Syria rivals wage media war in Geneva

Talks between government and opposition were on brink of collapse on Friday as both sides escalated their rhetoric.

The first round of face-to-face negotiations between representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition did not go ahead as planned on Friday, but a fierce media war did.

From early morning, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, three of the government’s delegates toured the large courtyard where the cameras and correspondents of all international news channels were positioned in biting cold.

Reporters gathered around Omran al-Zoubi, Syria’s information minister Faisal al-Moqdad, the deputy foreign minister and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, all of whom blamed the opposition for the stalling of the so-called Geneva II talks and reiterated that their president, Bashar al-Assad, will stay in power.

The government officials took turns in showing up at the courtyard.

Every time one of them came out, tens of journalists would come running and tag along on the walk around the courtyard, only for the next official in line to show up and the same circus to be repeated.

Moqdad, who speaks English fluently, strolled around the garden twice and answered questions from almost every foreign journalist out there.

Excessive media exposure

It was a rare, excessive media exposure for Syrian government officials, who do not usually make media appearances.

The delegation’s leader, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, did not make a public appearance but gave “media sources” the most fiery comment of the day: He would leave the talks unless “serious” talks began immediately.

Almost four hours later, the opposition began their own media parade in the same garden.

Louay Safi, a spokesperson for the opposition Syrian National Council, said they would not go into direct talks with the government until the latter confirmed in writing that it accepted the terms of the 2012 Geneva communique, which calls for a fully empowered transitional governing body to be formed by “mutual consent”.

At that point, a lot of journalists believed that the talks were on the verge of collapse even before they started.

Ambiguity was looming for hours as to what could happen next.

Some media staff began discussing changing their travel dates.

Even before Friday’s drama, foreign journalists had made guesses as to when they should leave Geneva.

No clear time-frame

The talks in Switzerland have no clear time-frame. Some reporters came believing they were covering a three-day conference, while others said the talks could last for weeks, if not months.

By Friday evening, the mediator of the talks, Lakhdar Brahimi, held a press conference to clarify the situation.

Nothing else seemed to matter to journalists except whether these talks would take place or not.

“Both parties will be here tomorrow. Nobody is leaving on Saturday, nobody will be leaving on Sunday,” Brahimi said.

“I think we are alright.”

And with that, journalists geared up for a new day – hopefully a first day of talks.

Follow Basma on twitter: @Basma_

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