Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator for Syria peace talks, has said that humanitarian aid to the city of Homs has been discussed in talks with the country’s warring sides and that prisoners would be on Sunday’s agenda.
The talks in the Swiss city of Geneva on Saturday avoided the main issue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future, with both sides appearing to soften their approach after days of escalating rhetoric.
“This afternoon we started to speak about humanitarian affairs and we discussed at length the situation in Homs and the old city of Homs,” Brahimi said after meeting delegations from the Syrian regime and the opposition National Coalition.
“We hope that ultimately some convoy of aid, goods, both food and non-food items and some medical supplies, will be allowed to go into the old city,” Brahimi said.
He said he hoped this could happen as early as Sunday or Monday.
There is widespread concern about the humanitarian situation in the central city of Homs, where hundreds of families are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
“The situation is very difficult and very, very complicated, and we are moving not in steps, but half-steps.”
“Tomorrow morning we will discuss the issue of prisoners, people that have been kidnapped, and see if something can be done to secure the freedom of those – not all – but at least some of the people,” Brahimi said.
Saturday saw the two sides sit down in the same room for the first time, with talks from both delegations directed to Brahimi instead of two each other.
“We haven’t achieved much but we are continuing,” Brahimi said, adding that he considered Saturday a “good beginning”.
The opposition said that the talks on getting aid to Homs are a “trial balloon” before moving to the core of peace talks for the war-ravaged country.
“Homs is like a trial balloon,” said Louay Safi, spokesman of the SNC and a member of the delegation negotiating with the regime. He described the talks as “consultations – it’s not negotiations”.
The peace conference intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago.
Despite the stumbling blocks, direct negotiations are seen by many diplomats as the best hope for an eventual end to the war.
The opposition, which agreed to the peace talks only under intense diplomatic pressure, had been reluctant to sit face-to-face with a government it insists must yield power.
But the government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism – the word it uses for its enemies – and that no one can force Assad to go.
Meanwhile, Syria’s air force struck rebel-held areas around Damascus and Aleppo, as face-to-face peace talks tentatively began.