While fighting between rebels and government forces continues unabated in Syria, representatives from both sides started unlikely peace talks in Geneva on Friday. Members of the delegation representing President Bashar al-Assad’s government faced opposition delegates across a table on Saturday, agreeing only to address their comments to mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Representative to Syria.
The conflict in Syria has been raging for close on three years, destabilizing the region, killing more than 130,000 people, including civilians and children, and displacing millions of others. As the peace talks began, human rights organizations within Syria reported that fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels had intensified outside the suburbs of Damascus. Army air raids were reported around Damascus, as well as helicopter “barrel bomb attacks” on Daraya.
Homs, a densely populated city in the west of the country, remains the hardest hit, and was the subject of yesterday’s brief, three-hour peace talks that focused on humanitarian affairs. Brahimi said he was hopeful a “convoy of aid” in the form of varied “goods,” including food and medical supplies, would be permitted into the old city, currently held by rebels. The plan was to get aid there by Monday.
Historically the Syrian government has frequently approved deliveries of aid to areas held by the rebels, and then revoked them at the eleventh hour. This has resulted in parts of Damascus and Homs remaining completely isolated for months.
The next item on the agenda, he said, would be prisoners who had been kidnapped and “deprived of their freedom.” It was his aim to see whether it was possible to secure the freedom of at least some of the captured people.
While negotiations will continue, Brahimi admitted that not very much had been achieved on the first day. Furthermore, the most senior Syrian government delegates including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, his deputy Fayssal Mekdad, Presidential Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, and Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, were not present at the meeting. The President of the opposition coalition Ahmad al-Jarba did not attend, either. However, Brahimi was not fazed that the two sides communicated via him, and likened this to any “civilized discussions” where people address the president, chairman or speaker.
He said he had discussed his plan for peace talks for the following “days and weeks” with both parties, aiming ultimately for the UN in Geneva to be able to set up a transitional governing body. While fighting in Syria continues unabated, he was hopeful they would be able to continue making progress, however small.
There were mixed feelings about the talks from both sides. Monzer Akbik, who is chief of staff to Syria’s National Coalition leader, said this was the beginning of a transitional process. He welcomed the fact that Syrian dictators had taken the time to listen to “the voice of the Syrian people.”
Commenting on the choice of Homs for the first relief action negotiated by these talks, opposition spokesman, Louay Safi said that starvation should never be used “as a weapon of war.” Feeding starving people had nothing to do with gain, he said.
Hassan Abu al-Zain of the Revolution Youth Coalition said any truce the government agreed to in Homs was driven by a desire to regain control of the area. Speaking via Skype from the old city of Homs, he said people there were forced to drink “unclean” water and eat weeds to try to survive. He knew of nine people who had already died from malnutrition.
Bashar Jafari, Syrian Ambassador to the UN, said coalition delegates had “personal hatreds” towards the Syrian government. They should not be prioritizing President Assad stepping down, but rather ending terrorism and violence, he said.
Meanwhile Ayman al-Zawahri, leader of Al Qaeda, has called for solidarity between opposition Islamic brigades operating in the north of the country. This, he says is the only way to topple President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Syria’s opposition Observatory for Human Rights, after 15 days of infighting, these rebel fighters had killed 1,400 people. This was in addition to the fighting between opposition rebels and government forces, that continues unabated while the peace talks continue in Geneva.
By Penny Swift