Official: Aid convoy to Homs expected to be topic of first face-to-face Syrian talks


McClatchy Foreign Staff

A face-to-face meeting between negotiators for the Syrian government and the opposition was postponed Friday at the request of the opposition, but despite threats by both sides to withdraw the U.N. official mediating the talks said he is certain they will take place Saturday,

U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had every expectation that both sides would appear on Saturday and sit down in the same room. The veteran Algerian negotiator said separate talks with the two sides Friday “were encouraging,” and he hoped that Saturday’s encounter “will be a good beginning.”

The sides will be led by negotiators of vastly different diplomatic experience. At the head of the Syrian government’s delegation will be that country’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem.

The opposition said its team would be led by a U.S.-trained industrial engineer, Hadi al Bahra, who, it appeared from his official biography, last lived in Syria more than 30 years ago.

A senior Western diplomat, who spoke anonymously under the terms of a briefing to reporters, said one of the first orders of business will be to persuade the Syrian government, with the support of the opposition, to allow an aid convoy into the old city of Homs, which has been under government siege for more than a year. Humanitarian aid officials say that as many as 3,000 people are still living in the old city, which has not received outside supplies since late 2012.

With the opposition asking for a delay in Friday’s scheduled face-to-face talks, Moallem warned Brahimi that “if serious work sessions didn’t start tomorrow, Syria’s official delegation would leave because the other side is not serious or ready,” according to the official Syrian news agency SANA.

Later, his deputy withdrew the threat. “Syria’s official delegation will remain in Geneva and will exert every possible effort, whether through the U.N. or through the Russian friends, to start work as soon as possible,” said Fayssal Mikdad.

The Syrian opposition said its request for a delay was necessary because it needed more time to organize its position. But the opposition had also threatened to boycott direct talks with the Syrian government delegation unless the government made a “written commitment” that it had accepted the talks’ “action plan,” which calls for the establishment of a transitional government to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Brahimi dismissed the need for such a document, telling reporters the Syrian government had accepted the terms of discussion first set out in a communique drafted by Russia and the United States in June 2012. “It’s very clear to both sides that the meat for this conference is how to implement the positions in the Geneva communique,” he said.

The opposition’s plea for time to organize its positions was no surprise. It agreed to attend the talks only a week ago after a major internal debate that saw 40 percent of its members walk out.

What did come as a surprise was Bahra’s appointment to head the negotiating team. Bahra received his bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University in Kansas. He maintained an apartment in Wichita until 1996, records show. Other accounts said he had worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s.

The biography distributed by the opposition indicates he has no political experience and no diplomatic background. His skills, according to the biography, are “in communications systems and display technology, and in all aspects of media production, and the organization of conferences, and display systems and translation.”

More recently, he “contributed to the media activity and relief and political revolution,” it said.

The talks are expected to run through Jan. 31, then break for at least a week.

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