Syria talks look bleak to UN envoy; humanitarian efforts hopeful
By JOHN ZAROCOSTAS | McClatchy Foreign Staff | Published: February 14, 2014
GENEVA — The Syria peace talks are making no headway, the United Nations envoy said Thursday after a two-hour meeting with U.S. and Russian diplomats.
But Lakhdar Brahimi said he’s not ready to give up, pronouncing himself “rather excited by the positive things” that have happened in recent days on the humanitarian front, including a three-day extension of a cease-fire in the besieged city of Homs.
“We would like very much to see this repeated in other areas,” Brahimi said.
The cease-fire has allowed hundreds of civilians to leave the old city district in Homs, where many had been reduced to eating grass and spice-flavored water during a 600-day government siege. A number of other areas are under similar sieges by government-aligned forces and rebels.
Jens Laerke, the spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that as of Thursday, 1,370 people have been evacuated from the old city and that food and medical supplies have been delivered to support 2,500 people for a month.
On Wednesday, 217 people left the old city, of whom 171 were adult males, said Christiane Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, which is supervising the evacuations in Syria. That brings to more than 600 the number of adult males who left the old city district since the cease-fire went into effect last week.
Most of those men are still being held by the Syrian government, which is determining whether they are rebel fighters. Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said 60 men were released Thursday after being questioned and screened by the authorities at a school on the outskirts of Homs. An additional 152 men were released earlier in the week.
Also evacuated Wednesday were five people the U.N. described as elderly, 19 women and 22 children.
Fleming said U.N. officials are monitoring the screening process but are not with the men while they are questioned by Syrian authorities. She said, however, that it was beyond the U.N.’s ability to guarantee the safety of those who were released.
“We’re calling on the authorities to guarantee their safety,” she said.
Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said aid workers had delivered about 500 family food parcels, and more than 6 tons of flour. Those supplies should last 2,500 people one month, she said.
Despite his enthusiasm for the aid and evacuation program in Homs, Brahimi’s assessment of the peace talks was somber.
“Failure is always staring us in the face,” he said.
He said he would continue as a moderator between the Syrian government and opposition delegations, and that he still had hope, if not optimism. “As far as the United Nations is concerned, we will certainly not leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward,” he said. “If there isn’t, we will say so.”
Brahimi said Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, had reaffirmed their support for the peace conference, which their countries had helped to convene. He said they pledged to do what they can “to unblock the situation for us because now we are not making much progress.”
But other diplomats said they were uncertain that Russia and the United States are effective partners, because they are divided over a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution that would call on Syria to provide humanitarian access to all the country’s besieged areas. Russia has called the proposed resolution one-sided and said it does not deal with what it and the government of President Bashar Assad consider Syria’s biggest problem, the rise of terrorist groups in the country.
The impasse has prevented the two sides in Geneva from focusing on finding a political end to the civil war, a senior U.N. official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“All the political energy goes into the humanitarian discussions, when where it should be going in the peace conference is to try and secure an end to the conflict,” the official said.
Brahimi gave a bleak assessment of how quickly the conference would find a solution to any of the issues here, including the conference’s goal of establishing a transitional government.
“We are not going to solve the issue of violence and terrorism and the setting up of a transitional governing authority this week or next week or even the week after,” Brahimi said. “The aim is to put these very important and very complicated issues on the table and we will see how to deal with them in the future.”
More talks are scheduled for Friday but it’s unclear whether another round will be scheduled after that.