Syrian peace talks pedal backwards

By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

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image captionUN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi: "Failure is always staring us in the face"

The second round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva is drawing to a close. But apart from the truce to let UN aid convoys into Homs - a deal done on the ground between the UN and Damascus - it's hard to point to any concrete achievement.

No common ground has been established between the two rival delegations. And now the US and Russia are at loggerheads too, over a possible UN resolution to press for humanitarian access across Syria.

It feels as though the diplomacy over Syria is going backwards. At the Geneva talks, the two sides have been so deadlocked that they are not even sitting in the same room any more.

Two weeks ago they were at least airing opposing views across a table, and discussing concrete steps like possible ceasefires and prisoner exchanges. Now they can't even agree on an agenda. Damascus insists talks must first tackle terrorism. The opposition says only in conjunction with political talks.

Both sides claim they want to keep going - neither wants to be blamed for the talks' collapse.

But privately diplomats in Geneva are now talking about a recess. A date for round three has tellingly not been identified.

UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi this week sounded almost despairing: "Failure is always staring at us in the face. As far as the United Nations is concerned, we will certainly not leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward. If there isn't, we will say so."

Dire need

To make matters worse, the one step that was initially heralded as a diplomatic achievement, the truce in Homs, is making some people queasy. The UN has announced it will not evacuate anyone else until Damascus releases hundreds of men of fighting age who were detained after they fled from Homs.

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image captionFinger of blame: the opposition cannot even agree on an agenda with the government

And what if the exodus of civilians from the Old City of Homs plays into President Assad's hands militarily? And his next move is to bombard what's left of the rebels' stronghold there to take it over completely?

Two weeks ago step-by-step truces were being talked of as a way to build trust in Geneva and increase UN access to besieged areas. Now the tone has shifted.

Homs is not a model, said the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos this week. And humanitarian access is a fundamental right, not a negotiating tool. And it is intolerable that the UN cannot fulfil its mandate to help the quarter of a million people in Syria trapped in enclaves by the fighting.

"I first raised the alarm about Homs 14 months ago," she told the UN on Thursday. "We cannot wait another 14 months to reach 1,400 more people. This is not only about the Old City of Homs. There are millions of people in dire need across Syria, their lives hanging in the balance."

But that frustration has also created new tensions. Once again a rift has opened up at the UN Security Council between the United States and Russia over a toughly worded draft resolution demanding that Damascus open up humanitarian access.

Russia says it will veto the draft because it is unbalanced, and instead the West should join a Russian proposal to condemn terrorism in Syria.

It's depressingly familiar. And worrying. If there was one hopeful sign in Geneva it was that Russia and the US, as joint sponsors of the talks, were working together.

Not any longer. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out on Friday at the Americans, virtually accusing them of sabotage.

"We have the impression there've been all sorts of attempts to derail the Geneva peace talks," he said at a news conference in Moscow.

"First they tried to link [the talks] to concerns about how the chemical weapons programme was going. Then they tried to politicise the issue of the humanitarian crisis.

"Now they are starting to say that the Geneva II cannot last for ever, even though it was never supposed to have a time limit and only two rounds have taken place. Now they are saying that to keep talking is pointless. We're going round in circles."

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image captionFighting continued in Aleppo and other Syrian cities on Valentines Day

US Secretary of State John Kerry was swift to deny that. Agreeing on a transition government was what the talks in Geneva were all about, he said, as Mr Lavrov had heard him say while standing next to him on many occasions.

Buffer zones

It all looks pretty bleak.

So what happens now, besides the violence in Syria getting ever more desperate?

Well, if the Geneva talks are parked for the time being, attention will shift to the UN in New York. Let's see if the US and other Western nations on the Security Council can find common ground to push for more humanitarian access.

That may be hard. The West hopes Russian pressure will make a difference. But Russians argue their influence on President Assad is limited, and anyway there is a real problem of security on the ground - from extremist militias - which makes opening up humanitarian corridors highly problematic.

So if that goes nowhere - what then?

Well, Mr Kerry today also said that President Obama now wants to look again at policy options, given the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria.

A re-examination of buffer zones, and cross border aid deliveries and more help to the opposition. Policy options which have been examined more than once, and which will run up against the same problem - how feasible will any of this be, if the UN Security Council is still divided?