Syria talks off to 'good beginning,' U.N. mediator says

Story highlights

  • 66 more dead in Syria, opposition group; 100,000 killed since war began
  • "I think this is a good beginning," U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says
  • Humanitarian aid to besieged Homs will be "a test balloon," opposition says
  • The U.N. mediator has "promised the opposition he will get to core issues Monday"

Sitting along a U-shaped table -- and without speaking directly with each other -- Syria's two warring sides met Saturday in the same room for the first such talks after nearly three years of a gruesome civil war.

Even with the indirect arrangement, the summit's start was declared to be "a good beginning" and will continue Sunday, focusing on the release of prisoners and kidnapped victims, U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said.

"They talk through me to one another," he said, seemingly backing off an earlier assertion that the two sides "talked to each other." "This is what happens in civilized discussion: You talk to the chairman or the speaker."

Brahimi then added: "I'm looking forward to the discussions tomorrow and pray we have some good news."

The stakes for an agreement are enormous, as more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict and forced more than 2 million people to become refugees. The conflict has also been mired by accusations that the Damascus government used chemical weapons and that the opposition includes al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

As a potential bellwether, a plan was announced Saturday in which Syrian authorities would open one of possibly several "humanitarian corridors" in the country -- specifically, to allow for the delivery of food and medicine to Homs, where people are starving in a monthslong siege, according to Brahimi and an opposition spokesman.

The proposed relief to Homs "is like a test balloon," said Loauy Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition.

"We want humanitarian corridors in all of Syria," he said. "We want to see if the regime will be able to provide food to people.... They are not hungry. They are starving."

Brahimi said the Syrian government will talk Sunday with security advisers about the Homs idea. "We hope ultimately some convoy of aid, goods, both food and non-food items, and some medical supplies will be allowed to go into the old city" of Homs, he said.

Following Saturday's full day of talks, a Syrian government spokesman didn't immediately address reporters following the comments by Brahimi and Safi.

The sides are set to meet again Sunday, with the focus being "prisoners and people that have been kidnapped to see if something can be done to secure the freedom of not all but at least some people who have been deprived of their freedom," Brahimi said.

Safi contended the government is holding 100,000 prisoners of conscience, including women and children.

'Cordial' talks

No one on either side "got upset with the other," a Western diplomatic official told CNN. The official did not want to be identified by name in order to speak candidly about the talks.

Characterizing the talks as "cordial," the official said that Foreign Minister Walid Moallem did not attend the talks because opposition representative Ahmed Jabra was not there.

When the issue came up of a limited cease-fire to deliver aid to the old town in the flashpoint city of Homs, the leader of the government delegation, Bashar Jaafari, indicated he never heard of the idea and had to check with Damascus, the official said.

But the official disputed the assertion by Jaafari, who is also Syria's ambassador to the U.N.

In fact, allowing aid for Homs' old town has been in the works for weeks, with the United States, Russia and the United Nations discussing the proposal, the official said.

It is "not true they had not seen it before. The Russians had shown it to them," the Western diplomatic official said.

It was one of "several confidence measures" being prepared for the talks so that Brahimi "would not go in with a blank sheet of paper," the official said. It has the backing of "the more than 35 nations directly supporting the talks."

Jaafari, according to the Western diplomatic official, said "let's talk about aid and cease-fires across the whole country."

The official expects Russia will use its influence over the Syrian government to move the issue along because it does not want the talks to fail.

In dealing with deeper problems, Brahimi has "promised the opposition he will get to core issues Monday," the official said.

As these discussions continue, the violence continues inside Syria. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists, reported 66 more people -- among them seven women and 13 children -- died on Saturday. Nearly half of those fatalities were in and around the flashpoint city of Aleppo.

The bloodshed has spread outside Syria. That includes sporadic violence in neighboring Lebanon, where attacks have been blamed on direct and indirect allies on both sides of the Syria conflict.

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning a recent threat by the al-Nusra Front in Lebanon -- which has the same name as a Syrian al Qaeda affilaite that's been fighting al-Assad's forces and also been at odds with more moderate rebel forces.

The group purportedly said that any area where Hezbollah -- an organization with close ties to the Syrian government and that the United States considers a terrorist organization -- has a presence as legitimate targets.

"This threat of terrorism against ... the people of Lebanon is intended to divide the country," the State Department said.

Talks overcome delay

The peace conference aimed at ending nearly three years of civil war almost collapsed on Friday, the day face-to-face talks were meant to start. It was only put back on track after Brahimi met the Syrian government and opposition delegations separately and both agreed for him to be a go-between.

After the first of two sessions on Saturday, Brahimi spoke about the need to find common ground between both sides, according to Syrian state television.

Asked whether they were willing to talk directly, Monzer Akbik -- a delegate within the main opposition group, Syrian National Coalition -- said: "Right now this is the process and this is how it is going on ...There was no handshake.

"I think we all know that we have the humanitarian issues and we have the transition issues," Akbik added, insisting "both issues are going to be discussed" during the summit.

Following the brief morning session, U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the opposition had "demonstrated a seriousness of purpose."

"Everyone the opposition said would show up was there. They went to this morning's meeting with the intention to engage constructively," Vasquez said.

As to Syria's government, Jaafari said its delegation was engaging in the talks "with an open mind ... to try to thaw the ice."

But neither side has shown much flexibility on perhaps the biggest issue: who will lead Syria.

The opposition delegation has warned it would not take part in any direct talks unless it saw movement on the issue of a transitional government -- one that would not involve al-Assad.

Ahead of the start of the second Saturday meeting, spokesman Safi of the Syrian opposition, told reporters "we have started the first "Negotiations will start Monday on forming a transitional government," he said. "A good number of the regime delegation did not turn up to the table."

In comments made to Syrian state television, Jaafari dismissed all talks about negotiating are based on the Geneva I communique, which called for a transitional government and for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

"We came here to fight terror so let's stop the personal contempt and the provocation by the opposition, their childish play, thinking the Syrian delegation will withdraw from the talks if they up their demands," Jaafari said.

Complicating matters, too, is the fact the Syrian National Coalition does not represent all the opposition groups in Syria, making it uncertain that any agreement it may reach in Geneva would be respected on the ground.

A military representative may join the Syrian opposition team, opposition members said.

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