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Syria peace talks merely shift stalemate to Geneva

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, the floor of the building where the Syrian peace talks take part is illuminated at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, with a reflection of the garden in a window. Outside of the building, the delegates try not to cross paths, often milling about several yards (meters) away from the podium where they speak to journalists or strolling around the garden to avoid any contact. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, the floor of the building where the Syrian peace talks take part is illuminated at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, with a reflection of the garden in a window. Outside of the building, the delegates try not to cross paths, often milling about several yards (meters) away from the podium where they speak to journalists or strolling around the garden to avoid any contact. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 picture Louay Safi, left, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group is surrounded by journalists after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 picture Louay Safi, left, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group is surrounded by journalists after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 picture, a UN security person tries to control journalists who jumped out of their chairs to get their questions answered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Montreux, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 picture, a UN security person tries to control journalists who jumped out of their chairs to get their questions answered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Montreux, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture Louay Safi, center, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, answers journalists questions after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture Louay Safi, center, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, answers journalists questions after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists try to get their questions answered by Louay Safi, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists try to get their questions answered by Louay Safi, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 picture, Anas al-Abdeh, foreground right, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, is surrounded by TV crews at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 picture, Anas al-Abdeh, foreground right, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, is surrounded by TV crews at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists of the TV station Al Jazeera get ready prior to a live interview at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists of the TV station Al Jazeera get ready prior to a live interview at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the entrance to the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the entrance to the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, live television positions in the U.N. garden, with a peaceful vista of Europe's highest mountain Mont Blanc in the background, are seen from a window inside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out.( AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, live television positions in the U.N. garden, with a peaceful vista of Europe's highest mountain Mont Blanc in the background, are seen from a window inside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out.( AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

    In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, the floor of the building where the Syrian peace talks take part is illuminated at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, with a reflection of the garden in a window. Outside of the building, the delegates try not to cross paths, often milling about several yards (meters) away from the podium where they speak to journalists or strolling around the garden to avoid any contact. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 picture Louay Safi, left, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group is surrounded by journalists after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 picture, a UN security person tries to control journalists who jumped out of their chairs to get their questions answered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Montreux, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture Louay Safi, center, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, answers journalists questions after leaving a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists try to get their questions answered by Louay Safi, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 picture, Anas al-Abdeh, foreground right, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, is surrounded by TV crews at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, journalists of the TV station Al Jazeera get ready prior to a live interview at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out. For government officials used to controlling the narrative back home, the experience has been frazzling, with journalists tossing all kinds of unscripted questions at them. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, UN security personal guard the entrance to the briefing room prior to a press conference by U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Security is on high alert in the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, as tempers flare between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, live television positions in the U.N. garden, with a peaceful vista of Europe's highest mountain Mont Blanc in the background, are seen from a window inside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. With dozens of international journalists and television cameras at hand, both sides of the Syrian conflict are eager to get their message out.( AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 picture, Syrian journalists argue with each other at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The bitterness and rancor stirred by Syria's civil war were on full display this week, both inside and outside the sealed room where rival delegations were seeking a way to end the conflict. In the hallways of the U.N.'s European headquarters and on the manicured lawns outside, tempers flared between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad.(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

The rival delegations enter and leave the room through separate doors. They don’t shake hands. They avoid eye contact and address one another only through their U.N. mediator to avoid replicating the bitterness of the battlefield in this first-ever effort to negotiate an end to Syria’s war.

That the delegations have communicated at all in the past five days can be counted as an achievement, diplomats say, given the hatreds engendered by a conflict that escalated from protests to shelling, ballistic missiles, beheadings and chemical weapons.

So far, however, the brief encounters in Geneva have yielded little beyond reminders of the breadth of the divide between those seeking to end the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad and those whose declared goal is to preserve his power.

It is as if the negotiations have merely relocated the bloody stalemate to the refined environment of the Swiss capital, where the talks are taking place at the European headquarters of the United Nations.

Members of the government delegation, staying at the fashionable Hotel de la Paix overlooking Lake Geneva, said they have had no encounters outside the formal meetings with their opposition counterparts, who are staying a half-mile away at the less opulent Royal Hotel near the railway station.

“There’s been nothing of confidence-building or trust,” said a Syrian journalist who is close to the government and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivities surrounding the talks. “There’s no handshaking, speaking, nothing. It’s very tense, very cool.”

The hope is that by exposing the foes to one another and letting them air their fears and aspirations, some form of common ground will emerge.

Yesterday, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reported some progress on that front.

“The ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking,” he said.

But if there is common ground, it hasn’t appeared yet, he acknowledged.

“To be blunt, I don’t expect we will achieve anything substantial,” he said of this first round of talks, which are expected to adjourn tomorrow and resume after about a week.

In the absence of progress in the meeting room, the war has relocated to the corridors of the stately U.N. headquarters and the lawn outside, where representatives of the rival delegations compete to deliver their version of events.

Opposition journalists, many of them activists in the protest movement, hound government delegates with questions they are unaccustomed to facing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where the government retains a tight hold even as other parts of the country have slid beyond its control.

For most on both sides, this is the first encounter they have had with the opposing camp since demonstrations against Assad’s rule erupted in 2011. The launch of the peace effort brought some predictably hostile exchanges in the hall where rival media factions gathered.

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