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Negotiations Begin At Syrian Peace Talks In Geneva


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. In Geneva there had been hope that this would be the day the two bitter rivals in the Syria peace talks would at least get in the same room together, but even that initial step is in doubt now. Mediators are struggling to find terms that could bring representatives of the Syrian government to talk with the rebel opponents trying to overthrow that government. NPR's Deborah Amos is at the talks and joins us now to unravel some of what's happening there. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Look, it took a long time to get the two sides to even come to Switzerland to have these talks and then they made angry opening statements a couple of days ago, very bitter statements. What was the goal for today and what exactly happened?

AMOS: Well, today the goal was simply talks about talks. They were going to set an agenda and the idea that they would be in the same room with no flags. They wouldn't talk to each other but they would talk to a U.N. mediator. Now, this all broke down last night. Now we have them meeting but not in the same room and not at the same time. One is early. The Syrian representatives of the government will meet in the morning and the opposition will meet later in the day.

It seems to have broken down yet again over this notion of negotiating over a transitional government. The opposition head, Ahmed Jarba, continues to say time is blood. And what he means is the longer these talks go on without any concrete results, more Syrians will die.

MONTAGNE: Well, you have got world powers there and primarily the U.S. and Russia. They are backing the talks, but the U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides of what these talks actually are about, ultimately. So break down the issues in that regard.

AMOS: The U.S. and the Russians are in agreement that the talks should take place. I think where the disagreement is, is where they should end up. They both have signed on to this Geneva One communique which talks about a transitional government by mutual consent. How the Americans read that is there's no place for President Bashar Al-Assad because how could the opposition mutually agree to have him in a government.

That's not quite how the Russians see it, so that is yet to be fixed, fudged, whatever language you want to use for the superpowers who are clearly behind these talks. They are in the hallway when these two delegations meet, either with the U.N. representative or with each other, if that should turn out how these talks proceed.

MONTAGNE: OK. So if they're clearly not ready for a big agreement at this moment, there are, though, Deb, smaller issues that they can take up that could make a difference there in Syria.

AMOS: This is what we thought was going to happen today, that they would take on things like humanitarian quarters, so there could be more aid to people who are literally starving inside Syria, sometimes because the regime has besieged their neighborhoods. Also, cease fires, local ones. Prisoner exchanges. Those were all on the agenda.

But what seems to have blown up the talks today is the opposition's insistence that the transitional government negotiations should be at the beginning of the talks. I remind you again of Jarba's time is blood. So he wanted to get that on the agenda and he wanted an explicit agreement from the regime that they back Geneva One.

Now, we heard on Wednesday the Syrian U.N. ambassador said that they did but they've never explicitly said so. Once you accept the invitation to this conference, it is that you have accepted it. But the opposition wants something harder from the regime and they are not willing to give it.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, there must be a lot of pressure to keep working on this after all it took to even get everyone to Switzerland.

AMOS: And all the money that was spent to get everybody here. Yes, there is. No one has said the talks have broken down. Nobody's left. Nobody's gotten on a plane and decided to quit. What we just have is two delegations meeting at two different times. So I think that we will see how the day plays out. There will be plenty of spin on whose fault this all was, that there was a pause in these negotiations.

But regime officials told me that they thought it would go on for seven days, maybe even 10. And so we may still see that.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Geneva at the Syria peace talks. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.