GENEVA -- The first face to face
meeting between Syria's government and the opposition hoping to overthrow
Bashar Assad started and ended after barely a half-hour Saturday, with the two
sides facing each other silently as a U.N. mediator split the distance between
them and laid groundwork for talks
intended to lead Syria out of civil war.
For many, the very fact that the meeting took place was
an achievement in itself, CBS News' George
Baghdadi reports. The talks could
last weeks if not months, with this first round likely to stretch into next
The talks, which launched in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday and moved to Geneva on Friday, have
already flirted with collapse at every turn. Dangerous maneuverings in the
run-up to the conference have threatened breakdowns even before diplomats
arrived on Swiss soil, Baghdadi reports.
On Saturday, after tense days spent
avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad's
handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition
gathered briefly at a single U-shaped table, then emerged and went separate
ways, using different doors to avert contact.
Only the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi,
spoke, according to Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition's
"It was not easy for us to sit
with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus but we did it for
the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children," he
said. He said everyone remained calm.
The two sides were distant going into
the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise
of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing
less than Assad's departure. Diplomats have said even getting them to the same
table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that
has killed 130,000 people.
"Today we shall start with modest
ideas and we will build on them to achieve something and we move gradually to
bigger and bigger issues," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad
said going into the meeting.
Al-Abdeh said the antagonists would
face each other again later Saturday but would only address Brahimi, not each
First on the agenda was a cease-fire
in the city of Homs. Syria's third-largest city, Homs became a major center of
resistance and reprisal early on in the uprising. Neighborhoods in the old city
have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control
from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents
have since fled.
Asked about accusations that the
coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground,
al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs - where only a few parts of the Old City remain
in rebel hands - had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.
Syria's civil war started in 2011 with
largely peaceful protests against Assad, who unleashed the military against
demonstrators. A quarter of the country's population has been displaced, taking
refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria.
Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war
between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the United States have
taken opposite sides in the war, with Russia selling Assad with military
hardware and using its influence on the Security Council. The United States has
hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaeda
inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.