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Talks between Syrian government, opposition back on despite tense day in Geneva

January 24, 2014 at 1:29 PM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN:  Joining me now is chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner from Geneva.

So, Margaret, bring us up to speed on what happened today.  There were threats of a walkout.  There were no-shows.  Then there’s Brahimi trying to press the reset button and saying, we will do it tomorrow?

MARGARET WARNER:  Well, pressing the reset button is one way of looking at it, Hari, but I think what you had today was a lot of posturing by both delegations, but particularly the government, but on behalf of the audience back home and just to score political points.

But when Brahimi came into the briefing room at 6:00 and said they’re all going to meet together tomorrow with me as — it’s the structure I laid out last night, it became clear that in fact he’s managed to get them to agree not only to have this sort of three-way kind of meeting, at least in part, but to stay through the end of next week.

So they are moving forward.  But I think what we did see is that what happened over the night was the opposition realized they just weren’t ready, they weren’t ready for that 11:00 a.m. meeting today, and they didn’t let Brahimi know until the morning.

And so Brahimi then had to say, all right, I will meet with the government at 11:00, and I will meet with the opposition at 4:00.  And, in that time, they had to sort of figure out, OK, who’s going to do what?  These opposition members, remember, are very new to this game.  They just formed together and agreed to come like five days ago.

And they realized they didn’t have people to handle all the different issues that are going to be discussed.  And they really needed to work through some of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, speaking of all those different issues, what is realistically on the table tomorrow?

MARGARET WARNER:  Well, Hari, tomorrow, I was just told, they are first going to go for what one Western diplomat called a quick win.  And that is to spend a couple of days arranging for humanitarian access into parts of Homs, which, as you know, has been heavily besieged.  People are really desperate there.

And the opposition had said to its American and British advisers, look, if we’re going to come to this conference and we’re going to be criticized by the more extreme elements both in our own coalition and people inside, we have got to show we can produce something quickly on the ground.

And so the Americans and the Russians have been working heavily on this already for a week to 10 days.  So they’re hopeful they can get that.  Then they will move on to setting up the transitional government authority and also at the same time talking about these other measures like releasing political prisoners, localized cease-fires, and this list that we’re familiar with.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  You said yesterday that the opposition had a little bit of momentum coming into these talks.  Is that sustained now?

MARGARET WARNER:  Well, Hari, I think they’re still feeling good about how well they did at Montreux, but today showed they’re not really ready for negotiating prime-time.

There’s just a huge experience gap here.  Walid Moallem, former — the Syrian foreign minister, former ambassador to Washington, he knows how to negotiate.  And the government gets to speak with one voice.  And this opposition is a fractious coalition that doesn’t represent but maybe 25 percent of the opposition anyway, and they’re all exiles.

So they have got a huge experience gap.  And, as one adviser said to me, you know, this is not like the Russians and Soviets sitting down to discuss arms control.  The opposition has to learn it on the fly.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So what are the pitfalls for the U.S.-backed opposition if this talks or these talks go as Brahimi is predicting?

MARGARET WARNER:  The biggest pitfall for the Western-backed opposition, Hari, I think, is that the talks become an end in itself, that the process grinds on and on, and in the meantime, the regime keeps pounding civilians from the air, and the rebel forces, the sort of more moderate and even moderate Islamist ones, are squeezed between the Syrian forces and these al-Qaida linked fighters, jihadi fighters, and so that over time, it becomes an excuse for the regime to say, hey, we’re talking, we’re part of this process.

The American government, the administration can say, of course we have a policy.  We have negotiations under way.  But, in the meantime, the rebel opposition and the civilians basically get crushed on the ground, until there is very little left to talk about.  That, I think, is the biggest pitfall.

And, apparently, the opposition has told the Western advisers, we do not want this to be another Middle East peace process.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joining us from Geneva, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER:  Thank you, Hari.