents and his chief patron.
But Moualem, the head of the government delegation, denied there was any pressure on Assad’s government from Moscow, and he indicated that if there were, Syria would not listen.
“I can tell you there is no Russian pressure on our delegation,” he said at a news conference after the talks concluded. “There is coordination. We respect the opinion of the other side, but at the end of the day, the decision will be Syrian.”
Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.