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Syria

Inching towards direct talks on Syria

They came to hold talks, but started negotiations with mutual affronts. But if there is one person who might be able to mediate between the intransigent Syrian conflict parties, it's Lakhdar Brahimi.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, seemed very tired on Friday (24.01.2014). He had had a long day, which was actually supposed to be the first real day of negotiations at the Syria Conference in Geneva. "Good afternoon," Brahimi told the assembled international press, before adding, "or good evening, I don't know."

At the Palais des Nations in Geneva, he presented the most important result of his attempts to mediate between the Syrian government and the opposition to the more than 250 journalists who had managed to get a coveted place at the press conference: "Tomorrow we expect and we have agreed that we will meet in the same room." What Brahimi is declaring an achievement doesn't sound like much, but considering how irreconcilable the conflict parties have been, even that can be seen as a small success.

Separate talks with Brahimi

The two delegations were actually due to meet on the first day of negotiations in Geneva in order to agree on a timetable and on the subject and agenda of the talks. But emotions are running too high on both sides. Instead both delegations held separate talks with Lahkkdar Brahimi, both lasting just about an hour each In the morning. The Syrian government delegation had apparently been threatening to leave the conference.

The Syrian government delegation arrives for a meeting with U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
(Photo: REUTERS / Jamal Saidi)

Faisal Mekdad represents the Assad regime at Geneva 2

At least that is what the deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad had implied. "We are here to start the negotiations," he told waiting journalists, "but we found that the other party did not want to come." Before the conference, the opposition had explained that for its delegation, the formation of a transition government would be a central tenet of the negotiations.

They emphasized that this topic should be discussed right at the beginning of talks and that the establishment of such a body should be initiated without delay.

Social media and good old propaganda

The representatives of the Syrian National Coalition that were present in Geneva neatly used all imaginable channels to make their views public. At #Geneva2, they tweeted: "Forming a transitional body is our major priority," leaving people in no doubt that the Syrian National Council would not want to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's government, on the other hand, is relying on classic propaganda and loyal state media representatives in Geneva. An impressive entourage of dominant journalists from state-run media outlets is constantly at hand, accompanying the government delegation and making sure they get their point across at press conferences.

Lakhdar Brahimi even had a small altercation with a journalist from a Syrian state news agency, who made a political statement under the pretense of asking the UN mediator a question. "Are there any signs that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries would stop the support of terrorism in Syria?," she asked in somewhat shaky English, before Brahimi interrupted her.

"Please, please, there is no point in asking such questions!" Such exchanges hint at the type of negotiating style the experienced diplomat and mediator Brahimi must have behind the scenes.

'Wish us luck'

Lakhdar Brahimi described the preliminary talks that took place in Geneva as encouraging and asked for patience. He said that because the peace conference had come about at the last minute and the delegations had therefore only been appointed very recently, there hadn't been enough time to hold preliminary discussions - a task that the delegations were now catching up on.

"We never expected it to be easy and I'm sure it's not going to be," he said. "But I think the two parties understand what is at stake. Their country is in very, very bad shape."

He added: "The huge ambition of this process is to save Syria. Nothing less than that." After appealing to the willingness of both parties to negotiate, he simply added: "So wish us luck!"

Syrian protesters who are against the Syrian government, demonstrate outside the United Nations building in Geneva
(Photo: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi )

Outside, Syrian expatriates showed their support for the opposition

Fight for freedom

As the official delegations held talks with UN mediator Brahimi in the Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of the United Nations, hundreds of Syrian expatriates who had come from all over Europe protested outside, forming a sea of red, white and black Syrian flags on the Place des Nations. With their presence outside the UN gates they wanted to show that despite all the government propaganda, the Syrian National coalition has a lot of support from the Syrian people.

Thirty-two-year-old Ziad Malki came to Geneva from Zurich to show his solidarity. Ziad knows how it feels to be deprived of his freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In 2005, he was arrested at a demonstration in Damascus and says he was tortured during his time in prison. Now he is fighting for a new Syria from outside the country's borders.

Ziad is sure that with Bashar al-Assad and his family, there will be nothing new. "We don't want this man to be in power anymore. What his father did, what he did, we want this regime to end. We just want to be free, we want to talk without being afraid."

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