By Zeina Karam
GENEVA: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s adviser on Wednesday rejected the opposition’s call for a transitional governing body and suggested for the first time that a presidential election scheduled to be held later this year may not take place amid the raging violence.
The comments by Bouthaina Shaaban came as U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi announced that the first phase of the Syria peace talks in Geneva will end on Friday, as scheduled, and that the gap between the government and the opposition remains “quite large.”
“To be blunt, I do not expect that we’re going to achieve anything substantial” by Friday, he said Wednesday. “I’m very happy that we are still talking and that the ice is breaking slowly.”
Brahimi said both sides will decide when the second phase of the talks will take place — most likely after a one-week break.
Earlier Wednesday, both sides managed to discuss the thorniest issue: the opposition’s demand for a transitional government in Syria.
But Shaaban said it would be difficult to hold a presidential election in Syria, given the fighting, and she rejected a transitional governing body.
“There’s nothing in the world called transitional government. We don’t mind a large government, a national unity government, but I think they invent the wrong term for our people and then they circulate it in the media,” she said.
The idea of a national unity government has been rejected by the opposition, which insists Assad must step down in favor of a transitional government with full executive powers.
Louay Safi, a spokesman for the opposition’s negotiating team, said the issue of a transitional government was put on the table at the talks for the first time. But he added the government delegation stuck to its demand that putting an end to terrorists was still its No. 1 priority.
“Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, the body whose responsibility is to end dictatorship and move toward democracy and end the fighting and misery in Syria,” he said.
The government seems “more ready to discuss that issue, but still they’re trying to push it to the back of the discussion,” Safi said. “We told them that this has to come first because nothing else can be achieved before we form a transitional governing body.”
Shaaban said the opposition seemed more willing Wednesday to talk about terrorism, and she described the day’s talks as constructive.
“The problem is that they’re only interested in transitional government. They’re only interested in government, not interested in putting an end to this war,” she said.
Despite the apparent small step in the peace talks, both sides continued to blame each other for the impasse.
The bitterness and rancor have produced more than just awkward moments between people with vastly different views meeting in Geneva.
The conflict has pitted neighbor against neighbor. People who were once friends have stopped talking to each other. Journalists who once worked together have been separated. Sectarian tensions, once tamped down under Assad’s grip, have exploded into the open.
In the hallways of the U.N.’s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers have flared. Scuffles have broken out as journalists interrupt rival reports, government officials have received extraordinary public grillings, and a distraught mother confronted the Syrian government delegation at their hotel.
More than 130,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, and millions of people have been uprooted from their homes.