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It has not been a promising 24 hours for mediation and humanitarian efforts in Syria. The UN's humanitarian chief lambasted the effort to provide aid to the Syrian city of Homs Thursday night, and today, UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the failure of ongoing negotiations was "staring us in the face."
Efforts to negotiate greater access for aid agencies and a political solution to the conflict are both deadlocked, with Russia standing with the Syrian regime on one side of the widening divide, and the rest of the international community remaining largely on the other.
The Syrian government and opposition, as well as a host of other parties, have been in Geneva for another round of peace talks. But mediators are hung up on the question of whether a political transition can be discussed while fighting continues – and which issue is a higher priority.
The Syrian government and Russia, the only country present that can exert influence over President Bashar al-Assad, insist that halting "terrorism" needs to happen first. The opposition, as well as the United States, have called for discussions of a political solution to begin immediately. Russia has accused the US of pursuing "regime change."
The Wall Street Journal pinned any failure of the talks firmly on Russia, writing that "Russia upended talks on Syria's civil war Thursday by explicitly rejecting a proposal to begin discussing the possible removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power during any political transition."
Although many doubted the talks would yield an end to the war, Russia's position could spell the end of the talks, which have so far achieved only a modest measure of cooperation in providing aid to civilians in the besieged city of Homs. The person close to the talks said he didn't expect Mr. Brahimi to summon the sides back to Geneva for a third round of negotiations.
[Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady] Gatilov was then asked "point blank" whether Moscow supported discussing political transition in parallel to violent extremism, according to a person close to the talks.
"No," Mr. Gatilov responded, according to the person.
Mr. Gatilov then recited the Syrian government's long-standing position that the agenda of the negotiations must follow the so-called Geneva I communiqué line-by-line, beginning with the cessation of violence. Political transition is point six in the communiqué.
Russian intervention was seen by diplomats as perhaps the only gambit remaining in the negotiations that, after three weeks, appeared to be on their deathbed, diplomats said.
Even efforts to achieve temporary cease-fires for humanitarian access are deadlocked as the UN Security Council struggles to draft a resolution. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was unequivocally angry in her remarks to the Security Council:
The operational environment is more dangerous for our colleagues than ever. 15 more aid workers have lost their lives since October.
I told the Security Council that it is unacceptable that, four months since the members demanded action, international humanitarian law continues to be consistently and flagrantly violated by all parties to the conflict.
All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on. But even wars have rules.
The UN brokered the cease-fire for the besieged Old City of Homs at the last round of Syria peace talks, something that has been described as the sole accomplishment of those talks. But the relief effort fell much too short of its goals, Ms. Amos said.
While remarkable, the events in the Old City cannot serve as a model. Why? It was a success, given the difficult circumstances, but I find it difficult to describe as progress.
- Our people were under fire
- We evacuated 1,400 people: there’s nearly a quarter of a million people to go, if you look at all of those in besieged communities
- We provided food and medicines to 2,500 people: over three million people in hard-to reach communities. So yes to 2,500; no to three million.
I first raised the alarm about Homs 14 months ago. We cannot wait another 14 months to reach 1,400 more people. This is not only about the Old City of Homs. There are millions of people in dire need across Syria, their lives hanging in the balance.
The New York Times reports, however, that the top UN official in Syria said he hoped for similar deals elsewhere, indicating such deals could be a model if they included not only evacuations, but aid deliveries for those who chose to stay.
The Security Council is struggling to reconcile competing proposals, one spearheaded by Luxembourg, Australia, and Jordan, the other by Russia, according to The New York Times. The first draft called for punitive measures against those who obstructed aid delivery and named specific places in need of aid, both of which Russia's draft lacked.
Meanwhile, another crisis looms. The BBC reports that the UN is warning of a major influx of refugees to Lebanon as regime forces lay siege to the town of Yabroud, which lies between Homs and the Lebanese border. It is the last rebel foothold in the Qalamoun area, valuable to both sides for its proximity to the highway running between Damascus and Homs.