Syria talks yield narrow deal, Assad ‘red line’

Lori Hinnant, AP Zeina Karam, AP

Two days of face-to-face peace talks yielded a narrow and tentative agreement Sunday for women and children trapped in a besieged Syrian city, and the government said President Bashar Assad had no intention of giving up “the keys to Damascus.”

With little progress to show after months of international pressure for the conference in Geneva, the U.N. mediator hoping to broker an end to Syria’s civil war defended their pace.

“I think being too slow is a better way than going too fast,” Lakhdar Brahimi said. “If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week.”

The limited agreement to let women and children leave a blockaded part of the old city of Homs, under negotiation for at least two days, fell far short of expectations and was called into question by multiple reports of government shelling.

The talks have yet to touch upon the issue of a possible transitional government — their purpose according to terms laid out when they were first conceived. But the government was unequivocal that Assad’s future was assured in the country led by his family since 1970.

“This is a red line. If some people think we are coming here to give them the keys of Damascus they are wrong,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad, echoing the language U.S. President Barack Obama used to describe a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

In Syria, the war continued as if there were no effort to stop it — gunfire and shelling in Homs, between Assad’s forces and rebels, and between the al-Qaida-linked militants and Kurdish fighters, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The blockaded districts of Homs came under intense fire that activists blamed on the government, calling into question how any deals reached in remote Switzerland could be implemented or verified in a chaotic civil war with dozens of players that began as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad. More than 130,000 people have died in less than three years, and millions of Syrians have fled their homes.

Brahimi acknowledged that the agreement for Homs fell short of his hope to send a humanitarian aid convoy to the city. But, he said, “to bring Syria out of the ditch in which it has fallen will take time.”

There have been a number of short-lived, local truces reached between opposition-held towns and government forces in recent months that, including in Moadamiyeh, a sprawling rebel-held community west of Damascus, where about 5,000 residents were allowed to evacuate in the fall.

Monzer Akbik, an opposition spokesman, said the coalition was still determined to stay for the political talks set to begin Monday despite accusing the government of stalling.

“They were sidestepping some issues and saying they want to refer back to Damascus for answers. It is clear to us that the regime delegation is not in charge of its own decisions,” Akbik said.

Both sides claim to represent the Syrian people.

The Western-backed opposition, made up largely of exiled Syrians, says Assad has lost legitimacy and can no longer lead a country after unleashing the military on largely peaceful protests nearly three years ago. They say Assad is being propped up by aid, weapons and fighters from Iran and Russia.

The government says the rebellion is rife with terrorists and that Assad is the only person able to end the fighting, blaming the West and Gulf states — especially Saudi Arabia — of turning the country into an Al-Qaida haven.

Homs was considered a promising place to start the negotiations.

The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged and emptied of residents following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. Activists say about 800 families are trapped, without regular access to food, medicine and basic necessities.

“The regime is blocking all convoys to Homs and has been doing so for months,” a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because the talks remain sensitive. “The situation in Homs is extremely urgent. Anything the government says to the contrary is false.”

Syrian activists, including the Observatory, said some rebel-held districts in Homs came under attack Sunday morning by mortar shells fired by government forces.

The two sides failed to reach agreement on a prisoner exchange, as Brahimi had hoped. Al-Mikdad said a list of names submitted by the opposition was greatly exaggerated, adding the government had no children in its jails, while the opposition said it had no control over the militants who have kidnapped hundreds of people, including aid workers and journalists.

Back in Syria, residents were following the talks closely, despite deep cynicism that they would achieve any concrete results.

“I watch the TV news twice a day and whenever else I have time,” said Ghassan Matta, a 47-year-old businessman in Damascus.

Qutaiba al-Rifai, 35, a private sector employee in Damascus said the peace talks in Geneva were premature and neither side was prepared.

“Till now, it’s unclear whether it’s a negotiations conference or a dialogue between the two sides.”

Monday’s talks promised to be far more difficult, and Brahimi wouldn’t predict how often the two sides could sit in the same room.

Al-Mikdad, the government official, said the opposition must come to the table “with their dreams outside the room when we sit and discuss concrete issues on the future of Syria.”