The two sides did not meet face to face, buffered by a famously patient U.N. mediator who shuttled between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and members of the opposition trying to overthrow him. And they did not seem ready to do so Friday as originally scheduled.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem questioned both the point of the talks and the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles and lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion.
Infighting among rebels in the civil war has grown so deadly —nearly 1,400 killed in the past 20 days — that the head of al-Qaida called on Islamic terrorists to stand down, playing directly into Assad’s argument that only his government is preventing Syria’s further descent into chaos.
Al-Moallem, speaking before his meeting with mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, said his government’s priority was to “to fight terrorism.”
Both Secretary of State John Kerry and the head of the Syrian National Coalition derided the notion that Assad should stay in power to fight terrorists.
“Assad is responsible for the potential disintegration of Syria,” Kerry told the broadcaster al-Arabiya. “He is a one-man super-magnet for terrorism.”
Both sides affirmed positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting. They blamed each other for turning a once-thriving country into ruins, and they called each other terrorists.
But their willingness to meet separately with Brahimi gave the first sense that the negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself said Wednesday they had shown willingness to bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires — even if the terms were still murky.
“The road to negotiations has begun,” opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba told reporters, even as he described Assad as “part of the past.” He said he had empowered negotiators to determine the time and scope for any talks.
The fighting that began in March 2011 with a peaceful uprising against Assad has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, with hints of a throwback to the Cold War as Russia and the United States back opposite sides.
Iran was conspicuously absent from the peace conference’s opening day, after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rescinded his last-minute invitation to the country that has supplied Assad with cash, weapons and Shiite fighters linked to Hizbullah.