GENEVA — As fighting raged unabated in Syria, government and opposition representatives met in Geneva on Monday for a second round of peace negotiations in hopes of moving away from the inconclusive and often fractious exchanges in the first round that ended 10 days ago.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator guiding the peace process, prepared the ground by meeting the opposition’s chief negotiator on Saturday and then holding talks with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, after his arrival in Geneva on Sunday.
The preliminary discussion did not lead to immediate negotiations. Brahimi began Monday’s discussions with another separate meeting with the opposition, to be followed by talks with the government delegation.
After the first round of talks ended on Jan. 31, Brahimi acknowledged “we haven’t made any progress to speak of” but identified some common ground between the two sides that he said could provide a platform for this week’s talks, adding the crucial caveat “if there is good faith and political will.”
There was scant evidence of either on Sunday as mortar shelling and sniper fire erupted in the city of Homs, inflicting civilian casualties and damaging aid agency vehicles. The vehicles had arrived under a U.N.-brokered humanitarian pause intended to enable aid agencies to deliver food and medicine to the blockaded Old City, where civilians have been trapped for the past two years.
Several hundred civilians described by aid workers as in frail health were able to get out of the Old City. But the gunfire that reportedly killed at least six civilians and forced aid agency staff members to shelter for several hours in the ruins of the Old City starkly exposed the hazards that have hindered international efforts to open up humanitarian access to more than a quarter of a million people believed to be living in areas under siege by government and rebel forces, and to millions of Syrians in other areas where insecurity has obstructed aid deliveries.
The pressure for results at the Geneva talks was further underscored by reports of scores of casualties in an attack attributed to jihadist rebels on an Alawite village in the central province of Hama. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 civilians, including women, and some 20 men defending the village were killed in that assault, The Associated Press reported.
The only common ground between the government and the opposition visible at the end of the first round of talks was an agreement to negotiate within the framework of a communiqué that called for the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers and based on mutual consent.
Modest progress was reported Monday in the international effort to destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal, which has been underway since October. Under Syria’s agreement, backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution, the entire arsenal is to be destroyed by the middle of this year.