Syrian peace talks reach impasse; US, Russia spar

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad speaks to the media during a news conference after the second round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.

Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi, Associated Press

GENEVA — Peace talks aimed at forging a path out of Syria's civil war have reached an impasse — with no guarantee of continuing — after five days of sparring over responsibility for mounting violence back home and President Bashar Assad's future, government and opposition delegates said Friday.

Echoing the position of the rival camps, senior U.S. and Russian officials traded accusations over who was to blame for the stalemate, adding to the polarization of a war that has killed 130,000 people, displaced millions, destroyed a country and threatens to engulf the Middle East in religious conflict.

It was unclear Friday how long the weary sides were willing to continue with the talks, which have been on the verge of collapse since they were convened last month. Despite the rancor, both sides left the door open for more negotiations, including a possible final session Saturday before breaking up.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that "talks for show make no sense" but told reporters there was still "enormous" energy for a political solution, adding that perhaps what was needed was "a few days of recess" for people to reflect. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity in keeping with rules established by the U.S. administration.

Both the U.S. and Russia have kept the talks going, knowing that it was the only option on the table — at least for now.

The rebellion against Assad's rule has been sapped by deadly infighting among moderates, Islamic groups and al-Qaida-inspired militants competing for control of territory, weapons and influence. Assad's forces are solidifying gains, but the battle lines are largely stalemated — leading to a growing sense internationally that neither side is close to victory.

For the Americans, backing down from a threat to strike militarily following a chemical weapons attack in August has left the Obama administration with little choice but to pursue a diplomatic track to end the carnage.

The opposition, which holds little sway among the dozens of rebel groups on the ground, is under pressure to come away with a deal rather than risk Assad holding on to power in a grinding war of attrition.

"Unfortunately we have reached a dead end," said opposition spokesman Louay Safi following separate meetings Friday between U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi with opposition and government delegations. "I hope we can still find an opening in that wall," he added, saying that for now government "belligerence" was making it impossible to forge ahead.

Safi said it was too early to say whether there would be a third round of talks.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, also announced "with deep regret" that the talks were not going anywhere.

"We came to Geneva to implement Syria's declared position to reach a political solution to the crisis. ... Unfortunately the other side came with another agenda, an unrealistic agenda," he said.

The charges underscored just how far out of reach a political solution for Syria's ruinous civil war remains. It also demonstrates the clashing interests that go far beyond Syria's borders to the warring sides' international sponsors — Russia and the United States —which both have their own interests in pushing the negotiations.

U.S. and U.N. officials have said merely getting the two sides in the same room was something of a victory. Some credit the talks, now in their second round in Geneva, with leading to an evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the embattled Syrian city of Homs. Other than that they yielded little more than acrimony.

That's largely because the Syrian delegates have a fundamentally different interpretation of what the talks are about.

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