“Naturally, we are not going to discuss Assad’s resignation,” said deputy foreign minister Faisal Mikdad. “This issue is not on the agenda, and has never been. Tell everyone who want to see him leave that they are just wasting our time.”
While Assad’s exit may not be on the regime’s itinerary, it is supposed to feature at the top the agenda for the talks, which are being held to discuss implementation of a communique hammered out at a first conference in Geneva, in June 2012.
That “Geneva 1” document calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria on the basis of “mutual consent” between representatives of the regime and the rebels. The U.S. and others have argued all along that the opposition, self-evidently, will never agree to a role for Assad.
Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted Mikdad as saying that stopping the violence is the main goal of the talks.
“He who places transitional government ahead of stopping terrorism does not care about the blood spilled on Syria’s streets, nor about the continued killing by the armed terrorist groups,” he said, using the regime’s blanket term for all rebel groups fighting to topple Assad.
The first round of “Geneva II” talks ended on January 31 with the U.N.-Arab League special joint representative who is overseeing the process, Lakhdar Brahimi, acknowledging they had achieved practically nothing.
When a second round started on Monday, the two sides did not even sit down together. Instead Brahimi met separately behind closed doors with the two delegations.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf pushed back at suggestions that the talks were not going well.
“They are starting to make progress in these negotiations just by being there, quite frankly, and they’ve only been there for a few hours,” she told a press briefing. “So I wouldn’t make any broad sweeping generalizations quite yet about this round of talks.”
Washington and Moscow, supporters of the mainstream opposition and the regime respectively, are the co-sponsors of the Geneva II process. The U.N. announced Monday that Brahimi would meet on Friday with U.S. undersecretary Wendy Sherman and Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov, although it did not say whether the two Syrian delegations would be present too.
Harf disagreed that scheduling that meeting for Friday rather than sooner signaled a lack of urgency.
“I would not in any way take this as an indication that somehow we don’t see this as urgent. We schedule meetings when they make sense, but we’re engaged right now at a very high level.”
She noted that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford was on the ground in Geneva, working with others “to try to get movement.”
“There are telephones, and Wendy Sherman can pick up the telephone and talk to her Russian counterpart or special joint representative Brahimi about these issues as well,” Harf added.
(Ford has not served inside Syria since the administration withdrew him and suspended embassy operations two years ago, citing security concerns. He has worked since as a liaison to the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, prodding it to join the peace talks which were delayed for seven months before finally opening last month. The State Department has not confirmed reports that he intends to retire at the end of this month.)
Harf said that overall goal of the Geneva I communique – “a negotiated political transition that leads to a transitional governing body chosen by mutual consent” – had not changed.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that’s going to happen today or tomorrow. We know this is a very complicated process.”
In the meantime, issues like access for humanitarian help to reach Syrians caught up in the fighting were also on the table, she said.
A temporary ceasefire designed to help humanitarian agencies evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Homs was extended on Monday until Wednesday.
Earlier, more than 600 people were brought out before mortar and gunfire targeted U.N. aid vehicles at the weekend. U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos said 11 people were killed in what she called “absolutely unacceptable” violations of the truce. She did not attribute blame, and the regime and opposition accused each other.
France, the U.S. and others are working on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution seeking to underscore the need for humanitarian access.
“We are calling for much stronger humanitarian action and demand that access be granted to the cities in order to allow delivery of food and medicines,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Monday. “It’s absolutely outrageous that we’ve already been discussing this for some time and that we’re continuing to starve people every day.”