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Syria Peace Talks Appear Near Collapse


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Syrian peace talks are continuing in Geneva today, just barely. Several times this week a delegation from Syrian president Bashar al Assad met with representatives of the Syrian opposition. And the two groups couldn't even agree on an agenda. U.S. officials at the talks are hoping their Russian counterparts will bring the two sides together. But NPR's Alice Fordham reports that at week's end the talks appear to be near collapse.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: As the chief U.N. mediator came out of talks with Russian and American officials yesterday, he was gloomy.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: It is a very, very, very complicated subject. Failure is always staring at us in the face.

FORDHAM: The mediator - Lakhdar Brahimi - and the Americans had hoped the Russian deputy foreign minister would resuscitate the negotiations. Russia supports Assad but it also supports the peace talks. And Russian officials, unlike Western ones, have influence with the regime and its opponents. But the Russian minister, Gennady Gatilov, dashed those hopes. He did reaffirm support for the process but offered no promise to pressure Damascus to talk about a political solution to the war.

Western officials seemed crushed. This is very grim, said one of them. This is very tough. The goal of the talks is to implement a road map to peace written more than 18 months ago. That plan includes a transitional government - a mechanism to move toward a democratic Syria. The opposition earlier this week submitted a broad outline for such a transition.

Notably, it does not explicitly state that the president has to leave before a new government is formed. That point was removed from a draft version. Insiders say that it was on the advice of the Russians. While they still say that Assad must go, the opposition hoped the careful wording would make the proposal more palatable to the regime. Amr al Azm, a Syrian academic speaking from Ohio, says this was a significant shift.

AMR AL AZM: And so in my opinion, yes, this would have been a major concession from the opposition, you know, negotiating team to present a document that does not include any mention of Assad or what is to happen to him.

FORDHAM: But it didn't work. People who were in the room say the regime officials refused even to read the document. Azm says he thinks that failure is imminent. The real reason? Assad still believes he can win the war and so has little incentive to engage in dialogue. Among the opposition, frustration is mounting. They cannot maintain their fragile support with opposition on the ground if they do not produce results. Chief of staff to the delegation Monzer Akbik...

MONZER AKBIK: So there is a huge epic proportion of suffering now for the Syrian people. And it is really frustrating that we are unable at the time being to provide them anything. We don't have any progress on the humanitarian side.

FORDHAM: Another opposition delegate, Anas al Abde, said that he was having growing trouble justifying the talks to Syrians.

ANAS AL ABDE: The more the negotiation goes without any conclusive results, the more the impression, the perception, will be within the minds of the Syrian people that we are wasting their time.

FORDHAM: Inside Syria yesterday there was more lethal aerial bombing in the city of Aleppo and a battle for a town on the Lebanese border. In Homs, the evacuation of civilians from a besieged area was extended until Saturday.

Today, the two sides are having separate meetings with Brahimi, the U.N. mediator. Next week, Brahimi will brief the U.N. Security Council on Syria. He had hoped to reconvene the two sides for talks the following week. But that seems far from assured at this point. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.