Syria talks: UK and France blame government for collapse

Damaged building in a Homs, 14 February 2014 Homs is one of several cities to have suffered extensive damage in the conflict

The UK and France have blamed the Syrian government for the collapse of peace talks with the opposition in Geneva.

"The responsibility for it lies squarely with the Assad regime," UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

His French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, said the government had "blocked any progress".

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi apologised to the Syrian people for the failure of the negotiations.

The final session of talks lasted a mere 27 minutes on Saturday morning. It was the sixth day of the second round.

Mr Brahimi said an agenda had been agreed for a third round, but no date was set.

Analysis

Lakhdar Brahimi is a man of patience and pragmatism. But after final face-to-face talks that lasted just 27 minutes, he emerged looking tired and dejected.

The hope had been that he could persuade the two sides to agree a date for a third round, but it was not to be.

A measure of Mr Brahimi's frustration could be heard when he described the government and opposition fixation on their "pet subjects".

The opposition has always insisted that a transitional government should be discussed, the regime wants to talk about violence and terrorism.

Arguing about these two things has prevented them talking about anything else: about any small confidence-building measure that might bring some relief to the people of Syria.

Mr Brahimi suggested the regime's unwillingness to talk about transition was a particular obstacle, and instead of announcing progress, he found himself apologising to the Syrian people.

The agenda, he said, comprised four points:

  • Violence and terrorism
  • A transitional governing body
  • National institutions
  • National reconciliation

But key sticking points in Geneva were a transitional governing body and terrorism, a term often used by the government to describe rebel activity.

The government's chief negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, addressing reporters after the talks, stressed that terrorism must be dealt with fully before any other point could be discussed.

"Once you have an agenda you should respect the agenda fully without any interpretation or misinterpretation... we said that we cannot move from... item one to item two or item three or item four without fully considering this item and concluding by a common vision of this item by the two sides, something that the other side objected to."

Opposition spokesman Louay Safi again insisted on discussion of a transitional government that does not include President Bashar al-Assad - something the government rejects.

"A third round without talking about transition would be a waste of time," Mr Safi said.

In his apology to the Syrian people, Mr Brahimi admitted that the talks "had not come out with very much".

The UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi: "It's not good for Syria that we come back for another round and fall in the same traps"

Mr Brahimi said both sides needed "to go back to their base" for consultations and to think about whether they wanted the process to continue or not.

As yet, there has been no official reaction from the United States or Russia to the talks' breakdown. They are co-sponsors of the Geneva process but back opposite sides in the conflict.

For the UK, Mr Hague said it was clear that Damascus was opposed to a transitional governing body - "an issue that is at the heart of the negotiation and an essential means of ending the conflict".

"We owe it to the people of Syria to do all we can to make progress towards a political solution. So we will continue to give our strong support to Lakhdar Brahimi and the Geneva process," Mr Hague said.

Syria peace talks in Geneva

  • First round: 22-31 January - ends in bitter recriminations, but ceasefire in Homs agreed
  • Second round: 10-15 February - UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi apologises for failure, sides still far apart
  • Third round: agenda, but no date agreed, according to Mr Brahimi. Major sticking points still "terrorism" and transitional governing body

Mr Fabius said Syria had blocked any "progress on establishing a transition government and stepped up violence and acts of terror against the civilian population."

While the talks faltered, the fighting continued, with reports of further artillery fire on the rebel-held town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border.

Fighting there has already forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.

According to Syrian TV, the military killed several members of an al-Qaida-linked group near Yabroud.

In an estimate published on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that relies on a network of informants in Syria, says that 140,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.

UN figures suggest some 9.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

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