El Nubek, SYRIA — As two delegations, one representing the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic led by Bashar Assad and the other claiming to represent the popular opposition that is seeking its overthrow, arrived in Switzerland this morning to continue with Round Two of Geneva II, there is uncertainty over the agenda and whether to extend this weekend’s 36 hour “Humanitarian pause” to allow aid into the Old City of Homs. Such a deal, which could come at any time, would bolster confidence ahead of the Round Two of the peace talks.
Some observers, including this one, predict that the ceasefire will in fact be extended as a result of a meeting on February 10 being held between Syrian government officials here in Homs and UN representatives that will likely result in more civilians being allowed out of the old city later today or tomorrow.
But it is not certain. And meanwhile, on February 10, the meager amounts of aid trickling into Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus was stopped due to yet another breach of a “humanitarian pause” that was agreed upon last week.
The governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, has advised journalists and observers gathered in his office yesterday that the ceasefire may be extended by a further three days; to allow all those who might want to leave the chance to do so. The operation to help trapped civilians in Homs was the one concrete agreement reached at recent peace talks in Geneva, which are due to resume on Monday.
There remains much mistrust and plenty of PR jockeying from both sides as the public awaits the sound of the gavel from UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to resume discussions to end the killing in Syria. The new opposition team, at press time, is not fully identified but has announced that it wants the focus of Round Two to be solely or how to transition ( it demands a clean slate in Damascus) and nothing else.
In contradistinction, Syrian government Presidential Political and Media Adviser Dr. Buthaina Shaaban argues that the continuing essential problem in the search for a political solution through the Geneva track lies in the fact that “we don’t know whom is representing those who came by the name of opposition, how many, and what is their relation to Syria.” She added that the coalition delegation came to Geneva for discussing one word in the December 12, 013 Geneva I Communiqué; transition. Whereas the Syrian official delegation wants initially to discuss the first item in the Communiqué, the halt of violence, combating terrorism and the preservation of state institutions.
Whether there will be an extension of the just competed “three-day humanitarian pause” cease-fire is not yet sure. In point of clarification, the so-called “three day” partial ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to the area which for more than 600 days has experienced nearly daily bombardment of the city which is labeled by some as the “Birthplace of the Revolution” is a misnomer in the extreme. The so-called “Humanitarian Pause”, such as it was, never comprised three days. Rather, in reality it was for less than 36 hours given that aid deliveries and evacuations were strictly limited to 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. over three days.
One spokesman for a European aid organization, attempted to enlighten this observer on the ceasefire terms by claiming that “After 6 p.m. any aid distributors within a snipers scope is fair game and they are for warned. I told them it is kind of like caveat emptor after six or before six.”
Frankly, the gentleman could not be more mistaken and he should have known better given his job. His view constitutes a shocking and fundamentally flawed edict and misstatement of applicable binding international norms anchored in black letter public international humanitarian law, including but not limited to the Geneva Conventions and other principles, standards and rule of international humanitarian law requiring protection by all belligerents of aid workers whenever and wherever they perform their humanitarian work. Nor can International customary law and treaty law on this subject be abrogated bilaterally by warring parties who may choose not to kill aid workers or civilians only during a mutually declared 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. day shift.
The aid workers in Homs, as all civilians, are inviolate during military action. Nor is there any suggestion that either party has complied international law, which requires all warring factions to allow unconditional humanitarian access. It is no excuse, but there does appear, according to information given to these observers from local residents, that more than 30 different armed groups operate in the Old City, making any agreement among them unlikely. The Regional Advisor of UNICEF, Mr. Geoffrey Ijumba a reasonable sounding fellow, claims that “the main stumbling block is that the 30 plus militia groups inside Homs want guarantees that the aid will still be delivered to the Old City once the civilians are evacuated.” An extended ceasefire, given recent government military gains is, according to some observers monitoring developments in Homs, a rather tough precondition to expect from the Syrian government given the price it has paid for advancing militarily over the past two years in this area.
There is currently plenty of mistrust and much PR jockeying from both sides. The new opposition team, at press time not fully identified, wants the focus of Round Two to be solely transition and nothing else. Syrian government Presidential Political and Media Adviser Dr. Buthaina Shaaban strongly argues that an essential problem in the search for a political solution through the Geneva track lies in the fact that “we don’t know whom is representing those who came by the name of opposition, how many, and what is their relation to Syria.” She added that the coalition delegation came to Geneva for discussing one word in the Geneva I Communiqué; transition whereas the Syrian official delegation wants initially to discuss the first item in the Communiqué, the halt of violence, combating terrorism and the preservation of state institutions. For its part, Damascus has been keen to portray the humanitarian deal outside the framework of talks, with pundits and parliamentarians taking to the airwaves to tout the deal as evidence of the government’s ongoing efforts to aid civilians. It has come under pressure from its allies Russia and Iran to make humanitarian concessions.
Predictably perhaps, both sides accuse the other of violations of the claimed three-day humanitarian aid ceasefire as the Opposition team announced that its delegation to “Round Two” was being re-configured. Many observers of Genera II judged that the strong personalities and intellects of the Syrian delegation, including Foreign Minister Walid Mouallum, Dr. Bouthania Shaaban, and Minister of Information Omran Zoubi as well as Faisal Mekdad, among others, “won” Round I of the public relations challenge of Geneva II and that the Obama Administration via John Kerry advised the opposition to that, “It had better field a stronger team or risk losing ground”.
The first civilians were evacuated from a rebel-held area of the Syrian city of Homs on February 8 after more than a year and half of struggling to survive. Six buses arrived with three UN vehicles and six Red Crescent ambulances to pick up women, children, and elderly. Dina Elkassaby, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said its staff had reported that many of the evacuees were in “very, very bad shape,” with children showing signs of malnutrition.
Humanitarian workers braved mortar shells and gunfire on February 9 as they pushed forward with their mission to deliver aid into besieged parts of the Syrian city of Homs through Jouret al Shayah al Qoubaisi. 12 civilians came out on the first bus from the rebel enclave.
Syria state television said four members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARCS) were wounded by “armed terrorist groups”, on February 9 as the aid workers tried to deliver humanitarian supplies to a besieged, rebel-held district of Homs city. At sunset, Abu Bilal, an activist trapped in the old city since June 2012, explained: “We hope more aid will come in, and we hope the civilians can be evacuated, but we don’t know whether that will happen. We are afraid that we will only see more of yesterday’s shelling.” The Syrian Red Crescent Society told observers that it has been “a challenge” to get its staff and the UN team out of the area. SARCS official Khaled Erksoussi said the convoy came under attack from mortars and gunfire as it was leaving the Qarabis neighborhood.
Many of those evacuated on February 7 looked frail and described extreme hardships inside the area, which has been under army siege for nearly a year-and-a-half. They said bread had not been available for months, and many residents were gathering weeds and leaves to eat. As the BBC’s Lyse Doucet reported: “The tide of people continued—elderly men and women on stretchers or crutches, exhausted mothers in tears, children who went straight into the arms of waiting aid officials from the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society. Water, bread, even polio vaccinations were provided on the spot. Many residents who have finally escaped speak of having only grass and olives to eat.”
On Sunday, February 9, 611 civilians, an increase from 83 on February 7, who were besieged for more than 600 days in the old city of Homs were evacuated, the majority being women, children and elderly. According to one of the Governate of Homs officials responsible for monitoring their evacuation, their ages ranged between 16 and 54 years of age. It is not yet clear if the warring parties will agree to a three day (36 hour) extension of the aid mission and if so that it will be honored. The governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi stated that his administration will cooperate if the UN mission and the Syrian Red Crescent are the ones delivering the aid. Food and hygiene kits and have also been distributed in the neighborhoods of Bustan al-Diwan and al-Hamidieh.
The humanitarian aid gesture in the Old City of Homs is modest, compared to the more than four million civilians living under siege across this great country, being war deprived of adequate food, water, or sanitation. In all, some 9.3 million people in Syria need some form of aid, according to the U.N.
This past week, the U.N. Security Council pushed for a resolution that would enable broad-based aid deliveries to Syria. So did France. On the morning of February 10, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France and other countries would present a resolution at the UN calling for greater access for humanitarian aid. He told the media in Homs and internationally, “It is absolutely scandalous that there have been discussions for quite a while and that people are still being starved every day, and so along with a number of other countries, we will present a resolution at the UN along those lines.” Yet, many in Homs voice skepticism that Moscow would allow UN Security Council Chapter Seven action given its rivalry with Washington on this and other Syria related regional issues.
Some 3,000 people are slated to receive aid during the humanitarian pause. It appears certain that in the coming few days the intentions of both sides will become clearer with respect to the Geneva process and their willingness to allow full humanitarian aid into Homs and the evacuation of those who want to exit the Old City. Whichever side fails in its humanitarian duties will be harshly judged by history and quite possibly by a Special Tribunal for Syria, already being planned by some, to be held at The Hague.