In Geneva, the two conflict parties from Syria engaged in talks about possible preliminary steps toward a de-escalation of the civil war. Allowing access to aid groups and an exchange of prisoners are on the agenda.
Syrian government and opposition representatives sat down in the same room twice on Saturday (25.01.2014) in Geneva. But opinions differ as to whether the two embittered sides are now actually talking with one another.
At a press conference, mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's take on the situation drew some smiles. "They have talked to each other this afternoon," explained the Algerian diplomat. "I don't know how you think this is taking place. You know, we are in a room like this. I am in a bank like this. One delegation is on the right and the other on the left, and they face one another, and they talk to one another. No! They talk through me with one another."
The Syrian opposition offered a less charitable take on Saturday's developments. "Today, we had two sessions where we discussed with Mr. Brahimi," said spokesman Louay Safi. "There were also, in the same hall, members of the regime's delegation."
Even though the UN special envoy stressed that little progress was made during the second day of discussions, some initial concrete steps toward a de-escalation of the situation in Syria were discussed.
Brahimi had put the topic of humanitarian aid on the agenda for Saturday. Syria's civil war has resulted in numerous residential zones being blocked off from the rest of the world, and many Syrians are suffering from a lack of access to food and medicine. Homs is one such place. For months, the city's historic district has been under siege by government forces. International aid organizations say delivering provisions there is a precarious prospect.
That is set to change quickly. Negotiations between the governor of Homs and the United Nations have been set in motion. A convoy with food and medical supplies could be able to reach the city as early as the start of next week.
'Thousands' in government jails
When talks continue Sunday, the next thorny topic is already set for discussion: the release of prisoners and kidnapped individuals. Lakhdar Brahimi didn't mince words on the subject, saying, "Isn't it a fact that there are thousands and thousands of people in the jails of the government? The United Nations have been calling for the freeing - at least in the beginning - of women, old people and the underage."
He added, "I'm looking forward to the discussions tomorrow and praying that we will have some good news."
'Consultation,' not negotiation
The opposition Syrian National Coalition prefers not to view these first steps as a negotiation success. Spokesman Louay Safi insists that negotiations have not yet even begun. Instead, he says the current talks represent mere consultations.
"We hope that before we start the negotiations, some of those issues can be resolved," he said, adding, "And for us, (it) would be quite an important test for the goodwill of the regime."
Safi also emphasized what the opposition is truly seeking, saying, "Our main purpose of negotiating with the regime is to enter into transition, from dictatorship into democracy, where people can vote without being intimidated, they can express their conscience, they can speak freely without being arrested by security forces, put in prison without a court sentence without judicial review."
Accusations of abetting terrorism
Meanwhile, Lakhdar Brahimi has advised both sides at the conference to refrain from making hasty remarks to the media in the future. The rhetoric in Geneva remains fiery, and both conflict parties continue to get into verbal skirmishes. Each side accuses the other of abetting terrorism.
Brahimi says he does not want to diminish the problem of terrorism in Syria, but he is urging those present not to lose sight of the real goal of the talks. "The aim is to end the war. It is the war that has created the conditions for this terrorism to take root and expand," he said, noting that terrorism cannot be treated as an isolated occurrence. "Definitely I am sure that terrorism will be first reduced and ultimately ended if the war is ended and peace comes back to Syria," he said.
Ending the war is a long way off, and getting there, concluded Brahimi, will have to occur by way of many small steps rather than big leaps.