GENEVA — Bitter divisions among Syrian negotiators over the question of transferring power remained front and center Thursday as the Geneva peace talks neared the end of a critical first phase guided by U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who sought to break the ice and keep them talking.
Government and opposition representatives swapped accusations before the TV cameras and inside the closed room in Geneva where the rival delegations were discussing responsibility for violence while seeking a way to end a three-year conflict that has claimed more than 130,000 lives and driven millions more from their homes.
But the day's talks ended by early afternoon, and there was no progress reported by either side before one more day of discussions planned for Friday.
Louay Safi, a spokesman for the opposition's negotiating team, said the two sides talked mainly about the violence, and his delegation presented evidence about "the massacres committed by the regime throughout the region." He told a horde of journalists outside the U.N.'s sprawling Palais des Nations that the only way to stop the violence is to form a transitional governing body for the war-torn country.
But he complained that the government's interpretation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, a transitional roadmap agreed on by world powers at the first round of Syrian peace talks, would "leave the formation of the governing body to the end."
"We believe this is the wrong sequence. This is putting the cart before the horse," he said. "The horse is the transitional governing body. This is the body that will provide the mechanism to implement all the points of Geneva."
The government's focus at the day's talks was on combatting terrorists, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mikdad said, and "it's very clear they committed a lot of massacres."
"Their rejection of discussing the issue of terrorism and finalizing or coming out with a statement is a scandalous one," he said. "They are not careful about what's happening to Syria. They support all terrorist organizations. They claim to be fighting terrorism while they are conniving with terrorism to kill the Syrian people."
What began as a peaceful uprising for freedom and rights in March 2011 deepened the country's sectarian divide and morphed into a full-blown civil war, making it a difficult proposition to form a transitional government. President Bashar Assad's family, from Syria's Alawite minority, has ruled the country since 1970, but other religious minorities have been pulled into its political orbit while rebellions by members of the Sunni majority were crushed.
Another complication of today's civil war is that the opposition delegation doesn't control all the armed groups inside Syria, including al-Qaida-backed militants who don't feel bound by agreements reached in Geneva. These groups have increasingly gained control of Syria's uprising as it evolved into an insurgency.
Assad's adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, also said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday the government rejects the opposition's call for a transitional governing body and that a presidential election scheduled for later this year may not take place amid the raging violence.
Brahimi has announced that the first phase of the talks will end Friday, as scheduled, and probably be followed by a weeklong break, but he is satisfied that the two sides are at the least "still talking."