Syria talks hit impasse over Homs aid, evacuation proposals

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

Peace talks between the warring parties in Syria’s civil war hit an impasse Monday after the government failed to allow a 12-truck aid convoy into the besieged old city of Homs and the opposition rejected a government statement on the aims of the conference.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative on Syria, said “there is no decision yet” from the government on the convoy, which the political opposition has called a top humanitarian priority. Brahimi said the government’s proposal to evacuate women and children from the besieged old town also was on hold, due to a discussion of “all sorts of” security problems.

The veteran Algerian negotiator did not mask his disappointment. “The humanitarian discussions haven’t produced much, unfortunately,” he said.

“I am still begging, asking that something be done” about Homs and a half-dozen other towns under siege, including at least two beset by armed opposition forces, he said. But he summed up: “You know, we never expected miracles.”

The formal talks, which opened Friday at the U.N.’s European headquarters, moved into the political realm Monday and immediately hit a wall, with the opposition rejecting the government’s proposed set of principles to guide the discussions.

Brahimi said most of the principles in the government statement were already in the Geneva declaration, the 2012 document that formed the basis for the current round of negotiations. One important principle was missing, however: the communique’s call for appointing a “transitional governing body” with “full executive powers” whose membership either side could veto.

The United States and the opposition claim that that provision would exclude Syrian President Bashar Assad from participation in the transitional authority, because the opposition would never agree to his involvement. Opposition spokesman Louay Safi called omission of the transitional authority a “tactic to divert us from the real purpose” of the talks: discussion of an executive power that would replace Assad.

The Syrian government said the opposition’s response revealed its lack of experience and its reliance on others outside the meeting room to make its decisions.

Omran al Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, said Syria’s statement of principles contained no reference, positive or negative, to Assad or the office of the presidency and only called for respect for Syrian sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and fighting terrorism.

“What’s amazing is that they rejected this communique in less than two minutes,” he said. “One of them made a phone call, then came back to whisper in the ear” of chief negotiator Hadi al Bahra “to say that they reject this statement, part and parcel.”

The initial skirmishing may turn into a footnote when the bigger issues come up Tuesday: the actual content of the June 2012 “action plan.”

Brahimi was asked how he’d get around the contradiction between the opposition's demand that Assad go and the government’s insistence that he stay. “If you have any ideas, I’ll take them with pleasure,” Brahimi quipped.

Western diplomats said an aid convoy to Homs, which has been under siege for 18 months, was still possible. They noted that the plan to provide aid to an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people trapped in the old city quarter had been discussed in detail with Russia, Assad’s principal foreign backer, during the week before the conference opened.

But the standoff over the convoy and the proposed evacuation of women and children from the besieged quarter underscored the different objectives of the two sides.

The Syrian government objects to any possibility that aid would go to the rebels who occupy the quarter, while the opposition fears that removing the women and children would give the government free rein to crush the rebels there.

Safi called government policy in Homs a “crime against humanity” and said removing women, children – or anyone – from Homs would change the demographics of the city.

“The regime has not delivered the food and medicines to people who are starving. The regime is using starvation tactics to force people to submit to its will,” he said.

There was an element of confusion over exactly what had been agreed to Sunday. Brahimi said the Syrian government had agreed to the evacuation of women and children, and he appealed to the government to let the convoy through. A short time later, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Maqdad, said his government was ready for a shipment of food and aid into Homs, though he emphasized that the evacuation was, in the government’s view, more important.

Neither he nor Brahimi explained the linkage between the two humanitarian aid moves. But it appeared that the sequence held the key, for the opposition insists that the food and medicines go in first and regime apparently wants to do it in reverse order.

The United States said Monday that the Assad government “must approve the convoys” because “the situation is desperate and the people are starving.”

State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez called an evacuation of women and children from the old city “not sufficient.”

Civilians, he said, “must not be forced to leave their homes and split up their families before receiving much-needed food and other aid.”

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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