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U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to forge an end to the Syrian civil war — or at least help find a measure of common ground to stem a long and bloody conflict that has left 130,000 people dead.

Photos by ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS • Associated Press,

Louay Safi, center, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, is surrounded by journalists as he arrives to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was meeting first with a government delegation and later Friday with representatives from the Syrian National Coalition, said U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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A citizen photo taken Thursday and provided by Aleppo Media Center, an activist group opposed to President Bashar Assad’s government, showed Syrian residents and rescue workers checking the rubble of houses reportedly destroyed by a Syrian airstrike in the city of Aleppo.

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Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem, above, arrived Friday for the start of tense talks in Geneva as Louay Safi, at left, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main political opposition group, answered questions in a crush of journalists as he arrived the United Nations.

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130,000

people have been killed in 3 years of civil war.

8.8 million

have been displaced; 2.3 million Syrians have official refugee status, and 6.5 million are displaced within Syria.

8.6%

Projected fall of GDP in 2014 — on top of contractions of 21.8 percent in 2012 and 22.5 percent in 2013.

212%

increase in prices from 2011 to mid-2013, possibly far higher in unstable areas.

310,000

fewer barrels of oil produced a day since 2012, when production was 370,000 barrels a day. Last month, it was 60,000 barrels a day.

100,000

rebel fighters, from moderates to hard line Al-Qaida-linked insurgents, are scattered throughout Syria.

40%

public hospitals out of service because of the fighting

Syria talks pulled back from the brink

  • Article by: Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 24, 2014 - 11:46 PM

– Bending to intense international pressure, Syria’s government and the Western-backed opposition averted a collapse in negotiations after agreeing Friday to face each other for the first time since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

After three days of hostile rhetoric and five hours spent assiduously avoiding contact within the United Nations — and a threat that the Syrian government would withdraw, the two sides will meet “in the same room,” said the chief U.N. mediator trying to forge an end to the civil war that has raged since 2011.

“We are going to meet tomorrow,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria. “I hope that it will be a good beginning, and that we will continue until the end of next week. Nobody will be leaving on Saturday, and nobody will be leaving on Sunday.”

Brahimi confirmed that Saturday’s meeting between the two warring sides would be face to face. The sensitive architecture of the talks emerged as a key point of contention Friday, after plans for direct talks that day were scrapped.

The conference has been billed as the first time that the sides will sit down together after almost three years of war have left tens of thousands dead, sown instability throughout the Middle East and turned parts of Syria into breeding grounds for Al-Qaida-linked militants.

‘Of course we are ready’

The expectation had been that the two sides would meet Friday, the first day of talks after opening speeches Wednesday in Montreux. But the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition balked at sitting down with its adversary unless the government of President Bashar Assad explicitly endorsed a plan to yield power to a transitional government, a stated goal of the talks. The opposition bloc is demanding that Assad step down, a condition rejected by the Syrian president.

The government, meanwhile, threatened to walk out if serious negotiations did not get underway by Saturday. Damascus also said it would not agree to what it called “preconditions” for talks. Assad’s future is not up for discussion, the government said.

“The problem is that these people do not want to make peace, they are coming here with preconditions,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said. “Of course we are ready to sit in the same room. Why are we coming here then?”

On Friday, Brahimi met separately with representatives of Assad’s government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition. At day’s end, Brahimi called the talks encouraging, but added that discussion of specific issues had yet to take place. “We knew that it was going to be difficult, complicated,” he said. “We never expected this to be easy.”

Setting an agenda

Diplomats say the likelihood of a major breakthrough at the talks is remote, given the deep differences and profound animosity between the two sides. But officials hope for some kind of progress, including possible agreements on localized truces, prisoner exchanges and improved access for humanitarian aid.

The U.N.-backed talks were initiated by the United States and Russia in a bid to find a political solution to the conflict. Washington backs opposition demands that Assad cede power, whereas Russia remains a major supporter of Assad’s government.

On Saturday morning, government and opposition delegates are to meet to discuss an agenda, sitting at tables facing one another but addressing their remarks to Brahimi, said the Western diplomat. When they move to substantial issues, they may withdraw to separate rooms, with Brahimi shuttling back and forth in what are known as proximity talks, the diplomat added.

The two sides agreed to the meeting “under Russian and American pressure,” said a member of the opposition. He said they had also agreed to stay “at least a week” and to “get right to the point,” with the first order of business being an attempt to organize a cease-fire.

On the ground, Syrians on both sides are weary and suffering from a war that has killed more than 130,000 people and driven millions from their homes. But on the political stage, it has taken an extraordinary amount of arm-twisting to produce even tenuous steps toward negotiations.

Outside the U.N. building, Marie-Therese Kiriaky, a Syrian who lives in Germany, held a sign calling for peace. “We are the people whose voices are never heard,” she said. “Enough is enough. This is the biggest massacre in this century, and it is a shame on humanity that the world doesn’t react.”

The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.







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