Talks pause but could spell later success

Assad adviser: U.S. shouldn't arm rebels
Assad adviser: U.S. shouldn't arm rebels


    Assad adviser: U.S. shouldn't arm rebels


Assad adviser: U.S. shouldn't arm rebels 01:28

Story highlights

  • Peace talks on pause on day Syrian accuses U.S.
  • Despite slow progress talks can pave the way for long-term success
  • A narrative will likely emerge - regime intransigence or rebel disunity
  • After four days, no movement on offer for relief to people in Homs

The first pause at the Geneva2 talks is as surprising as it is expected.

From the get go, dialogue has been bumpy. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's upbraiding of Syria's foreign minister on the opening day was just the beginning.

The mismatch between the two sides is stark. The opposition needing every sinew of heft combined Western and Gulf diplomacy can muscle behind them.

Syria's government, on the other hand, comes in as the 800-pound gorilla -- tough talking, outwardly confident, and not willing to budge on anything.

Today they presented a document that charges the U.S. with supplying weapons to al Qaeda and other "terrorists" in Syria. Before the U.S. could reply Brahimi had called the pause.

An apparent offer on Saturday to help feed the starving in the old city of Homs seemed to herald an atmosphere of cooperation, the sort of confidence building Brahimi wanted to establish before moving on to more substantive issues.

Syria's 110 year old refugee
Syria's 110 year old refugee


    Syria's 110 year old refugee


Syria's 110 year old refugee 02:30

Four days later, the government has still not made good on its offer. It says it wants to make sure the food, diapers and cholera medicine waiting on Red Cross aid trucks does not fall into the hands of the "armed gangs" in the old city.

U.S. officials say they have seen this before, and accuse the government of stalling. The opposition fears a repeat of other besieged enclaves where women and children have left only to see their homes destroyed as the government forces advance to crush rebel fighters.

For the opposition to allow women and children to leave unable to return is tantamount to cleansing their strongholds, a war crime and an echo of the 1990's Bosnian conflict and the ethnic cleansing of villages and towns.

After several hours reflection on Tuesday the eternally optimistic Brahimi declared he'd told both sides to "prepare for a better session tomorrow." He also thanked them for agreeing to stay through the week.

Brahimi doggedly sticks to Churchill's narrative "Jaw jaw is better than war war" although he readily admits as far as these talks are going the former is far from solving the later.

Today he told gathered journalists: "We have not achieved anything but we are still at it and that is good enough as far as I am concerned."

The U.S. has denied the Syrian government accusations as "ludicrous" but the damage has been done and it's another day of deaths in Syria rather than dialogue in Geneva.

But it was always going to be thus. We were told so many times in advance.

Getting to Geneva became an end in itself if not because peace could be made this time but an opportunity for the opposition to hew a new image -- one that is unified, diplomatic, dependable, moderate, and most different to the al Qaeda jihadists roaming Syria's battle fields.

Success at this makes a failed Geneva worthwhile, but the longer they are in the game the better defined the new image becomes, and the greater the chance the many Syrians on the fence may find to give them a chance.

To be clear, this is an oversimplification. As much as image counts, in the long term there is no substitute for substance. If the opposition can't coral their competing faction Syrians are doomed to a very long war.

How much President Bashar al Assad's Geneva delegation understands or cares about this is unclear but they behave as if their lives depend on defeating it.

So far the Syrian government has kept the talks very much on their terms, debate has never advanced as far as even defining agreed terms of the talks, let alone the contentious issue of transitional government and Assad's role thereafter.

Monday morning the government released a document outlining their terms for the talks, setting the media agenda for the day and putting the opposition on the back foot with no chance to shine, only to recover position, consult myriad interests and regain composure.

But by not overreacting, even to the provocations they feel on a so far empty government offer to get aid in to the old city of Homs and allow women and children out, they may in the long run be winning.

In the bigger scheme of competing international agendas for Syria, if the talks do fail, as many expect they ultimately will in a month or so, the next step will be for Brahimi to report to the Security Council.

However skillfully he seeks to keep the two parties talking, a narrative will emerge. Will it be a hapless opposition or recalcitrant regime?

Of course, interpreting that narrative depends where you stand.

So far, the opposition has done little to change impressions whereas the government by trying to enforce the status quo has reinforced an image of intransigence.

It is early days yet and Brahimi is far too astute to ever hint how he really feels.

His voice seems vaguely to reflect moderate exasperation but perhaps I am confusing that with tiredness.

Tuesday was "not an easy day" he said, neither have the past days he reflected. "The coming days" will be the same, he added as much for his own foreboding as ours.

He must really be looking forward to Friday and the first scheduled week long break in the talks.

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READ: Malnourished but defiant, Syrians under siege in Homs demand end to suffering