GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) — Syria’s two warring sides held their first face-to-face peace talks Saturday after nearly three years of civil war, but they used a U-shape table to address the mediator and not speak directly with one another.
Despite the mutual avoidance, the summit was declared to be “a good beginning” and will continue Sunday, focusing on the release of prisoners and kidnapped victims, U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said after negotiations Saturday.
The stakes for an agreement are enormous, as more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, with accusations that the regime has used chemical weapons and that the opposition includes al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
As one potential bellwether, a plan was announced Saturday in which the Syrian regime would open one of possibly several “humanitarian corridors” in the country, with the first delivering food and medicine to Homs, where people are starving in a monthslong siege, according to Brahimi and an opposition spokesman.
The proposed relief to Homs “is like a test balloon,” said Loauy Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition.
“We want humanitarian corridors in all of Syria,” he said. “We want to see if the regime will be able to provide food to people…. They are not hungry. They are starving.”
In Saturday’s press conference, after a full day of talks, a regime spokesman didn’t immediately address reporters following comments by Brahimi and Safi.
About Homs, Brahimi said the Syrian government will talk Sunday with security advisers. “We hope ultimately some convoy of aid, goods, both food and non-food items, and some medical supplies will be allowed to go into the old city” of Homs, he said.
Sunday’s peace talks will address “prisoners and people that have been kidnapped to see if something can be done to secure the freedom of not all but at least some people who have been deprived of their freedom,” Brahimi said.
Safi contended the government holds 100,000 prisoners of conscience, including women and children.
At one point in his summary of the day, Brahimi said the two sides “have talked to each other” during Saturday’s meeting, but he seemed to back off that assertion.
“They talk through me to one another,” he said, prompting laughter among journalists. “This is what happens in civilized discussion. You talk to the chairman or the speaker. This is what happens, and I think this is a good beginning.”
Brahimi added: “I’m looking forward to the discussions tomorrow and pray we have some good news.”
No one on either side “got upset with the other,” a Western diplomatic official told CNN. The official did not want to be identified by name in order to speak candidly about the talks.
Characterizing the talks as “cordial,” the official said that Foreign Minister Walid Moallem did not attend the talks because opposition representative Ahmed Jabra was not there.
When the issue came up of a limited cease-fire to deliver aid to the old town in the flashpoint city of Homs, the leader of the government delegation, Bashar Jaafari, indicated he never heard of the idea and had to check with Damascus, the official said.
But the official disputed the assertion by Jaafari, who is also Syria’s ambassador to the U.N.
In fact, the aid for Homs’ old town has been in the works for weeks, with the United States, Russia and the United Nations discussing the proposal, the official said.
It is “not true they had not seen it before. The Russians had shown it to them,” the Western diplomatic official said.
It was one of “several confidence measures” being prepared for the talks so that Brahimi “would not go in with a blank sheet of paper,” the official said. It has the backing of “the more than 35 nations directly supporting the talks.”
Jaafari, according to the Western diplomatic official, said “let’s talk about aid and cease-fires across the whole country.”
The official expects Russia will use its influence over the Syrian government to move the issue along because it does not want the talks to fail.
In dealing with deeper problems, Brahimi has “promised the opposition he will get to core issues Monday,” the official said.
Talks overcome delay
After a day’s delay and bitter exchanges, Syria’s warring sides met in the same room in Geneva on Saturday, but seemed not yet prepared to talk to each other.
Following a rocky start, the peace conference aimed at ending nearly three years of civil war almost collapsed on Friday, the day face-to-face talks were meant to start. It was only put back on track after Brahimi met the Syrian government and opposition delegations separately and both agreed for him to be a go-between.
After the first of two sessions on Saturday, Brahimi spoke about the need to find common ground between both sides, according to Syrian state television.
“The table is U-shaped. We have a mediator … and each delegation will talk only to the mediator. They will not talk to each other,” Monzer Akbik, a delegate within the main opposition group, Syrian National Coalition, told reporters.
Asked if they were willing to talk directly, he said: “Right now this is the process and this is how it is going on …There was no handshake.
“I think we all know that we have the humanitarian issues and we have the transition issues,” Akbik added.
“I can assure you now that during this round of talks that is going to go ahead this week, both issues are going to be discussed, negotiated.”
Following the brief morning session, U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the opposition had “demonstrated a seriousness of purpose.”
“Everyone the opposition said would show up was there. They went to this morning’s meeting with the intention to engage constructively,” Vasquez said.
The fragility of the process has been made clear since both sides arrived in Switzerland this week.
Earlier on Saturday, Jaafari told reporters the Syrian government delegation was heading to the talks “with an open mind … to try to thaw the ice.”
In comments made to Syrian state television, he dismissed all talks about negotiating are based on the Geneva I communique, which called for a transitional government and for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
“We came here to fight terror so let’s stop the personal contempt and the provocation by the opposition, their childish play, thinking the Syrian delegation will withdraw from the talks if they up their demands,” Jafari said.
Echoing that, Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi told Syrian state television: “From day one, we said we had reservations on Geneva I and we are surprised of the childish behavior of the so-called opposition where they try to force us to accept that, when we didn’t”.
Ahead of the start of the second Saturday meeting, spokesman Safi of the Syrian opposition told reporters “we have started the first phase of consultation, not negotiation.”
He said among the topics to be put forward was Syria’s humanitarian situation and the release of prisoners.
“Negotiations will start Monday on forming a transitional government,” he said. “A good number of the regime delegation did not turn up to the table.”
While Saturday’s meetings represented progress to overcome such an early hurdle, it also demonstrated the difficulty of even getting the two sides into one room to start negotiations on ending violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2011.
Syrian state TV had reported that Moallem told Brahimi that if a serious meeting was not held Saturday, “the Syrian official delegation will leave Geneva because of the lack of seriousness and readiness” of the opposition.
Meanwhile, the opposition delegation warned that it would not take part in any direct talks unless it saw movement on the issue of a transitional government — that is, that the government shifts on its position that al-Assad will remain in power.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed the news of the Saturday talks, saying “such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process.”
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “we know it’s going to be very, very hard.” At the same time, Kerry noted that diplomacy had already shown some hope by leading the al-Assad regime to turn over its known chemical weapons stockpile.
The fighting has made Syria “the world’s greatest single individual magnet for jihad and terror,” Kerry said, making clear that the United States supports the opposition position that al-Assad must go.
“Because of the havoc he has wreaked on his people, Assad will never have the legitimacy to govern Syria,” Kerry said.
The war has become increasingly sectarian, drawing in Syria’s regional neighbors and forcing out more than 2 million refugees, many of them children.
However, the warring Syrian sides remain far apart.
In a preliminary international session held Wednesday in nearby Montreux, Syria struck a defiant tone, laying a record of atrocities — rape, arson, even the destruction of Syrian culture itself — at the feet of rebels and chiding outsiders for trying to interfere.
No one had the right to withdraw al-Assad’s legitimacy, Moallem said.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition made clear that it sees no role for al-Assad in a transitional government.
Ban: Nobody said this would be easy
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to persist with the talks.
“We had extremely hard negotiations this week on Syria; nobody said this would be an easy process,” Ban told CNN’s Richard Quest in Davos.
He also said that Iran was “one of the important regional powers who can contribute to this process” but that he believed he made the right choice in rescinding an invitation to Tehran to join the talks in Geneva.
The Syrian National Coalition had said it would pull out if Iran was invited, because Tehran has not signed on to the framework agreed in 2012 that envisages a political transition.
“I regretfully made the decision I did. It was of greater importance to have the two sides together,” Ban said, referring to the Syrian government and opposition.
While the stakes for the talks are high, observers see little likelihood that the conference will find a way to end the violence in Syria. But analysts say there is hope that progress can be made on improving the situation for the most vulnerable victims of the civil war.
The Syrian National Coalition does not represent all the opposition groups in Syria, making it uncertain that any agreement it may reach in Geneva would be respected on the ground.
A military representative may join the Syrian opposition team, opposition members said.