Skip to main content

Talks pause but could spell later success

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 6:08 AM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peace talks on pause on day Syrian accuses U.S.
  • Despite slow progress talks can pave the way for long-term success
  • A narrative will likely emerge - regime intransigence or rebel disunity
  • After four days, no movement on offer for relief to people in Homs

Geneva, Switzerland (CNN) -- The first pause at the Geneva2 talks is as surprising as it is expected.

From the get go, dialogue has been bumpy. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's upbraiding of Syria's foreign minister on the opening day was just the beginning.

The mismatch between the two sides is stark. The opposition needing every sinew of heft combined Western and Gulf diplomacy can muscle behind them.

Syria's government, on the other hand, comes in as the 800-pound gorilla -- tough talking, outwardly confident, and not willing to budge on anything.

Today they presented a document that charges the U.S. with supplying weapons to al Qaeda and other "terrorists" in Syria. Before the U.S. could reply Brahimi had called the pause.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos
Syria's 110 year old refugee
A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers say.
CNN was given these photos by the lawyers involved with the investigation, who received them from a defected Syrian military police photographer. A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers say. CNN was given these photos by the lawyers involved with the investigation, who received them from a defected Syrian military police photographer.
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime Alleged torture of prisoners by Assad regime

An apparent offer on Saturday to help feed the starving in the old city of Homs seemed to herald an atmosphere of cooperation, the sort of confidence building Brahimi wanted to establish before moving on to more substantive issues.

Four days later, the government has still not made good on its offer. It says it wants to make sure the food, diapers and cholera medicine waiting on Red Cross aid trucks does not fall into the hands of the "armed gangs" in the old city.

U.S. officials say they have seen this before, and accuse the government of stalling. The opposition fears a repeat of other besieged enclaves where women and children have left only to see their homes destroyed as the government forces advance to crush rebel fighters.

For the opposition to allow women and children to leave unable to return is tantamount to cleansing their strongholds, a war crime and an echo of the 1990's Bosnian conflict and the ethnic cleansing of villages and towns.

After several hours reflection on Tuesday the eternally optimistic Brahimi declared he'd told both sides to "prepare for a better session tomorrow." He also thanked them for agreeing to stay through the week.

Brahimi doggedly sticks to Churchill's narrative "Jaw jaw is better than war war" although he readily admits as far as these talks are going the former is far from solving the later.

Today he told gathered journalists: "We have not achieved anything but we are still at it and that is good enough as far as I am concerned."

The U.S. has denied the Syrian government accusations as "ludicrous" but the damage has been done and it's another day of deaths in Syria rather than dialogue in Geneva.

But it was always going to be thus. We were told so many times in advance.

Getting to Geneva became an end in itself if not because peace could be made this time but an opportunity for the opposition to hew a new image -- one that is unified, diplomatic, dependable, moderate, and most different to the al Qaeda jihadists roaming Syria's battle fields.

Success at this makes a failed Geneva worthwhile, but the longer they are in the game the better defined the new image becomes, and the greater the chance the many Syrians on the fence may find to give them a chance.

To be clear, this is an oversimplification. As much as image counts, in the long term there is no substitute for substance. If the opposition can't coral their competing faction Syrians are doomed to a very long war.

How much President Bashar al Assad's Geneva delegation understands or cares about this is unclear but they behave as if their lives depend on defeating it.

So far the Syrian government has kept the talks very much on their terms, debate has never advanced as far as even defining agreed terms of the talks, let alone the contentious issue of transitional government and Assad's role thereafter.

Monday morning the government released a document outlining their terms for the talks, setting the media agenda for the day and putting the opposition on the back foot with no chance to shine, only to recover position, consult myriad interests and regain composure.

But by not overreacting, even to the provocations they feel on a so far empty government offer to get aid in to the old city of Homs and allow women and children out, they may in the long run be winning.

In the bigger scheme of competing international agendas for Syria, if the talks do fail, as many expect they ultimately will in a month or so, the next step will be for Brahimi to report to the Security Council.

However skillfully he seeks to keep the two parties talking, a narrative will emerge. Will it be a hapless opposition or recalcitrant regime?

Of course, interpreting that narrative depends where you stand.

So far, the opposition has done little to change impressions whereas the government by trying to enforce the status quo has reinforced an image of intransigence.

It is early days yet and Brahimi is far too astute to ever hint how he really feels.

His voice seems vaguely to reflect moderate exasperation but perhaps I am confusing that with tiredness.

Tuesday was "not an easy day" he said, neither have the past days he reflected. "The coming days" will be the same, he added as much for his own foreboding as ours.

He must really be looking forward to Friday and the first scheduled week long break in the talks.

READ: 'Assad made beggars out of his people:' Syrian refugees flood into Jordan

READ: Life after war: How Syrian refugees turned a camp into a city they call home

READ: Malnourished but defiant, Syrians under siege in Homs demand end to suffering

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 5:19 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
updated 6:19 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT