Syrian talks fall short of low expectations. Did they serve a purpose?

Not one life was saved as a result of the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, a UN official lamented. But the opposition's Ahmad Jarba still comes out a winner, analysts and officials say.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
A Syrian demonstrator holds up a picture of Syrian President Assad as she shouts pro-government slogans during a demonstration outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday. Arabic reading on the picture says 'we are all with you'.

Expectations were already low when talks aimed at ending Syria’s horrendous civil war got under way a week ago in Switzerland between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition.

But apparently those expectations weren’t low enough.

The first round of talks wrapped up in Geneva Friday with none of even the minimal confidence-building agreements that the United States, Russia, and the United Nations, the three sponsors of the talks, thought might be possible: things like humanitarian corridors to allow relief into starving civilian populations, particularly in the besieged city of Homs, or localized cease-fires, in part to allow women and children to flee neighborhoods that have become death traps.

None of that was achieved. A visibly frustrated Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat appointed to lead the UN’s Syria effort, said at the talks’ close Friday that “unfortunately there has been no breakthrough yet.” He was talking specifically about relief for Homs, but he could have been summing up the week of talks.

In Washington, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, lamented at a Syria humanitarian conference Friday that not one life had been saved in Syria as a result of hours of talks between the two sides. US and UN officials now estimate that more than 130,000 Syrians have died in the nearly three-year-old conflict, while about 2.4 million Syrians – three times the population of Cyprus, a member of the European Union – have fled and are refugees.

Still, the talks that delivered nothing still served a purpose, some officials and even some members of the Syrian opposition say.

First, talks are expected to resume Feb. 10, for what US and UN officials hope will be more substantive discussions that actually deliver some results.

The opposition pledged to Mr. Brahimi to return to Geneva, and while Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, said they had to consult with Damascus (hear Mr. Assad) before making any commitment, the assumption in Geneva is that the two sides will face each other again the second week of February.

For one thing, Russia is expected to press upon Assad the need to continue the talks, some diplomatic sources say.

Second, the Syrian opposition – despite its fractiousness and what some critics say is its lack of diversity (both in terms of gender and representation of the panoply of opposition forces) – is widely seen as having got a boost from both the Geneva talks and from the international Syria conference in Montreux, Switzerland, that preceded the Syrian dialogue.

The opposition’s chief representative, Ahmad Jarba, comes out of Switzerland a clear winner, say not just opposition representatives but US officials and some independent analysts. The president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces got high marks for his speech at the Montreux conference, which was carried in parts of Syria.

Seeing Mr. Jarba addressing an international audience convinced some doubtful Syrians that the opposition has leaders that might be capable of leading a country – even one as destroyed and divided as Syria, some Syrian analysts say. Jarba made a point of including Syria’s disparate populations – even some that don’t favor the opposition – in his vision for Syria, they note.

In a sign of Jarba’s rising star, Russia announced that the opposition leader would meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday. That announcement can’t be music to Assad’s ears.

But perhaps most important, some say, is simply that the two sides sat down in the same room together.

“Progress is very slow indeed,” Brahimi said at the close of talks, “but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner.” With the two sides refusing to address each other directly, Brahimi was in effect the go-between.

Hoping for more fruitful days to come, a senior US official speaking with journalists Friday tried to find a glimmer in the fact the talks happened at all.

“It is, I think, significant that throughout the week, the two sides agreed to stay in the room and, working with Lakhdar Brahimi, to talk to each other. That is not a small thing,” the official added, “given that this conflict is now almost three years old.

“The most important thing,” the official summed up, “is that finally there is a process launched.”

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