GENEVA — Sitting face to face at a U-shaped table and buffered by a U.N. mediator, Syria’s government and the Western-backed opposition trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad avoided directly touching on the war dividing them, focusing Saturday on the relatively safe topic of humanitarian aid.
Their movements choreographed, they entered by separate doors and said they would speak only to the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, and not to each other.
The peace conference intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago. On Saturday, the talks avoided the main issue of Assad’s future, with both sides appearing to soften their approach after days of escalating rhetoric.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition agreed to the Geneva talks only if the focus was on an end to the Assad dynasty, while the Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism – disputing any claims that it had agreed to the talks’ stated goal of a transitional government.
Under intense international pressure to talk, and prodded by a famously patient mediator, the antagonists agreed Saturday to start with humanitarian aid.
Louay Safi, of the coalition, described the talks as “consultations – it’s not negotiations.”
“It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus, but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children,” said Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition’s representatives. He said everyone remained calm during a first half-hour meeting at which only Brahimi spoke.
Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that has killed 130,000 people.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said right before the talks started there was still an “enormous gap” in how the two sides interpreted a transitional government.
“Those who talk about President Bashar Assad are talking about removing the man who is leading the war against terrorism,” he said.
First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a prewar population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled.
Homs was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011 after Assad responded to largely peaceful protests by unleashing the military. A quarter of the country’s population has been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the U.S. have taken opposite sides in the war, with Moscow selling Assad military hardware and using its influence on the U.N. Security Council, where as a permanent member it has a veto. Washington has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaida-inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.
Complicating any truce efforts, a medley of rebel groups fight from Homs and nearby opposition-held areas, ranging from al-Qaida hardline extremists to conservative Muslim brigades, to the more secular fighters of the Free Syrian Army. They are mostly holed up in or near the old city.
By Saturday afternoon, there was no sign of violence halting in Homs, nor had humanitarian aid entered rebel-held areas blockaded by Assad-loyal forces, said a Homs-based activist and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist identified himself by pseudonym, Firas Homsi, as is typical for those who fear reprisal.
Homsi said there were about 800 Syrian families still in the old city, under blockade for the past 20 months.
“Our situation here is very bad. There’s no food and we are using outdated medicine,” said Homsi, who had heard rumors of a truce, but saw no evidence of it.
Assad’s forces and – to a lesser extent – rebel groups have blockaded enemy areas, harshly punishing the poorest and most vulnerable civilians for the gunmen in their midst.
Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.