Their seats remained empty for a few tense minutes after the Russia-Turkey-sponsored talks were officially inaugurated. Then, the Syrian rebel delegation finally walked into the room, marking what was supposed to be an ice-breaking first encounter.
But cold glances and sharp exchanges marred the first face-to-face meeting between the Syrian government and its armed opposition, which lasted about an hour in the freezing cold Kazakh capital, Astana.
The two delegations sat opposite each other on an oval table in the large gilded room. The rebel delegation was separated from rivals by friends: on one side sat the Turkish delegation, which backs the opposition and the U.S. ambassador, whose country has supported the rebels. There is not a single photo frame that shows the two sides together.
Still, that was an achievement. No other international meeting of the six-year conflict has managed to bring the rivals in the same room.
Realizing the symbolism of the face-to-face meeting, the rebel delegates stalled outside the conference hall.
Arab TV stations said the rebels registered their displeasure at being seated at the same oval-shaped table as the Iranian delegation. Tehran has sent thousands to Syria to fight alongside the government.
Rebel delegates said they had no “talks” with government officials. Only barbs were exchanged.
Lead rebel negotiator Mohammed Alloush equated between the Syrian government with the militants extremists of the Islamic State.
After the closed session, Damascus envoy Bashar Ja’afari called Alloush’s comments “provocative” and “insolent.”
The two delegations later headed to separate rooms, and proximity talks with the U.N. as mediators began.