Author Topic: Syria’s Shaky Peace Talks Move Toward Solid Ground in Effort to Aid Homs  (Read 183 times)

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he Syrian government and opposition moved their fragile peace talks to a newly concrete phase on Saturday, meeting face to face here for the first time in an attempt to win government approval for an aid convoy to neighborhoods in the city of Homs long blockaded by the army.

The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said at a news conference here that the governor of Homs had met with United Nations employees inside the country and was awaiting the verdict of security forces on whether a shipment of food and medicine could enter the rebel-held old city of Homs on Sunday or Monday. Much of Homs is controlled by the government, but some parts are contested.

The delivery of aid would be the first tangible success in talks that have been criticized by hard-liners on both sides — the first sign that the negotiations could make a difference in the lives of suffering Syrians.

The government has routinely given approvals for aid deliveries to rebel-held areas, only to revoke them at the last minute, leaving parts of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, isolated for months amid increasing reports of deaths from malnutrition. Insurgents have also blockaded government-held areas, like the villages of Zahra and Nubol in Aleppo Province.

The prospect of concrete results had people in Damascus and its suburbs glued to TV screens on Saturday to follow the conference. They paid it more attention than had been expected, given Syrians’ mistrust of international conferences after nearly three years of fruitless meetings during a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people.

There was relative quiet in the suburbs on Saturday as several areas experimented with fragile localized cease-fires and awaited the outcome of talks, according to residents. Opposition activists said the government hit two suburbs with “barrel bombs,” which Mr. Brahimi called a violation of international law.

The choice of Homs as the site of the first humanitarian cease-fire to come out of the Geneva talks could prompt government objections that it is being asked to make greater concessions at the outset than its opponents, since rebels are not blockading government areas in Homs.

Asked what the government would have to gain from a deal in Homs, Louay Safi, a spokesman for the exile coalition representing the opposition in the talks, said: “When you feed people who are starving, it’s not about gain. Starvation should not be used as a weapon of war.”

A Western diplomat in Geneva said the government would gain by showing that it was being statesmanlike and responsible in addressing the humanitarian needs it has said are one of its top priorities at the talks. The government had proposed a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo, but opposition members said the deal was more like surrender.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks, one opposition member in Geneva said Homs was chosen in part for its significance as one of the first places where large protests broke out against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and the site of the first major bombardments of rebel-held areas by the Syrian military in 2012.

Also, he said, rebel groups in Homs are somewhat more cooperative with the coalition leadership than those in Aleppo, where jihadist groups have gained a stronger foothold. The coalition, dogged by its lack of influence over fractured insurgent groups, is loath to promise something at the talks that it cannot deliver.

At least 4,000 civilians remain trapped in the blockaded neighborhoods along with rebel fighters, according to opposition negotiators and antigovernment activists in Homs. The government disputes that — at a news briefing, a reporter from the state-run SANA news agency asked Mr. Safi if the plan aimed “to save the terrorists in the old city.”

Speaking from the old city of Homs via Skype, Hassan Abu al-Zain, a spokesman for the Revolution Youth Coalition there, said nine people had died of malnutrition, scores had been sickened by unclean water and families were eating weeds to survive. He said that he doubted the government would follow through on commitments and that if it sought a truce in Homs it was “to control our area.”

But Abu Alaa, a paramedic in Homs, said via Skype that he hoped the deal would succeed, even though international talks have disappointed people there.

“We hope this doesn’t happen again, and we don’t become a log that they throw away after it gets burned,” said Mr. Alaa, 24, who gave only a nickname for security reasons. He said the old city was sealed by concrete walls and guarded by government snipers.

A member of the Homs opposition council said it had provided the coalition on Saturday with a detailed plan for the aid delivery, obtained approval for a cease-fire from 15 rebel groups, and was awaiting answers from five more. But he expressed frustration that the coalition had not been well-informed on the situation in Homs and had asked for the information at the last minute.

A Western diplomat here said the government delegates had countered with a proposal for a broader, countrywide cease-fire and said it was the first they had heard of the Homs plan. But the diplomat said it had been presented to both sides more than a week ago and he expected Syria’s backer Russia to urge the delegates to move forward with it.

The government’s most senior delegates — the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem; his deputy, Fayssal Mekdad; Bouthaina Shaaban, a longtime presidential adviser; and the information minister, Omran al-Zoubi — did not attend Saturday’s meetings, Mr. Brahimi said.

A Syrian journalist from a pro-government news outlet said the officials stayed away on the grounds of protocol, because the coalition’s president, Ahmad al-Jarba, did not attend. The government delegation was led by Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s United Nations representative.

Still, even such skirmishes over protocol appear to illustrate that the talks have achieved one of their extraordinarily modest goals: to get the two sides to recognize each other to some degree. The opposing teams met for three hours in two sessions, sitting across from each other at a U-shaped table. They made eye contact but did not speak, listening as Mr. Brahimi laid out the agenda. Later, each side spoke about the aid convoy, addressing their remarks to Mr. Brahimi.

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