1,900 killed in Syria while Geneva talks remain deadlocked

UN mediator says there has been no progress to speak of at talks, with each side blaming the other for impasse

Nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria since the Geneva talks between the government and the opposition began just over a week ago, it was reported on Friday, as the UN mediator admitted there had been “no progress to speak of” so far.

The casualty figures were published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition group. It said at least 498 of the dead were civilians, 850 were fighters from mainstream or extremist rebel groups and 515 were on the government side. An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict erupted nearly three years ago.

Each side blamed the other for the impasse at the end of the first round of Geneva negotiations, with both insisting they would not shift position.

Walid al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, complained of the “immaturity” of the other party in demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, and attacked the US for arming the rebels. He sneered at the opposition as “those who stay in five-star hotels abroad”, implying they were out of touch with events on the ground, especially where al-Qaida was fighting.

The information minister, Omran al-Zohbi, told pro-regime demonstrators outside the Palais des Nations, the UN’s European headquarters: “Neither in this round, nor in the next will they obtain any concessions from the Syrian delegation.”

Talks are to scheduled to resume in Geneva on 10 February. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator, said the opposition had agreed to attend. Muallem said he was awaiting instructions from Damascus.

Brahimi, a veteran of decades of international mediation efforts, said the talks – with the parties speaking through him – had been “a modest beginning, but a beginning on which we can build”.

But he added: “We haven’t made any progress to speak of. There was immense hope when this conference started. I understand that people are starting to feel disappointed, but things have gone so far down [in Syria] that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight. As far as the UN is concerned we will spare no effort to make it happen. But the Syrian parties, those who have guns, have also got to take care of their people.”

Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition coalition (SOC), accused the government of lying about the talks. “We felt like we were drinking from a poisoned chalice while the criminal was killing our women, children, young men and women, and elderly,” he said. “The only consolation that we had was that the regime which had been oppressing us for more than 50 years had arrived in Geneva to dig its own grave with its own hands.”

The hardest part of the talks was always going to be about Syria’s future political arrangements. The goal laid down by the internationally backed Geneva I communique in June 2012 is to create a transitional governing body. That is supposed to happen by mutual consent. Since Assad insists he will not step down and the opposition is adamant he must go, it is still unclear how that circle can be squared by the Geneva II process.

Louay Safi, the SOC spokesman, said: “The regime has used all kinds of weapons against the Syrian people, escalated the level of attacks when they started to defend themselves, and so we believe the only way to stop violence is to have a transition.”

Safi claimed the regime was now ready to negotiate within the Geneva II framework. “When we come back we are going to talk about details of the transition from dictatorship to democracy,” he said.

Brahimi said he would be meeting John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in Munich on Friday night, having appealed to those who have influence with the warring parties to use it positively.

Hopes for confidence-building measures to create a positive atmosphere in Geneva were dashed after a prematurely described “breakthrough” deal to allow women and children to leave the besieged rebel-held city of Homs failed to materialise. Nor was a convoy of aid trucks allowed to enter the area, prompting accusations that Assad’s forces were trying to “starve out” a 3,000-strong rebel enclave. Rebel mistrust, based on bitter experience, was fuelled by a government demand for lists of men in the area.

Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, said: “The combined failure of political will in Geneva will only have tragic consequences for the children of Syria. During the next 10 days, after which the talks are scheduled to resume, up to 2,000 people will die inside Syria with more than 40,000 fleeing the country.

“The UN security council must act without delay and unite behind a resolution demanding full and unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Syria. Aid must be allowed to cross conflict lines, enter besieged areas during humanitarian pauses, and cross borders where this is the most efficient route. Syria’s children cannot wait any longer.”

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