GENEVA — The first direct talks between Syria's government and the opposition will go ahead with a limited agenda today, diplomats said, after an international conference this week exposed the depth of bitterness between the warring factions.
Negotiations, expected to last months, will get off to a slow start, with the initial focus on the thorny issue of what they are supposed to be about. In the absence of agreement even on that, the prospect of a timely resolution seems remote.
The opposition insists there can be no serious negotiations until the government accepts the terms of the 2012 Geneva 1 communique, which states that the purpose of the talks is to negotiate a transitional government to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In a vitriolic speech to the conference in Montreux, Switzerland, on Wednesday that illustrated the deep divide, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem stressed that the government regards the negotiations above all as an opportunity to discuss counterterrorism and rejects an end to Assad's rule.
He questioned both the point of the talks and the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles and lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion.
Rebel infighting has grown so deadly — nearly 1,400 killed in 20 days — that the head of al-Qaida called on Islamic militants to stand down, playing directly into Assad's argument that only his government is preventing Syria's further descent into chaos.
For much of Thursday, it was unclear whether the two sides would agree to meet in the same room today, calling into question the viability of long-awaited talks. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi shuttled between the two sides in a bid to find enough common ground for talks to go ahead.
As a result, diplomats said, Brahimi will present the two sides with suggestions for subjects to talk about. They will go to separate rooms to discuss options.