Syrian Peace Talks In Geneva Proceed Slowly

The Syrian peace talks are back in session in Geneva. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi led the first joint session of this round on Tuesday. But there are no signs of progress, as the government and opposition delegates continue to bicker over the agenda for the talks.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's hear an update on the effort to end Syria's civil war. Peace talks are underway again in Geneva, Switzerland. The meetings pit the Syrian government representatives who want President Bashar al-Assad to stay against Syrian opposition figures who insist he must go.

We're joined now by NPR's Alice Fordham, who's covering the talks. She's in Geneva. Welcome to the program.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So where do things stand?

FORDHAM: Oh, it's not going well at all. Things have reached what some diplomats are calling a blockage. All sides are just coming out of meetings sounding bitter and defeated. The opposition - and, in fact, the Americans, as well - are accusing the regime team of stalling. They only want to have one meeting a day. They've been reluctant to discuss anything in terms of a transfer of power, and they only want to talk about terrorism, which is their blanket term for all armed opposition.

INSKEEP: Well, they arrived - the two sides - with different goals here in mind, and different definitions of what the peace talks were supposed to be. Do they agree on what their goals are supposed to be at this moment, in this round?

FORDHAM: No, and that's exactly the problem. The stated goal of the talks is the implementation of an agreement made about 18 months ago, which was kind of a roadmap to peace, looking to form a transitional governing body as a step towards more a democratic Syria, and one where a war isn't raging.

So the opposition delegation is insisting that they're here to discuss that process. The delegation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is insisting that they're there to discuss terrorism, to discuss the end of violence in the country. And it's really there that they've reached an impasse. They're refusing to forward.

INSKEEP: OK. This sounds like a repeat of the last round of talks. Is there anything different?

FORDHAM: There are a few things which are notable and different. The opposition have, this time, brought with them what they're calling military advisers. They're essentially rebel commanders. There's seven of them, either here or on the way, that are fresh from the fight. And they would be useful if the talks became substantive enough that negotiates ceasefires. But it's also interesting, because they are able to give the opposition delegation a lot more credibility, I would think, with people fighting on the ground.

INSKEEP: Oh, I would think so, because wasn't there a problem previously in which many of the rebels actually fighting in Syria said the opposition figures at the peace talks didn't even represent them?

FORDHAM: Right. And this is something that they're working very hard to overcome, but I think there's a lot of frustration. You know, I've spoken to people here who've said that every day that passes here without them achieving anything is a day that it makes it harder for them to justify it to the people on the ground the opposition who are armed, and the opposition who are not armed, that these peace talks are at all worth it.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask about something that's been going on on the ground, even as these peace talks continue. We've heard a lot on this program about the city of Homs, where rebels are under siege, and a number of civilians appear to face extremely dire conditions. There's been an effort to get humanitarian aid in there. Has anyone at the peace talks agreed to make sure that aid arrives where it needs to go?

FORDHAM: Well, it's been something that's under discussion a lot, here. I mean, this is something that was really meant to be agreed at the last round of peace talks. This was meant to be low-hanging fruit, something that could be organized relatively quickly, as a trust-building exercise. But, actually, what's happened is that there's been agonizing weeks of negotiations, and the actual process of evacuation has been really very difficult and dangerous. It will probably end today, or over the next few days.

And what it's done, I think, is almost damaged trust. There were people on the opposition side who were hoping that in this round, there might be steps forward, more ceasefires, getting aid to the other quarter of a million people are estimated to be in besieged areas in Syria or prisoner releases. But it seems like the Homs operation has been so painful and difficult, that people feel like the diplomatic capital and the time and the energy expended on this almost aren't worth trying again for the sake of the help that they were able to give to a relatively small number people on the ground.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask? It was Russia, in a sense, that brought Syria to the peace table. Russia has been Syria's government's biggest supporter. Have the Russians been helpful, here?

FORDHAM: I think that everyone's hoping that they will be. People are talking about unblocking this impasse here. And the Russians are the only people, really, who are speaking regularly and substantively to both sides. So there'll be meetings in the coming days between Americans, between Lakta Brahimi, who is mediating here, between the Russians and possibly between both sides of the Syrian talks, as well. And that's seems to be really the only thing that could save the talks at this point.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alice Fordham is in Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

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