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Opposing sides in Syria conflict share moment of silence

Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

GENEVA – Opposing sides in Syria's civil war stood together in silence to honor victims of the three year conflict on Thursday, but week-old peace talks were still stuck on the question of how to proceed with just one day left before they head home. 

The United States said on Thursday it was concerned that Syria was falling behind in a schedule to ship out its chemical weapons stockpiles to be destroyed. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Syria had given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss a deadline next week to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction.

The first talks between President Bashar al-Assad's government and his foes have been mired in rhetoric since they began a week ago in Geneva.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Wednesday he does not expect to achieve anything substantive in the first round which ends on Friday, but hopes for more progress in a second round, which diplomats expect to begin around Feb 10.

The sides took a first tentative step forward on Wednesday by agreeing to use a 2012 document for discussions, but it was clear on Thursday, the first day of talks under the agreed road map, that they still disagree about how to proceed.

They began with a rare symbol of harmony: opposition delegate Ahmad Jakal said his delegation's head, Hadi al-Bahra, proposed the minute of silence and all sides stood up, including Assad's delegation and Brahimi's team.

"All stood up for the souls of the martyrs. Symbolically it was good," Jakal told Reuters.

Martial Trezzini / EPA

UN-Arab League Special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, speaks during a press conference after a round of negotiations at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 30.

But the sides quickly shifted back to their disputes. The government delegation accused the opposition of supporting terrorism for refusing to sign up to a resolution opposing it.

"We presented a proposal that the two sides might agree on the importance of combating violence and terrorism. The other side rejected it because they are involved in the issue of terrorism," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said.

Damascus uses the word "terrorist" to describe all rebel fighters; Western countries have declared some Islamist groups among the rebels, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to be terrorists but consider others to be legitimate fighters in the civil war.

Opposition delegates said the declaration proposed by Damascus ignored foreign fighters from Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah supporting the Assad government.

"The regime today provided a one-sided communiqué. It wants to confuse ISIL with the people of Syria who took up arms and defended their families," opposition spokesman Louay al-Safi said.
The 2012 agenda, known as Geneva 1, sets out stages to end the conflict, including a halt to fighting, delivery of aid and agreement on setting up a transitional government body. 

While the opposition wants to start by addressing the question of the transitional governing body - which they believe would require Assad to give up power - the government says the first step is to discuss terrorism.

Safi accused Syrian government forces of dropping "barrel bombs" - crude drums of high explosives - on major cities including Homs and Aleppo and "slaughtering" Turkmen civilians.

"The regime is playing theatre. It wants to give impression of wanting a political solution, but the situation on the ground reflects its intention, we look at deeds," he said.

U.S. and Russian officials, co-sponsors of the conference, are in Geneva advising the opposition and Syrian government delegations, their respective allies.