Syria stalls on new talks date
After more than a week of negotiations aimed at ending its civil war, Syria's government has refused to commit to a date for the next round of peace talks and roundly dismissed the opposition's demand to transfer power away from President Bashar Assad.
The stand-off over what comes after Mr Assad - and the uncertainty over UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's proposed February 10 date for a second round of peace talks - underscored the tremendous challenges in finding a way out of Syria's deadly impasse.
The two sides continue to blame each other for the violence - a three-year civil war has killed more than 130,000 people - and remain deeply divided over how to end the war and if Syria's future government should include Mr Assad.
A tally by activists estimated today that 1,900 people - including at least 430 civilians - have been killed in Syria during the week of peace talks alone.
Mr Brahimi said the opposition was committed to joining a second round of talks on February 10.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, however, said before the government decides when to return to Geneva to meet face-to-face with the opposition, Mr Assad will hear a report on what took place during the past week in Switzerland. The minister also dismissed the opposition's demand for a new governing body that to serve as a power transfer from Mr Assad.
Mr Brahimi tried to put the best face on the first direct meetings in three years between the warring parties, suggesting they reconvene for a fresh attempt at bridging the chasm between them.
He told reporters at the end of the eighth consecutive day of intense and bitter negotiations that although they have produced no tangible results, he found 10 areas of "common ground" between the two sides that might provide a little bit of optimism.
"Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build," mr Brahimi told reporters at the UN's Palais des Nations.
"The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground - perhaps more than the two sides realise or recognise," he said. "Things have gone so far down that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight."
The negotiations had been strained over issues such as the opposition's demand for - and the government's resistance to - a transfer of power in Syria. The talks have so far failed to achieve any concrete results, including the passage of humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs.
The opposition is demanding a transitional governing body with full executive powers and wants Mr Assad to step down. The government delegation says that's a non-starter and has insisted the talks focus first on ending the violence.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi insisted today that a transitional governing body is the only way forward.
"The regime clearly doesn't want a political solution, doesn't want to move a step forward to end the Syrian suffering," Mr Safi said. "We will not be sitting here endlessly. There will come a point when it will be clear if the regime is willing to talk seriously about transferring power or not."