Syria talks to proceed, but with limited agenda

The first-ever direct talks between Syria’s government and the opposition will go ahead with a limited agenda Friday, diplomats said, after an international conference earlier this week exposed the depth of the bitterness between the warring factions.

The negotiations, expected to last months or more, will get off to a slow start, with the initial focus on the thorny issue of what they are supposed to be about.

In the absence of any agreement even on that, the prospect of a resolution anytime soon seems remote. With concerns that either side could throw a tantrum and walk out, bringing to an abrupt halt a process that has taken 19 months to achieve, “the U.N. has to figure out what we talk about that does not reach a dead end,” said a Western diplomat involved in the discussions.

The opposition is insisting that there can be no serious negotiations on any substantive issues until the government accepts the terms of the Geneva 1 communique from 2012, which states that the purpose of the talks is to negotiate the formation of a transitional government to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a vitriolic speech to the conference in Montreux, Switzerland, on Wednesday that illustrated the deep divide between the two sides, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem stressed that the government regards the negotiations above all as an opportunity to discuss counterterrorism and rejects an end to Assad’s rule.

Syria’s government appears to have been caught off guard, however, by the hostility that greeted its invective against the opposition, which it labeled as “terrorists,” and by the broad support expressed by the conference participants from more than 30 countries for a transitional government.

In an interview Thursday with al-Arabiya television, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it was clear that Assad is not prepared to surrender power, as the United States and its allies have called for.

“Obviously, he’s not ready” to leave, Kerry said. “He’s not ready at this point in time.” Kerry added that he hoped that an internationally backed solution “by which Syria is protected and the people of Syria are protected” could be built over time. He did not elaborate.

For much of the day Thursday, it was unclear whether the two sides would agree to meet in the same room Friday, calling into question the viability of the long-awaited talks. Throughout the day, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi shuttled between the two sides, closeted in separate rooms at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva in a bid to find enough common ground for the talks to go ahead.

The result, diplomats said, was an agreement that Brahimi will present the two sides with suggestions for subjects they might want to talk about. They will depart to separate rooms to discuss the options, a formula that it is hoped will keep the two sides talking despite their failure to agree on what they are talking about.

Gearan reported from Davos, Switzerland.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.

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