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After humanitarian compromise, Syria talks run into 'regime change' impasse

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. 

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
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.

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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.

Opposition spokesman Louay Safi told Agence France-Presse that the time had come “to start talking about transition from dictatorship to democracy.”

On Monday, he said, “we start to see if the regime is willing to go to a political solution or stick to a military one.”

Russian focus on containing militancy

The US and Russia, who organized the Geneva conference and are key backers of the rebels and the Assad regime respectively, remain equally far apart over Syria's future government.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that Assad "will not be part of [a] transitional government" and must leave. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has asserted that the Geneva talks are not about Assad's future, but about containing the growing Islamic militant threat within Syria. The talks' goal, he says is to find "political accord between the Syrian government and reasonable, secular and patriotic opposition as quickly as possible and along with political settlement help them to unite for fight against these terrorists."

Vladimir Sazhin, senior researcher of the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, told The Christian Science Monitor that the Islamic extremists are "a headache for everybody."

"The extremist groups are at war both with the governmental troops, and with Free Syrian Army and Kurdish formations in Kurd-populated regions," he says. "Free Syrian Army and governmental forces should struggle against Islamic extremists, if not in the same ranks then at least in some coordinated way, probably under the UN Security Council's aegis."

Vladimir Sotnikov, a Middle East expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies, says that "it will be difficult to convince Americans," however. "The only strong argument might be atrocities committed by the Islamic radical groups and the conflicts inside the opposition itself, between the moderate and radical parts of it."

But Mr. Sotnikov says that some sort of rebel-government alliance against the extremists is something that both US and Russia could get behind. "No force that takes part in these negotiations is interested in seeing the radical Islamists ... coming to power and bringing chaos to Syria and the region," he says. "Nobody is interested in substituting an unacceptable regime for uncontrollable Islamists."

Fred Weir in Moscow contributed to this report.

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