Geneva - Syria's faltering peace process ground to total deadlock Friday amid growing concern of complete collapse despite international pressure, as the death toll on the ground continued to soar.
On the penultimate day of the current round of UN-brokered peace talks, Syria's warring sides appeared further apart than ever, agreeing on only one thing: that the negotiations so far were going nowhere.
“We deeply regret that this round did not make any progress,” said Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, after meeting UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
Separately, opposition spokesman Louay Safi complained about the regime's failure to budge, acknowledging that “the negotiations have reached an impasse.”
As the parties in Geneva failed to agree even on an agenda for their talks, the death toll inside Syria continued to climb.
A monitoring group said Thursday more than 5,000 people had been killed since a first round of talks began on January 22.
Dozens of people were killed Friday in a car bombing in front of the mosque in the southern rebel-held village of Yaduda, while the jihadist ISIL group executed 27 people as rival rebels chased it from villages in the northern province of Aleppo.
And the UN warned Friday that more than 2,700 refugees had poured across the Lebanese border amid a Syrian army offensive in the Qalemun mountains, sounding the alarm especially for the opposition-held town of Yabrud, bracing for an expected government ground assault.
Thousands had already fled the town, but as many as 50,000 people were believed to still be inside.
In Geneva, there was no sign of progress towards ending the three-year civil war that has killed more than 136,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Brahimi was set to meet the warring sides for a final day of talks Saturday, but it remained unclear if he would be able to convince them to come back for a third round.
Washington, which backs the opposition and initiated the so-called Geneva II talks with regime ally Russia, voiced deep frustration Friday at the stalemate.
“Talks for show make no sense,” a senior US official said Friday.
In an effort to inject life into the talks, both the United States and Russia sent top envoys to Geneva this week to meet Brahimi and the two sides.
But after a meeting with high-ranking US and Russian diplomats Thursday, the veteran peacemaker admitted that “failure is still staring us in the face”.
The senior US official blamed the impasse squarely on the regime and chastised Moscow for not doing enough to get push its ally to engage “seriously” in the process.
Representatives of the regime have so far refused to discuss anything beyond the “terrorism” it blames on its opponents and their foreign backers, and stubbornly insist President Bashar al-Assad's position is non-negotiable.
They have declined to discuss the opposition coalition's 24-point proposal for a political transition, or to consider Brahimi's suggestion that the parties discuss the two issues in parallel.
As one of the initiators of the talks, “Russia took on the responsibility of encouraging the regime to do what is necessary here,” the US official said.
Observers said the talks were hanging in the balance.
“We are in a dead end,” said a Western diplomat, warning prospects looked “grim” and that it would be tough for Brahimi to organise a third round.
Spokesman Safi said the opposition was appealing to the international community to “make a difference to push this process forward” but that a “pause” looked likely in the meantime.
Algerian veteran peacemaker Brahimi, who helped broker past deals in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, has pledged not to “leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward”.
But the Western diplomat cautioned: “I would not assume he will stay indefinitely,” saying Brahimi might have “concerns about his own credibility” if he allows the process to continue like a broken record.
The ongoing evacuation of civilians from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs - seen as the only tangible result so far of the Geneva II talks - has been hailed as a relative success.
But UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed frustration at the “extremely limited and painstakingly slow” process of getting 1,400 people out, given that 250,000 are under siege across Syria.
Muqdad had sharp words for Amos, accusing her of an “unacceptable” failure to recognise there was “terrorism” in Syria and that it hindered aid operations.
The United Nations said Friday 381 male evacuees from Homs - 14 of them boys aged under 18 - were still in regime hands as part of its “vetting” process.
The regime has said it was essential to interrogate men in order to weed out “terrorists”, but the opposition said separating the men from women and children was ominous. - Sapa-AFP