GENEVA – The first face-to-face meeting between Syria's government and the opposition hoping to overthrow Bashar Assad started and ended after barely a half-hour Saturday, with the two sides facing each other silently as a U.N. mediator split the distance between them and laid groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war.
After tense days spent avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad's handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition gathered briefly at a single U-shaped table, then emerged and went separate ways, using different doors to avert contact.
Only the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, spoke, according to Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition's representatives.
"It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children," he said. He said everyone remained calm.
The two sides were distant going into the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing less than Assad's departure. Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that has killed 130,000 people.
"Today we shall start with modest ideas and we will build on them to achieve something and we move gradually to bigger and bigger issues," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad said going into the meeting.
Al-Abdeh said the antagonists would face each other again later Saturday but would only address Brahimi, not each other.
First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs. Syria's third-largest city, Homs became a major center of resistance and reprisal early on in the uprising. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled.
Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs -- where only a few parts of the Old City remain in rebel hands -- had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.
Syria's civil war started in 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad, who unleashed the military against demonstrators. A quarter of the country's population has been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the United States have taken opposite sides in the war, with Russia selling Assad with military hardware and using its influence on the Security Council. The United States has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of Al Qaeda inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.