Middle East

Syria talks: Humanitarian issues top Geneva agenda

Humanitarian issues were top of the agenda in the first tentative meetings between Syrian regime and opposition forces in Geneva, the UN mediator says.

Lakhdar Brahimi said getting an aid convoy into the war-shattered city of Homs was discussed on Saturday, with prisoner releases on the agenda for Sunday.

"We haven't achieved much but we are continuing," he told reporters.

Delegates in Geneva are aiming at small concessions, not a full peace deal.

Mr Brahimi said he was trying to build confidence by broaching humanitarian issues first.

"The situation is extremely complex - very difficult - and we are moving in half-steps," he said, adding that by trying to make progress on humanitarian issues, he was aiming to "create an atmosphere" that would eventually enable advances on the 2012 Geneva I communique, which set out a blueprint for peace talks.

"Ending terrorism and violence" is the top priority, Syrian officials say. They insist it is too early to discuss President Bashar al-Assad's position.

In the first meeting, the two delegations filed in through separate doors into one room in the UN Geneva Headquarters, and sat down at the same U-shaped table, but said nothing to each other.

Mr Brahimi said another two-hour meeting had taken place in the afternoon.

He admitted no direct words had been exchanged but said the two sides were "talking through me to one another.

"This is what happens in civilised discussions," he said, where sides addressed each other via the chairperson.

"I think it's a good beginning," he said, adding he was "praying for some good news" to come on humanitarian issues on Sunday.

Sunday's meeting will focus on the issue of imprisoned and kidnapped people in Syria.

Negotiators would "see if something can be done to secure the freedom of at least some of the people deprived of their freedom", Mr Brahimi said.

'Dictators don't like to listen'

There is hope that minor progress will pave the way for the discussion of wider issues like political transition next week, although there has been no sign of common ground on this so far.

Shortly after the initial meeting, the chief of staff to the leader of Syria's National Coalition, Monzer Akbik, claimed that the transition process had started in earnest.

"Today we had the chance to speak directly to regime... You know dictators usually, they don't like to listen. But today they had to listen to us and to the voice of the Syrian people that they want transition from dictatorship to democracy."

However Syria's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jafari - part of the government delegation - earlier told the BBC that it was "too early" to talk of Mr Assad stepping down and that the issue was "not the priority".

"Item number one should be putting an end to the terrorism and to the violence," he said.

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".

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

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.

Homs
Opening a corridor to allow humanitarian aid into areas of Homs is thought to be under discussion
Syrian opposition chief negotiator Hadi al-Bahra (C) arrives with delegation member Anas al-Abda (L)
Opposition negotiators, seen here arriving at the talks venue, want the Syrian president to step down
Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government's ambassador to the United Nations and a member of the Syrian government delegation
Syria's Ambassador to the UN told the BBC talking about President Bashar al-Assad's position was "not the priority"

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 Geneva I communique, which called for a transition process.

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