By Zeina Karam
GENEVA: A tumultuous week of peace talks aimed at stemming Syria’s bloodbath ended Friday with no progress to show and a lingering standoff over President Bashar Assad’s future.
Assad’s delegation refused to commit to return to Geneva for the next round of talks in 10 days — as the U.N. mediator had proposed — and the opposition chief accused the Syrian government of posturing to gain time.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi struggled to find positive words as the first face-to-face talks between the warring sides concluded. Uncertainty over his proposed Feb. 10 date for a second round of peace talks and mutual accusations between the delegates over the talks’ lack of progress underscored the tremendous challenges of finding a way out of Syria’s deadly impasse.
More than 130,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in a conflict that has destabilized neighboring countries and forced millions of people from their homes. Activists said Friday that 1,900 people — including at least 430 civilians — were killed in Syria during the peace talks alone.
The rebellion against Assad’s rule has been sapped by deadly infighting among moderates, Islamic groups and al-Qaida-inspired militants competing for control of territory, weapons and influence. Much of the world appears to have lost faith in the rebels, largely because of the growing influence of Islamic extremists who reject the leadership of the Western-backed opposition.
Fears that the civil war is reaching a point where it can no longer be contained has forced the U.S. and Russia to cooperate to try and end the conflict.
Opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba said Assad was pressed by his Russian backers to take part in the talks but could not engage toward finding a real solution because “he knows that would be his end.” Al-Jarba said the opposition will never accept having Assad — whose family has ruled Syria since 1970 — stay in power.
“For us, this family is finished from the memory of the Syrians, all that is left is blood, fire and terrorism,” he said. “We will not accept for this man or anyone from his family to rule the country again.”
Al-Jarba spoke to the Associated Press before leaving for Munich, Germany, where he was to meet with the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers and ahead of a trip to Moscow. He said he was pinning his hopes on a positive role by the Russians, who have long been a key ally of Assad.
Al-Jarba’s coalition had been under equally intense pressure from the U.S. to attend.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are sensitive, said al-Jarba’s meeting with the Russians was a potentially positive development.
“Russia is obviously a country of great importance in the Syrian issue,” the official said.
Earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem denied the government had succumbed to Russian pressure by agreeing to attend the talks.
“We are here to find a political solution. We were unable to achieve that,” he said.
Brahimi tried to put a good face on the talks Friday, saying at the end of the eighth consecutive day of negotiations that despite a lack of tangible results, he found 10 areas of possible “common ground.”