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Syria peace talks bring Bashar Assad regime and opposition face-to-face again, but they remain miles apart

GENEVA -- The warring sides in Syria’s civil war met face-to-face again Tuesday, a day after the second round of peace talks in Geneva got off to a rocky start.

United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, leading the talks in Switzerland, managed to coax delegates from the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-backed opposition into the same room again, but prospects for finding any common ground between the two sides remained slim.

In spite of their differences, both sides observed a minute of silence at the beginning of Tuesday’s talks in honor of those killed in the conflict.  

Despite a negotiated deal allowed for the evacuation of more than 600 people from the besieged city of Homs on Monday, the two sides spent the day casting blame at each other -- indirectly, via Brahimi -- for the still-escalating violence in the war-torn nation, and neither side seemed ready to budge on their positions.

The opposition warned that it would not return for a third round if no progress was made.

“If there is no progress at all, I think it would be a waste of time to think about a third round,” opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters Monday.

Following the meeting the veteran Algerian peace negotiator was asked whether the time had come for him to impose upon the two sides his own agenda to get the talks moving. 

U.N. mediator for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi
U.N. mediator for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi gestures during a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 27, 2014. AP
 “I am not sure I can impose an agenda to people who don’t want (it),” he replied. “Do I put a gun to their heads?”Brahimi met separately with the government and opposition teams on Monday in the hopes that keeping them apart might help achieve more than could be garnered during a virtually fruitless first round in January.

Merely getting the parties back around the same table could be taken as a step in the right direction, but there was still no indication on Tuesday that these talks, expected to wrap up Friday, can make any progress towards ending the bloodshed which has already claimed more than 130,000 lives.

“We welcome the fact that both Syrian delegations met in the same room today in Geneva,” said the U.S. State Department in a written statement.

The U.S. government said it was necessary to focus on the framework laid out by international powers in 2012, known as the Geneva Communique, which calls for a transitional government to take control in Syria. Both sides in the talks say they’re willing to implement the plan, but they disagree completely on whether Assad himself, or members of his regime, should play any role in that transitional government.

“We reiterate our position that the regime must stop evading a serious and constructive discussion on the full implementation of the Geneva Communique, including the establishment of a transitional governing body. That is what the UN Secretary General’s invitation stated and that is the purpose of these talks,” read the statement from the State Department. “The opposition delegation in Geneva is prepared to engage constructively on the transitional governing body and a range of other issues as outlined in the communique. The regime must do the same.”

The United Nations announced later Tuesday that Brahimi would meet Friday with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, in what analysts in Geneva see as a bid to inject some new momentum into the process.

While the opposition insists the aim of the talks is to agree on a transitional governing body to replace Assad, the government's delegation wants to focus on halting "terrorists," the term it routinely uses to describe the rebels fighting to topple him.

The talks come on the heels of a rebel attack in the Alawite village of Maan, which the Syrian government has called a "massacre," and will which it will likely use to bolster its claim that anti-government rebels are heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda-minded Sunni extremist groups.