GENEVA / united nation - Syria’s warring sides launched a new round of peace talks Monday, as an agreement from the first round last month was being implemented with aid convoys evacuating the besieged city of Homs.
The UN and Arab League mediator, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, began the latest session in Geneva by shuttling between the government and opposition teams. It was not clear when or if the two sides would sit down for the sort of mediated face-to-face negotiations they held for a week in January.
Brahimi hopes to capitalise on the Homs agreement to find some way of closing the vast divide separating representatives from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the fractured opposition.
There was little optimism that the tone would be more constructive this time. Both sides have shown themselves to be obstinate and quick to engage in blaming the other side. This time, Brahimi wants to nudge the teams towards discussion of the core issues: stopping fighting and agreeing a transitional government in Damascus. The initial round late last month was the first time the Syrian government and opposition sat down face-to-face since the outbreak of their vicious war nearly three years ago.
More than 136,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes.
The government side is again headed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem while the opposition negotiators were headed by Hadi al-Bahra. Syrian state daily al-Watan said its sources expected “no progress”, after the first round “failed... due to the stubbornness of the coalition’s delegation.” A source in the opposition delegation told AFP it planned to submit a report about the Assad regime’s “violence, crimes against humanity and state terrorism”.
The report claims among other things that the regime, especially through its campaign of “barrel bombs” - canisters of high explosive dropped by aircraft - has killed more than 1,800 people since the beginning of the first round of talks in Switzerland on January 22.
Meanwhile, a third shipment of chemical weapons material left Syria on Monday under a deal to rid the country of its arsenal by mid-2014, the mission overseeing the operation said.
Meanwhile, Russia and China on Monday rebuffed the United States, France and Britain and other states by failing to attend negotiations on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to boost aid access in Syria, said diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity. Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan on Thursday presented their draft to the five veto-wielding council powers and were due to meet with them all on Monday, but Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and China’s Ambassador Liu Jieyi did not attend.
Churkin had quickly dismissed the draft resolution on Friday, telling Reuters that it was “a non-starter, it’s very disappointing, even worse than some texts we saw a couple of months ago.”
Diplomats said the draft resolution was likely to be circulated among the remaining states on the 15-member Security Council early on Tuesday and then negotiations held by the body on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re still hoping (Russia and China) will engage,” said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Russia, with the support of Beijing, has shielded Syria on the U.N. Security Council during the country’s three-year-long civil war. The pair have vetoed three resolutions condemning Syria’s government and threatening it with possible sanctions.
The most recent version of the draft aid text, obtained by Reuters, expresses an intent to impose sanctions on individuals and entities obstructing humanitarian assistance and if certain demands in the resolution are not met within 15 days of its adoption.
The United Nations says some 9.3 million Syrians - nearly half the country’s population - need help and U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos has repeatedly expressed frustration that violence and red tape are slowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance to a trickle.
Amos will brief the Security Council on Thursday on the problems she faces getting access to Syria’s neediest people. Diplomats said the draft was unlikely to go to a vote before then.
Western members of the Security Council have been considering a resolution on aid for almost a year. After months of talks, the council eventually adopted a non-binding statement on Oct. 2 urging more access to aid.
But that statement produced only a little administrative progress, such as visas for aid workers and clearance for convoys. No action has been taken on big issues such as the demilitarization of schools and hospitals as well as access to besieged and hard-to-reach communities.
The United Nations says that well over 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 136,000 have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
The joint United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission did not give details about the shipment but said it left on a Norwegian cargo vessel, escorted by ships from four countries. “The Joint Mission confirms that in-country destruction of some chemical materials has taken place alongside the removal of chemical weapons material, and welcomes progress to date,” it said in a statement.
“The Syrian Arab Republic is encouraged to expedite systematic, predictable and high-volume movements to complete the safe removal of chemical materials,” the statement added.