Brief Meeting Still Significant For Syria Talks

There were signs of progress at the Syria peace conference Saturday after the government and the opposition agreed to meet in the same room for the first time. Reporter Deborah Amos shares the latest from the talks in Geneva with NPR's Jacki Lyden.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Scott Simon is away. After a day of delay and rancor with warring sides calling the others traitors and terrorists, the Syrian peace talks kicked off this morning for the first ever direct negotiations. The Syrian government delegation sat across the negotiating table with the Syrian opposition to find a political solution to a war in which more than 100,000 have died. After all the intense drama of the past few days, the meeting opened with little fanfare. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Geneva and she joins us to talk about the day's events. Hello there, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

LYDEN: Many of us didn't think it would happen but the two delegations finally sat down face to face. Tell us about the dynamics in the negotiating room today and what you're expecting.

AMOS: What we heard from media sources that the meeting kicked off 15 minutes late. Every detail was negotiated. The delegates enter from different doors. There are no flags in the room but they can wear their flag pins. It's been decided which side of the table they'll sit on, how far apart. And as we heard from the U.N. negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, it's the most inaccessible room within the United Nations compound here in Geneva. The delegations - they won't talk directly to each other. Brahimi will be in the middle and they'll address him. The only thing common to all of them is language. Everybody at the table speaks Arabic. But aside from that, they are very far apart. They're there because both sides were under intense pressure from the U.S. and Russia not to walk out.

LYDEN: Well, as you said, at least they are in the same room. What are they talking about today? What's the goal?

AMOS: We heard from Brahimi that most of the day will be spent on process - how to have these talks. Western diplomatic sources tell us that the first thing on the agenda is an opening for humanitarian aid delivery in a single city, and that's Homs. That's in central Syria. For the opposition, this was the heart of the peaceful revolution but now it's a place besieged by government troops - and that's been for months. It's a place where starvation is a real issue. So, the idea is to have a confidence-building measure. There's already a plan on the table for aid deliveries to Homs. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian aid groups have a plan. So, if this goes well today, you could see something by next week. And it's called a quick win for both sides.

LYDEN: Deb, is there any kind of reassessment about what might be possible? The meeting's unprecedented, the atmosphere's been a real roller coaster, but what else?

AMOS: You know, there's no expectation this is going to be easy. The Syrian war isn't confined to one country. It's a regional war. Two million Syrians are outside the country. More than half the country is displaced. Powerful extremist Islamists are in the north. Shiite militias from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq are fighting on the side of the regime. Some of the most important players are not even at the table. There's going to be lots of bumps. But I think you have to say that the fact that they are sitting down is a beginning, at least to start for a political process, something we have not seen in three years.

LYDEN: Anything that you're looking for, Deb, that you're going to flag?

AMOS: Well, I think the idea is to keep everybody at the table this week. The most contentious issue, of course, is going to be negotiating a transitional government. And it's possible that that topic will either not be called that this week to keep everybody sitting down, but they're going to have to get to it at some point, and that's what I'll be watching for. When those discussions start, will everybody stay at the table?

LYDEN: NPR's Deb Amos speaking to us from Geneva. Thank you so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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