GENEVA — Syria’s government handed an ultimatum to a U.N. mediator hoping to broker peace in the country’s civil war, vowing to leave if “serious talks” do not begin by Saturday.
The government delegation that traveled to Geneva met for less than 90 minutes Friday with U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi as part of a peace conference that has been on the verge of falling apart ever since it was conceived.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Brahimi that if “serious talks don’t begin Saturday, the official Syrian delegation will have to leave because the other party is not serious or ready,” according to Syrian state television.
Direct talks planned for Friday between the Syrian government and the Western-backed Syrian opposition were scrapped, and the opposition was to meet separately with Brahimi later.
The Syrian government blamed the opposition Syrian National Coalition for the lack of direct negotiations, which were seen as the best hope for an eventual end to the three-year civil war that has killed at least 130,000 people.
The bloodshed has destabilized the entire region and turned Syria into a magnet for al-Qaida-inspired militants.
As the peace conference faltered, fighting raged throughout parts of Syria. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists. Fighting also raged in towns around the capital Damascus, activists reported.
Underscoring the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad around the area of eastern Ghuta, the British-based Syrian Observatory said. The rebels clashing against them included extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a hardline group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
In Switzerland, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad who traveled to Geneva for the talks, questioned whether the opposition coalition — made up largely of exiles based in Turkey — was prepared to negotiate an end to the violence.
“We came here with Syria and the Syrian people on our mind, only while they came here with positions and posts on their mind,” she said.
The coalition’s head, Ahmad al-Jarba, said late Thursday that he was committed to the talks and would give his negotiators full authority on their pace and scope. But on Friday, his chief of staff said the negotiations were never expected to be easy or quick, insisting that the coalition was simply not yet prepared to meet directly with the government.
“Everyone knows that these are proximity negotiations,” said the aide, Monzer Akbik. “And for the time being, that’s the way it is going to be.”
Both sides have spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting. They blamed each other for turning a once-thriving country into ruin and called each other terrorists.
But their willingness to meet with Brahimi — even separately — gave the first sense that the negotiations might bear some fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides had shown willingness to bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires — even if the terms were still murky.
The Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles, lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion, which has been pulled apart by an influx of militants. Infighting among rebels has left 1,400 people dead in the past 20 days, according to activists, who have counted more than 130,000 deaths since the rebellion began in 2011.