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Terrorism & Security

After humanitarian compromise, Syria talks run into 'regime change' impasse (+video)

UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland yielded a provisional agreement to allow civilians to leave a besieged city, but rebel demands for a dictator's exit are hitting a wall. 

By Staff writer / January 27, 2014

Monzer Akbik, center, a Syrian opposition spokesman, briefs journalists at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. Akbik said the coalition was still determined to stay for the political talks set to begin Monday. The two sides are far apart on the topic of a transitional government.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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The Syrian opposition delegation condemned on Monday, the government’s proposal to allow women and children out of blockaded areas in the city of Homs as a ploy to depopulate the area and arrest its opponents, saying the plan was not a substitute for allowing international aid convoys to enter, as United Nations mediators have proposed.

Peace talks in Geneva on the conflict in Syria today are turning to the most contentious issue in the three-year civil war: the reign of President Bashar al-Assad.

After several days of discussion of humanitarian issues, including safe passage for women and children out of the besieged city of Homs, Syrian government officials and opposition leaders are to discuss a power transfer in Damascus, a topic where the sides remain miles apart.

Rebels, echoed by the United States, have long argued that Mr. Assad must step down under any serious peace accord. But Syrian officials are equally adamant that the possibility of such a transition is zero. UN mediator Lahkdar Brahimi, who has been overseeing the so-called Geneva 2 talks and is the only point of contact between government and rebel camps, must try to bridge this yawning gap between the two sides, which refuse to talk directly. 

Mr. Brahimi indicated some modest progress on humanitarian issues Sunday, when he announced that the Assad regime had agreed to let women and children leave the city of Homs, which has been under siege for months and is running low on daily essentials, reports Deutsche Welle. 

"What we have been told by the government side is that women and children in this besieged area of the city are welcome to leave immediately," Brahimi told reporters. "Hopefully starting [on Monday], women and children will be able to leave the Old City in Homs."

But the task of finding middle ground on Assad's future looks Herculean, based on public statements from the two sides. Al Jazeera reports that Syrian officials openly dismiss any consideration of Assad's departure, instead focusing solely on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated factions among the rebel forces.

"Let Syrians decide what is best for Syria," said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad. "This war is not about President Assad, it is about Syria."

"They [the Geneva 2 conference] have tried to give themselves credibility by talking about humanitarian aid, but that has nothing to do with them. Let us stop the fighting, put a stop to terrorism and let us start a political process in Syria," she said.

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