Syria's first peace talks were on the verge of collapsing today before they began, with the opposition refusing to meet government delegation and the government threatening to bring its team home.
The opposition said it would not meet government delegation unless it first agreed to sign up to a protocol calling for a transitional administration. The government rejected the demand outright and said its negotiators would return home unless serious talks began within a day.
Syrian state television quoted Foreign Minister "Walid al-Moualem" saying that "If no serious work sessions are held by Saturday, the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side's lack of seriousness or preparedness".
Friday was meant to be the first time in three years of crisis that Syrian government and opposition would negotiate face to face.
But plans were ditched at the last minute after the opposition said the government delegation must first sign up to a 2012 protocol, known as Geneva-1, that calls for an interim government to oversee a transition to a new political order.
"We have explicitly demanded a written commitment from the regime delegation to accept Geneva-1. Otherwise there will be no direct negotiations", opposition delegate "Haitham al-Maleh" told Reuters.
The government delegation met U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi separately, and said it rejected the opposition demand: "No, we will not accept it", Information Minister "Omran Zoabi" told Reuters.
Brahimi, who met the government team for barely an hour, was due to talk to the opposition delegation separately later on Friday.
The opposition says it has come to discuss a transition. The government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism and that no one can force president al-Assad to go.
U.N. spokeswoman "Alessandra Vellucci" said that "there are no Syrian-Syrian talks at the moment", adding "I cannot tell you anything about what will happen in the next few days".
Even before the announcement that the direct talks were cancelled, the outlook was dim.
A Western diplomat said that "the objective is for the first round of talks to last until next Friday, but expectations are so low we'll see how things develop day by day", stressing "every day that they talk is a little step forward".
Brahimi has indicated that his aim is to start by seeking practical steps, like local ceasefires, prisoner releases and access for international aid deliveries, before embarking on the tougher political negotiations. But even those narrow aims would fail if the delegations go home.
During Wednesday's opening ceremony, the government delegation drew a rebuke from Ban for using inflammatory language after referring in a speech to militants raping dead women, ripping foetuses from the womb and eating human organs.