Syria puts 2nd round of peace talks on hold
After more than a week of negotiations aimed at ending Syria's civil war, the country's foreign minister announced Friday that the Syrian government won't immediately commit to returning for more talks on Feb. 10.
Foreign Minister Walid Al Moallem said President Bashar Assad will hear a report on what took place during the past week in Switzerland and make a decision along with the government on when to return for talks in Geneva with the opposition. The minister also dismissed the opposition's demand for the creation of a new governing body that could transfer power away from Assad.
The foreign minister said "the question of who leads Syria lies in the hands of the Syrian people."
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi tried to put a positive spin Friday on the first face-to-face meetings in three years between Syria's warring sides, suggesting they reconvene Feb. 10 for a fresh attempt at bridging the chasm between them.
Both sides have agreed to meet again, Brahimi told reporters at the end of the eighth consecutive day of intense and bitter negotiations in Switzerland that have produced no tangible results.
Almost 1,900 more people - including at least 430 civilians - have been killed in Syria during the talks alone, Syrian activists said, underscoring the urgency of finding a way of ending the civil war.
Brahimi described 10 areas of "common ground" between the two sides that might provide a little bit of optimism.
"Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner. This is a modest beginning on which we can build," Brahimi told reporters at the U.N.'s Palais des Nations.
"The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground - perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize," he said. "Things have gone so far down that they are not going to get out of the ditch overnight."
The weeklong negotiations had been strained over issues such as the opposition's demand for - and the government's resistance to - a transfer of power in Syria. The talks have so far failed to achieve any concrete results, including the passage of humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs.
The fact that the negotiations - aimed at ending the three-year civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people - continued for the entire week was seen by many as an encouraging start. But the two sides continue to blame each other for the violence in Syria and remain deeply divided over how to end the war and if Syria's future government should include President Bashar Assad.
On Thursday, Syrian negotiators observed a minute of silence to honor the tens of thousands of people who have died in a rare moment of unity.
The opposition is demanding a transitional governing body with full executive powers and wants Assad to step down. The government delegation says that's a nonstarter and has insisted that the talks focus first on ending the violence.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi insisted Friday that a transitional governing body is the only way forward.
"The regime clearly doesn't want a political solution, doesn't want to move a step forward to end the Syrian suffering," Safi said. "We will not be sitting here endlessly. There will come a point when it will be clear if the regime is willing to talk seriously about transferring power or not."
Brahimi also repeatedly said prior to the talks that they should not be open-ended.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmer called the talks in Geneva a small step.
"Of course we are not satisfied with the results achieved so far," he said, adding that the next step should be an agreement on local cease-fires and humanitarian corridors.
About 200 pro-government demonstrators gathered Friday outside the U.N. building in Geneva to show their support for Assad.
"We are with the peace negotiations. Syria needs peace," said protester Sabah Kasouha, who used to live in Homs. "When all the countries stop funding the rebels who came from many countries to destroy Syria, then we will be fine."
Assad's family, from Syria's Alawite minority, has ruled the country since 1970 while rebellions by Syria's Sunni majority were crushed.
The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful calls for reform in March 2011 and escalated into fighting after a military crackdown. It has since been transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting opposing sides.
Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have infiltrated the opposition side, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion against Assad.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.