GENEVA // Representatives of Syria’s government and the western-backed opposition will face each other “in the same room” on Saturday for the first time ever, the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said.
Mr Brahimi met the two groups separately for two days, trying to broker peace – or at least a measure of common ground – in a civil war that has left at least 130,000 people dead.
“We are going to meet tomorrow. I hope that it will be a good beginning, and that we will continue until the end of next week,” he said.
The announcement came after Syria’s government vowed to leave Switzerland if “serious talks” did not begin by Saturday. The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which agreed to the peace talks only under intense diplomatic pressure, had been reluctant to sit face-to-face with the government it insists must yield power.
Direct talks planned for Friday between the Syrian government and the SNC had been scrapped, and Mr Brahimi met both delegations separately.
An opposition delegate confirmed their first direct meeting would be held on Saturday.
“We are satisfied with Mr Brahimi’s statement today and that the regime has accepted Geneva 1,” said Anas Al Abdah, referring to a communique by world powers in 2012 calling for a transitional government in Syria. “And on this basis we will meet the Assad delegation tomorrow morning.
“It will be a short session in which only Brahimi will speak, to be followed by another session, a longer session in the afternoon.”
The Geneva peace conference aims to stem the violence that has forced millions to flee, destabilised the region and turned Syria into a rallying cry for Al Qaeda-inspired militants.
Direct negotiations are seen by many diplomats as the best hope for an eventual end to Syria’s civil war. Both sides had spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting, calling each other terrorists and blaming each other for driving a once-thriving country into ruin.
As the peace talks wobbled, fighting raged on Friday in parts of Syria, including near Damascus, the capital. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists.
Protesters in several Syrian towns demonstrated against the Geneva peace talks, saying Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had shown with years of military strikes against his people that he favoured violence over negotiations.
“We are bombed and nobody cares,” sang one demonstrator in the town of Sabqa. “The Assad regime doesn’t understand the language of dialogue. We will remove this criminal regime by force,” read one sign.
Demonstrators in the northern town of Darayan held up another English-language sign reading, “Time is blood” – an indication that some felt Mr Al Assad may be playing for time with the peace talks.
But the two sides’ willingness to meet with Mr Brahimi – even separately – gave some hope that negotiations might bear fruit. Mr Brahimi himself has said both sides may bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires.
The SNC, which is made up largely of exiles, lacks influence with an increasingly radicalised rebellion, which has been pulled apart by an influx of militants. Infighting among rebels has left 1,400 people dead in the past 20 days, according to activists.
Underscoring the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Mr Al Assad around the area of eastern Ghouta, the British-based Syrian Observatory said Friday.
The rebels fighting them included extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq group and the Levant, a hardline group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters