Bending to intense international pressure, Syria's government and the Western-backed opposition agreed Friday to face each other for the first time since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
After three days of hostile rhetoric and five hours spent assiduously avoiding contact within the United Nations, the two sides will meet "in the same room," said the U.N. mediator trying to forge an end to the civil war that has left 130,000 people dead since 2011.
Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met separately with Assad's delegation and representatives with the Syrian National Coalition, who arrived at the U.N. European headquarters five hours apart to ensure their paths would not cross.
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"We never expected it to be easy and I'm sure it's not going to be, but I think the two parties understand what's at stake," Brahimi said. "Their country is in very, very bad shape."
Brahimi, a famously patient mediator, is credited with efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. ousted their governments. But he faces a formidable task to build peace in Syria, which has been flooded with al-Qaida-inspired militants. The conflict has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Syria's government has made military gains and has capitalized on the influx of foreign militants, while the coalition nearly collapsed as it wavered on whether to attend the talks at all. After Brahimi spoke, a member of the group said it still wasn't clear what would happen Saturday.
"Everybody will be in the same room, but everybody will address Mr. Brahimi. He will be the one who is going to conduct the negotiations," said Louay Safi, who is taking part in the talks. "We will be addressing him. There will be no direct negotiation with the regime."
'We will not retreat'
The coalition, which has the support of the U.S. and other Western powers, is largely made up of exiles and lacks any real influence on the opposition now riven by infighting among factions ranging from moderates to hard-line Islamic groups. Nearly 1,400 fighters have been killed in the last three weeks as the rebel groups grapple for dominance, according to activists.
Omran al-Zoubi, Syria's information minister, said Assad's delegation was committed.
'It's the beginning of the talks, and each side wants to place the bar very high.' - Hasni Abidi, director of the Arab and Mediterranean Studies Center
"We will stay here until we do the job. We will not be provoked. We will not retreat and we will be wise and flexible," he said.
Underscoring the foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Assad around the area of eastern Ghouta, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Among those arrayed against them were extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a hard-line group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
Syria's economy, once among the region's strongest, has been ruined. A quarter of its population has fled to camps in neighboring countries or within Syria. The front lines have been largely frozen for months, although Assad's forces — more cohesive than the rebellion and supported by Russia as well as Iran — have recently made inroads into territory captured by the opposition.
Russia and the United States, which have backed opposite sides in the fight, have raised the pressure for the peace conference, seeing it as the only hope to end a civil war that has destabilized the region and threatens to turn into a long stalemate.
The talks, first conceived in 2012, were repeatedly postponed by the government and the coalition as both jockeyed for advantage. The opposition confirmed it would attend only on Monday — less than 48 hours before the peace conference began — after the U.N. secretary-general rescinded his last-minute invitation to Iran.
Lina Khatib, Middle East director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said both sides had a lot to gain by staying, and predicted the talks would at least lead to some sort of limited deal.
"Gaining legitimacy is a primary motive for both sides," she said. "Ultimately this is an opportunity that is too important for them to lose by withdrawing."
'We are bombed and nobody cares'
Pressure from the U.S. and Russia played a crucial role, as their positions converged, Khatib said.
"It's become very clear that a military solution to the conflict in Syria is not possible," she said.
At the heart of the talks is Assad's future. The U.S. and opposition want him out, saying a leader who unleashed his military on a peaceful protest had forfeited legitimacy. But Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970, has insisted he's going nowhere.
Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Arab and Mediterranean Studies Center, said the talks have gotten off to a predictably rocky start but represent a strategic opportunity for both the government and the opposition.
"It's the beginning of the talks, and each side wants to place the bar very high," he said.
"For the Syrian regime, it is a chance to gain time," he said, while for the opposition, it is a chance for a political solution knowing that the West is not going to intervene militarily.
Protesters in several Syrian towns demonstrated against the peace talks, saying Assad had shown by years of military strikes against his people that he favors violence over negotiations.
"We are bombed and nobody cares," said one demonstrator in the town of Sabqa.
"The Assad regime doesn't understand the language of dialogue. We will remove this criminal regime by force," according to one sign held by protesters.
The two sides' willingness to meet with Brahimi — even separately — gave some hope the negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides may bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires.