By Zeina Karam
and Lori Hinnant
GENEVA: In painstakingly choreographed encounters, Syria’s government and opposition faced each other for the first time Saturday, buffered by a U.N. mediator hoping to guide them to a resolution of the country’s devastating civil war.
The antagonists sat at the same table for nearly three hours, but didn’t address each other directly — and by design avoided the contentious issue of who will lead the country. They entered through separate doors and, outside the walls of the United Nations, had little but criticism for each other.
No tangible progress was reported, but the mere fact the meeting was held represented what the mediator called a “half-step” toward peace. Unresolved was the fate of Homs, a city at the core of the uprising against President Bashar Assad that has been under siege for 20 months.
The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the peace conference would continue today, focusing on humanitarian aid — the one topic the Syrian government and the opposition could agree to discuss. Brahimi said if parallel negotiations succeeded within Syria, Homs could see an aid delivery by Monday.
“We haven’t achieved much, but we are continuing,” Brahimi said after about three hours spent seated midway between the two sides. “The situation is very difficult and very, very complicated, and we are moving not in steps, but half-steps.”
Sitting face to face at a U-shaped table and separated by Brahimi, Assad’s delegation and the Syrian National Coalition avoided directly touching on the war dividing them — or discussing Assad himself. They spoke only to Brahimi, and not to each other.
“One is on the left and one on right and they face one another and they talk to each other — through me, to one another,” he said. “This is what happens in civilized discussions ... I think it’s a good beginning.”
He said the government’s continuing practice of dropping bombs filled with crude explosives on civilian areas “hasn’t come under discussion.”
The peace conference intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago. On Saturday, the talks avoided the main issue of Assad’s future, with both sides appearing to soften their approach after days of escalating rhetoric.
Louay Safi, of the coalition, described the talks as “consultations — it’s not negotiations.”