Syria foes briefly meet in same room at Geneva II talks

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

Syria's opposition and government have met briefly face to face as part of a talks process aimed at "saving Syria", but did not speak directly.

The initial gathering lasted half an hour, but is hailed a significant step.

Earlier, the government team told the BBC "ending terrorism and violence" was the top priority but said opposition members harboured "personal hatreds".

Delegates in Geneva are aiming at small concessions, not a full peace deal, and will talk through a UN mediator.

The BBC's Lina Sinjab, in Geneva, says diplomatic efforts are concentrating on trying to build confidence between the two sides with small achievements like localised ceasefires, release of detainees and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

There is hope that such steps could pave the way for the discussion of wider issues like political transition, our correspondent says.

Analysis

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.

If it goes well, there may be further meetings later on Saturday.

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.

Syria's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jafari - part of the government delegation - told the BBC that "item number one should be putting an end to the terrorism and to the violence".

"We should all have one agenda, how to serve the interests of the Syrian people, how to rebuild our country on a solid basis and how to go ahead, forward towards achieving the aspirations of the Syrian people," he said.

But he accused the coalition delegation of harbouring "personal hatreds towards the government for whatever reasons".

The envoy said the common ground between the parties "should be that we should talk about everything, everything, without any selectivity... and no preconditions and no hidden agendas".

However he said it was "too early" to talk of Mr Assad stepping down and that the issue was "not the priority".

Lakhdar Brahimi: "We never considered that this was going to be an easy process"

In Homs - where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have surrounded rebel-held areas for more than a year - the practical steps needed to get humanitarian aid in have been worked out, and could take place quickly if agreed, Reuters news agency cited an official as saying.

Syria's civil conflict has claimed well over 100,000 lives since it began in 2011.

The violence has also driven 9.5 million people from their homes, creating a major humanitarian crisis within Syria and for its neighbours.

'Encouraging discussions'

The delegates are still not prepared to talk to each other directly, but are expected to communicate via UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, reportedly in two sessions during Saturday.

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.

Geneva Communique

A UN-backed meeting in 2012 issued the document and urged Syria to:

  • Form transitional governing body
  • Start national dialogue
  • Review constitution and legal system
  • Hold free and fair elections

Instead, Mr Brahimi met government delegates in the morning, and the opposition in the afternoon.

On Friday, the government's delegation reportedly threatened to quit the talks unless "serious" discussions were scheduled for Saturday.

The opposition and government are fundamentally divided over the aims of the conference.

The government delegation has said the main issue of the talks is finding a solution to foreign-backed "terrorism", by which it means the whole of the armed opposition.

The opposition, however, had insisted that the regime commit in writing to the 2012 Geneva I communique, which called for a transition process.

The communique urged Syria to form transitional governing authority that "could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups".

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