UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi: “The huge ambition of this project is to save Syria, no less than that”

Syria’s opposition and government will meet “in the same room” in Geneva on Saturday after the first day of a peace conference ended with no direct talks.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who held talks with both sides on Friday, said they all understood that the conference was trying to “save Syria”.

The two sides have blamed each other for a lack of progress.

Diplomats say they are now aiming at small concessions such as local truces rather than an overall peace deal.

An unnamed source at the talks told Reuters news agency that the two sides had agreed to spend the next 48 hours discussing humanitarian access to the besieged city of Homs.

Lakhdar Brahimi’s announcement that the two sides will, after all, meet face-to-face is the first genuinely positive moment since these talks began on Wednesday.

Just a few hours earlier it looked as if Geneva II would end as it started, amid rancour and accusations. The Syrian government threatened to leave, and the opposition continued to insist it did not even want to see government representatives unless they agreed that President Assad had no place in a future transitional government.

Somehow, in separate talks, Mr Brahimi managed to persuade them to stay. The first face-to-face meeting is now scheduled for Saturday morning. If it goes well, there may be further meetings in the afternoon.

Exactly what will be discussed remains unclear: if the two sides focus on better access for aid agencies, or even some temporary local ceasefires, then progress may be made. If they continue to make President Assad’s future their starting point, they may get nowhere. As Mr Brahimi said, no-one expected these talks to be easy.

“The practical aspects have been worked on, things are ready and if the government doesn’t put a block on it then it could happen quickly,” said the source.

Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad have surrounded rebels in Homs, besieging the central areas of the city for more than a year.

‘Encouraging discussions’

The delegates are reportedly still not prepared to talk to each other directly, but are expected to communicate via Mr Brahimi.

“Tomorrow everybody will be in the same room but everybody will address Mr Lakhdar Brahimi,” Louay Safi, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told reporters late on Friday.

Preliminary talks began on Wednesday in Montreux, and Mr Brahimi spent Thursday and Friday attempting to persuade both sides to agree to meet face-to-face.

Friday was supposed to be the first day of official talks, but neither side would meet the other.

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Syria’s foreign minister threatens to walk out of peace talks

Walid Muallem says he will leave Geneva unless ‘serious’ talks begin by Saturday, as UN mediator meets both sides separately
Syria's foreign minister Walid Muallem arrives at the UN in Geneva to meet mediator Lakhdar Brahimi

Syria’s foreign minister and head of the government negotiating team, Walid Muallem (centre), arrives at the UN in Geneva to meet mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Long-awaited direct peace talks between the Syrian government and rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad failed to get under way as expected on Friday morning after Damascus insisted on ending “terrorism” before seeking a political solution to end nearly three years of war and misery.

The UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was meeting both sides separately in Geneva for the second consecutive day to iron out procedural and agenda issues before a first round of negotiations at the Palais des Nations.

But Walid Muallem, Syria‘s foreign minister and head of its delegation, raised the stakes by warning that he would return to Damascus unless serious talks began by Saturday, Syrian state TV reported.

Face-to-face talks were due to follow on from where Wednesday’s 40-nation international conference in nearby Montreux left off. It would be the first direct contact between the opposing parties since the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011. An estimated 130,000 people have been killed since then, 2 million Syrians have fled abroad and a total of 9 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Angry remarks in Montreux by Muallem left the western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) claiming that it alone was committed to the 2012 agreement – known as Geneva I – to create a “transitional governing body”. Assad, president since succeeding his father in 2000, has insisted repeatedly that he will not step down. The opposition says he must go. Brahimi’s problem is how to square that circle.

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