Two Rounds Down, Syria Peace Talks Have Unfinished Business

In Geneva, Syrian government and opposition representatives are wrapping up a second round of peace talks. There have been no signs of progress at the peace conference, but international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says he's planning to hold another round. Meanwhile, he'll be traveling to New York City to brief the U.N. Security Council.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we have an update now on the efforts to end the civil war in Syria. Representatives of both the government and opposition are wrapping a second round of peace talks in Geneva, but they made little progress at the conference, raising questions about whether a third round of talks will happen. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Geneva and joins us on the line with the latest.

And Alice, first, sum up this round of the peace talks for us.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, it hasn't gone well at all and we don't know if it's going to carry on at this juncture. In the first round of these talks that happened last month, there was this confidence-building measure, the ceasefire in Homs, and there was a lot of focus on that and on the mechanics of that. In this round, there's a lot more of a general kind of approach to ceasefire, to a transitional government process.

And what it's done is it's really exposed how little will there is really on the side of the Syrian government to make any progress. They failed even to agree on an agenda. They refused to discuss anything that wasn't ending violence, which they describe as terrorism. And there's a complete, what diplomats are describing as a blockage. I mean, they're at a total impasse at this juncture.

SIEGEL: Now, there were reports this week that the Syrian opposition, when it issued its principles for moving forward, dropped or at least omitted its demand for the departure of President Assad. What can you tell us about that?

FORDHAM: Well, that was an issue more of style than of substance, I think. What had happened is that they'd produced a lengthy document outlining a sort of a transitional government mechanism last year. And in the course of the run-up to the negotiations, they actually showed it to the media, to Lakhdar Brahimi who's working on these talks and they showed it to the Russians who are the only people really who are having substantive discussions with both sides.

I understand that the Russians advised them to tone down the language a little bit in the hope that they could sort of sell it to the government of President Bashar al Assad. So while the opposition continues to insist that Assad does have to go, a sentence that said that a little bit more plainly than the current document says it was removed as a concession. It doesn't really seem to have had the desired effect, though, I'm sorry to say.

SIEGEL: Is part of what's happened in Geneva trying to reassure the Russians that this isn't all about having a government in Damascus that will be against them, that won't lose their influence in Syria regardless of the outcome?

FORDHAM: The Russians have been very supportive of President Assad. They're extremely anti the idea that Western powers are interfering in other people's countries and deciding what happens there based on Western ideas of democracy and freedom. Having said that, I don't think that they are particularly wedded to Assad. So the feeling is that they would be prepared to consider alternatives if they felt that there was a good alternative around, if they felt that they opposition were amenable to Russian interests.

SIEGEL: Over the past year or so, we've had various reports about the degree of disarray in the Syrian opposition or lack of unity in the Syrian opposition. Coming out of the second round of Geneva talks, does the opposition look any more intact than it was before?

FORDHAM: You know, after the first round, when there was progress made on Homs and when they had been able to show up to Geneva and present a reasonably coherent face to the international community, I think that actually did their credibility quite a lot of good with people on the ground. I was in southern Turkey at the time and I was talking to a lot of activists who said, okay, for the first time, we're kind of these people seriously.

I think after this round, that credibility has been damaged. They haven't got anything to show for being here. The regime has been absolutely stonewalling throughout. And Ahmad Jarba, who is the head of the opposition coalition, didn't even show up. I mean, he's in Istanbul, apparently, coordinating military operations on the ground. So I think that the Western officials are very keen to emphasize that they've tried very hard but it's not in their interest to keep doing this forever.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Alice Fordham speaking to us from Geneva. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

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