When Syrian rivals came face-to-face in a room at Geneva II talks in the idyllic Swiss city, the world sat up to notice. United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said the beginning was good as the warring sides addressed their remarks to him to avoid direct confrontation. The Syrian talks, an important milestone in the conflict that has endured the longest — close to three years — come at a critical phase of the Arab Spring. Calls for ouster of President Bashar Al Assad have been punctuated by countervailing demands by Russia and China, who are the regime’s biggest supporters.
One of the main negotiating points of the meeting has been allowing aid to reach the rebel-held town of Homs which has been besieged by Syrian troops and where about 500 families are having a hard time accessing basic needs like food and medicine. Opposition members demanded Assad’s troops let humanitarian assistance reach hundreds of families in the city.
The list of 47,000 detainees that the opposition claimed it had handed over also became a point of contention with the government denying it had received any such list.
Brahimi has tried to put up a brave face with hardened enemies facing off each other in the cool climes of the central European country. However, the noises emerging from Geneva II do not seem to be very conciliatory. Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban has questioned the legitimacy of the opposition by asking who it represents.
“But these people really don’t represent the opposition. We can’t discuss the future of Syria with a small group of people who we doubt, who do they represent,” said an assertive Shaaban.
The Assad aide weakened any prospect of a prisoner release by saying that the rebels have kidnapped many, depriving families to meet their loved ones caught in the crossfire of insurgency.
The Syrian conflict’s place in the Arab Spring revolts is slowly becoming secured as one which involves considerable political and communal cross-currents. With many militant groups thought to be fighting beside the armed rebels, and non-state actors like Hezbollah entering the battlezone on Assad’s side, the conflict presents an interesting dimension. Moreover, Russia and China are the two powers who have firmly stood beside a shaky but belligerent Assad. With two members of the UN Permanent Five not letting the world community act against a rogue regime, the importance of talks is for anyone to see. Damascus yesterday agreed to allow women and children leave the besieged town of Homs, there remain many sticking points in the talks. Negotiators today start talking about the transitional government that was agreed upon in Geneva I. It is this point that will likely prove to be the most controversial one and the future of the talks will hinge on how both sides approach it.