During Syrian Peace Talks, Rival Sides Wage A Media Battle

Friday was the first day of negotiations at the Syrian peace conference. There were no direct talks, however. Instead, international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi shuttled between government and opposition delegations in separate rooms.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. After a day of delays and threats of walking out, the Syrian peace talks are back on track. Tomorrow in Geneva, delegates from the Syrian government are set to sit down with delegates from the opposition face to face for the first time. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi made the announcement.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I met the delegations of the opposition and the government separately yesterday and again today. Tomorrow we have agreed we will meet in the same room.

BLOCK: And we turn now to NPR's Deborah Amos who is in Geneva following the twists and turns of the day. And earlier today, Deb, it seemed these talks were on the brink of collapse. What happened?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it did seem so but Western diplomatic sources say that behind the scenes it was more positive. But there was a lot of posturing. The opposition insisted that it would not sit down with the regime unless the regime explicitly endorsed the Geneva One communique, and that calls for a transitional government in Syria. Government negotiators took to the media center today and they came out hitting hard. They said the opposition wasn't serious, they weren't ready. If we don't get the show on the road we are leaving by Saturday.

But, in fact, according to sources, the opposition wasn't ready to meet. You know, they only took the vote last week to come here. They only announced the official delegation late today. It's going to be headed by Hadi el-Bahara who's a U.S.-educated businessman. He's a member of the Syrian National Coalition. So what we saw today is that the regime delegation won the media war. The opposition tried late in the day to catch up. But Lakhdar Brahimi, behind closed doors, got everybody on the same page.

BLOCK: And Deb, you mentioned that the sticking point here has been the negotiations over a transitional government in Syria, which the Syrian government has adamantly opposed. Where do things stand on that?

: Well, the Syrian regime actually did endorse Geneva One. They did it on Wednesday. The UN representative from Syria said that they supported it. Western diplomats say that the Russians played a very helpful role behind the scenes today to get this all sorted. You know, the Russians have also signed on to this Geneva One, which calls for a transitional government. But since they have supported it they've sparred with U.S. officials over just what it means. The Russians don't say, for example, that Bashar al-Assad has to go.

So in the press conference it was striking that Brahimi, when he was asked about this specifically, he said about the regime's delegation, no one is contesting there are differences in interpretation.

BLOCK: OK. Well, tomorrow, as we said, the first face-to-face meeting will start between the Syrian government and the opposition. What are they going to talk about?

: Well, you know, since this conference began, both sides have been hurling invectives at each other. They've been calling each other terrorists and blaming each other for the ruin of Syria. So tomorrow they're going to sit face to face, not speak to each other. Brahimi's going to be in the middle. And he says about the day, they're going to talk about procedure. And then later in the afternoon they will have a longer session.

If it works out they'll continue. They'll talk about humanitarian quarters and that could be sorted by next week if they come to some agreement. This is what he said about the stakes of this meeting.

BRAHIMI: The huge ambition of this process is to save Syria, no less than that. So I hope that the government, the opposition and the United Nations will be up to the task.

: After he said it, he asked a number of reporters to pray for him.

BLOCK: And they'll be talking toward each other I gather but not to each other. NPR's Deborah Amos reporting from Geneva. Deb, thanks.

: Thank you.

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