GENEVA — Syria’s government said stopping terrorism – not talking peace – is its priority, while the Western-backed opposition said “the road to negotiations” had begun, offering a glimmer of hope Thursday for a way to halt the violence that has killed more than 130,000 people.

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.

Both sides affirmed positions hardened after some 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 said, 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.

Meanwhile, Iran was conspicuously absent on the opening day, after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rescinded his last-minute invitation to the country that has supplied Assad with cash, weapons and Shiite fighters linked to Hezbollah.