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Failure to agree agenda 'very bad omen' for Syria talks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The failure of Syria's warring sides to even agree to an agenda for ongoing peace talks in Geneva does not bode well for the process, a Western diplomat cautioned Thursday.

"We expected that the talks would be difficult. We didn't expect that (the parties) would be unable to compromise on an agenda, and that frankly is not good. That's a very bad omen for the process," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.

The comment came ahead of what was expected to be the last day of a second round of talks that has achieved little more than blame-trading between Syria's foes for the violence ravaging their country and an endless restating of positions.

The opposition National Coalition maintains that the only way forward is to create a transitional government that can guide Syria towards peace, without President Basher al-Assad.

The regime however says Assad's future is not up for discussion and insists the top priority of the talks must be halting the violence and "terrorism", which it blames squarely on its opponents and their foreign backers.

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has attempted to find a middle ground, suggesting that the parties discuss the two issues in parallel.

But the regime delegation has so far refused, insisting it would be catastrophic to touch on politics before completely resolving the "terrorism" issue.

"There is no hint of flexibility on the Syrian government position," the diplomat said.

Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, a key ally of Syria, initiated the talks, which first began on January 22.

The talks have so far done nothing to end the nearly three-year civil war that has claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

Brahimi met with high-level US and Russian diplomats in Geneva Thursday in a bid to kick-start the stagnant process.

According to the diplomatic source, the veteran peacemaker was very blunt about the fact that the regime's total refusal to agree to discuss anything beyond terrorism was the main roadblock.

The Russian side had reiterated its dedication to the so-called Geneva II process but had not said it would prod Damascus to budge on the agenda, the source said.

If it does not, "the process will be stillborn," the diplomat warned, stressing that without "an agreement on an agenda, I don't know how Brahimi will uphold a round three."

Brahimi himself has said he has "tonnes of patience" and that he would "certainly not leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward."

But the diplomat cautioned that: "I would not assume he will stay indefinitely," pointing out that the Algerian peacemaker might have "concerns about his own credibility" if he allows the process to continue turning like a broken record with no progress in sight.

If the parties are unable to announce Friday that they have agreed upon an agenda, "the prospects look much dimmer than they did a week ago... It is very grim," the diplomat said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140213/failure-agree-agenda-very-bad-omen-syria-talks