If the besieged city of Homs is a testing ground for the Syrian government's good will to allow aid organizations to help its citizens, the government has failed. Peace talks in Geneva might not yield results after all.
Members of the Syrian government delegation are residing in the five-star Hotel de la Paix (which translates Peace Hotel) during talks with the opposition in Geneva. But despite the name of their hotel, the Syrian government is hardly on what one could call a peace mission in the Swiss city.
No truce agreement is insight- not even a local one. Nor is an agreement to release prisoners on the horizon. And Damascus even appears unwilling to allow human aid organizations access to millions of Syrians in need, crushing a ray of hope that emerged just a few days ago.
Testing ground Homs
Rebel stronghold Homsis a testing ground; it's where the government of President Bashar al-Assad can prove its intentions to help its own population requiring aid. Homs' historic district has been under siege by government forces for more than a year. International aid organizations areunable to reach people in need, who are still in the city, and provide them with relief supplies.
A glimmer of hope emerged on Sunday (26.01.2014) when UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimitold reporters: "What we have been told by the government side is that women and children in this besieged area of the city are welcome to leave immediately." He added that "other civilians are also welcome to leave, but the government needs a list of their names first."
While many observers have praised the offer as a sign of humanitarian good will, the opposition strongly rejects it. "Where does the regime propose to take these people?" asked Rafif Jouejati of the Local Coordination Committees network in Geneva.
"They offer to remove women and children from their homes and leave the men behind," she said, adding that they would "then go in and verify who is armed and who is not - this is a setup for another blatant massacre."
Relief workers on stand-by
As news of the government's plan broke, Brahimi also announced preparations for sending food and medical aid. UN aid organizations say the convoy is now ready to go but point out that they still lack permission to access the old city of Homs.
"Once access is granted, we will go," said Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Program (WFP). "But this implies security from all parties involved in this operation. We are a humanitarian agency; we wait until we get the green light. So far, we don’t have the green light, so we are on standby."
The Syrian government says security issues are responsible for the delay, pointing fingers at the rebels.
The backpedaling on humanitarian aid is what diplomats in Geneva have been complaining about behind closed doors since the beginning of the conflict. The government of Assad, they note, likes to make big promises when it comes to humanitarian access only to claim security concerns at the last minute.
So far, only Americans have gone on record criticizing the Syrian government. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez accused the Assad government of "evading the core purpose of the Geneva talks" by poisoning the atmosphere of peace negotiations with the opposition by denying aid deliveries. It is up to the government, he said, to give aid organizations access.
Numerous Syrians cut off from aid
And Homs is only the tip of the iceberg. Numerous regions in Syria are cut off from aid supplies. WFP says it is unable to reach more than 1.5 million people and is calling on all parties to provide safe passage and access across Syria - not just in Homs.
"The convoy for Homs can’t be a fig leaf only," Byrs said. "We need access to all parts of Syria, to all people in need. We have always asked for access. The humanitarian agencies have not changed their demand, which I repeat is: access, access!"
While the UN holds back from directly criticizing the Assad government, human rights organizations are speaking out.
Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, fears that talks in Geneva will get lost in details rather than acknowledging the objectives of international humanitarian law.
"Secure conduct for the civilian population and allowing humanitarian aid are basic legal obligations; they aren't bargaining chips the Syrian government can use against the rebels," he said. "The talks in Geneva should not only be about allowing a handful of trucks to access besieged areas. They should be the turning point on punishing the civilian population."
Are talks alone a success?
UN mediator Brahimi remains hopeful, nevertheless. "These are not easy negotiations," he said during a press conference on Tuesday (28.01.2014). "They haven't been easy today; they haven't been easy these past days, and they will probably not be easy in the coming few days." But the fact that both parties are willing to stay and continue discussions until Friday, he added, could be viewed as a success.
Some have another view. Diplomats who were cautiously optimistic in Montreux last week are now preparing to see the talks end on Friday without tangible results.