Thursday, 23 January 2014 00:00

Syria Peace Talks: Bitter Exchanges Mark First Day Of Negotiations

Written by  Lori Hinnant | Huffington Post
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, speaks during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, speaks during a press conference during the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus) | ASSOCIATED PRESS
MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — The United Nations is taking a day to see if there is enough common ground between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition to talk directly for the first time since the rebellion began in 2011.

Peace talks charting a path out of Syria's civil war got off to a tense start Wednesday, with Assad's future at the heart of bitter exchanges on the podium as dozens of the world's most powerful diplomats looked on. High-level mediating has yielded little so far, but Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator who is meeting separately Thursday with each Syrian delegation, said there are signs they might be willing to bend on humanitarian aid, cease-fires and prisoner exchanges.

At another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Thursday for a new election in Syria, saying his nation would respect the results.

"The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria" and once the ballots are cast "we should all accept" the outcome, he said.

Iran, a close ally of Assad's, was barred from participating in the Swiss-based talks to end Syria's civil war

At least 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began with a peaceful uprising against Assad's rule, according to activists, who are the only ones still keeping count. The fighting in Syria has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, and taken on post-Cold War overtones with Russia and the United States backing opposite sides.

Signs of compromise were limited after 12 hours of meetings and speeches on Wednesday.

"We don't have any illusions, all they have done so far is ignore reality, reject everything and deceive," said Burhan Ghalyoun, a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. The opposition group, which has little influence among rebel fighters within Syria, wavered until the last minute on whether to attend the talks in Switzerland at all.

Ghalyoun said he expected little from the talks on Friday, which were intended to be the first face-to-face negotiations between Assad's representatives and members of the rebellion.

Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, said Wednesday that his government had offered a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo and had yet to hear back from the Americans. U.S. officials have described that as "a capitulation initiative" in the war's most contested city, and not a truce. And rebels within Syria say the government has used past cease-fires to buy time or consolidate gains.

U.S. and U.N. officials said merely getting the two sides in the same room Wednesday was something of a victory, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's claim that the discussions were "harmonious and constructive" was at odds with the palpable tensions throughout the day.

Brahimi said Thursday's private meetings would determine the next steps — and whether the two sides were ready to sit in the same room.

"As for how quickly we can reach results that would bring happiness and return hope to the Syrian people ... this I cannot tell you," he said.

___

John Heilprin in Davos contributed.

Original article on The Huffington Post

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