Homs ceasefire in Syria not ‘progress’, says UN official
Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi warns peace talks in Geneva are close to collapse
Civilians wait to be allowed to leave a besieged area of Homs earlier this week. Photograph: Thaer Al Khalidiya/Reuters
The hard-won humanitarian ceasefire in the Syrian city of Homs - the sole success that occurred during the peace talks in Geneva - cannot be considered “progress,” the United Nations’ top official for emergency operations yesterday evening as she urged the Security Council to ensure that aid reaches those who need it and aid workers can do their work without getting shot.
“Even wars have rules,” said Valerie Amos, after briefing members of the Security Council, as the 15-member body weighed two competing resolutions on humanitarian access to areas ravaged by the Syrian conflict and the UN mediator for Syria warned that the peace talks in Geneva were close to collapse.
In the Security Council, Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg proposed one draft, calling for punitive measures on individuals and entities that obstruct aid delivery and naming specific besieged communities in need of aid. Russia, which had just days earlier dismissed that text as “a nonstarter,” proposed its own late on Wednesday, lacking enforcement language and making no mention of the besieged communities.
Security Council diplomats said they hoped the two texts could be reconciled. That would allow Russia to avoid vetoing a resolution on aid during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Yesterday, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly I Churkin, demurred when asked about the differences. “We would not say we are too far apart,” he told reporters. “One thing which unites us is the realisation that the humanitarian situation in Syria is very grave and additional efforts need to be taken in order to improve it.”
His US counterpart, Samantha Power, likewise declined to discuss details. Last October, the council unanimously approved a presidential statement urging humanitarian access, though it lacked an enforcement mechanism.
Since then, Ms Amos said in her strongest remarks on the subject to date, 15 aid workers have been killed, little help has reached those in need and humanitarian laws have been “intentionally and flagrantly violated” by all parties in the war.
Ms Amos stopped short of calling for a resolution with enforcement measures. She said only that the council should exercise “levers” and that it should be different from last fall’s presidential statement.
The debate occurred as the mood darkened in Geneva, where it was clearer than ever that modest humanitarian gains had yielded no political progress. Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syria mediator, told senior US and Russian officials in a “very grim” meeting that the Syrian government has so far refused to compromise even on the agenda, two western diplomats said.
Mr Brahimi was “very blunt,” said one diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. He added that he believed Mr Brahimi might call off the talks rather than risk his credibility presiding over an empty process if Russia cannot push the Syrian government to compromise. The Russians made no promises, the diplomat added.
A local ceasefire allowed UN convoys to deliver a month’s worth of food to people trapped by a two-year government blockade of the rebel-held Old City of Homs, and to evacuate 1,400 people. Several hundred, however, were then held for questioning by security forces in a nearby shelter.
“I find it difficult to describe it as progress. Our people were under fire,” Ms Amos said. “We evacuated 1,400 people. There is nearly quarter of a million more people to go. We provided food and medicines to 2,500 people. There are over 3 million people in hard-to-reach communities.”
Hours earlier, the top UN official in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, said that he hoped the warring parties would strike similar deals elsewhere, as long as they allowed not only evacuations but also aid delivery to residents who wish to stay. Yet critics say that framing the Homs deal as a confidence-building step to jump-start political talks served chiefly to give an empty process the veneer of substance while leading only to a modest delivery of aid.
Advocates of Mr Brahimi’s choice to pull the Homs aid talks into the Geneva spotlight contend that without the added international scrutiny, perhaps no aid would have reached Homs at all.
Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN deputy secretary-general, insisted that while the truce was useful, the only way to go forward was a Security Council resolution with teeth. “There has to be consequences for noncompliance,” he said.
The Homs deal was a victory, if a modest one, for international aid workers who had insisted that humanitarian principles required delivering food to the blockaded area, not just letting civilians leave, as the government had initially proposed.
As long as aid delivery continues to be twinned with evacuations, said Mr El Hillo, who personally supervised the Homs deliveries and evacuations, the deal should be used as a model.
“We certainly would like to do that,” he said in a telephone interview from Damascus, Syria, adding that future deals should be supported internationally and will mean little unless aid deliveries continue regularly. He said the Homs deal was successful in insisting that civilians should be allowed to leave war-torn areas and also that aid must be delivered to those who wished to stay - principles that should be applied to aid everyone under blockades, including by rebels.
Yet other UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to express concerns about policy, said that given the poor record of aid access, deals could end up lopsided, with more evacuations than aid deliveries.
The deal “puts all of us in a difficult position,” a UN official in Geneva said. “There’s deep unease about where it will end.”
New York Times