Five years on, a glimmer of hope in Syria

Incoming government should give high priority to resolving the war along with its EU and international partners

This is a highly auspicious week for the future of Syria. On the fifth anniversary of its murderous civil war, resumed peace talks are under way in Geneva. The Russian military involvement is being disengaged after substantially reinforcing the Assad regime for the last six months.

European Union leaders met in Brussels yesterday to endorse a radical plan to return trafficked Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey where they will be cared for in return for increased aid, direct access from there to EU states and closer Turkish relations with Europe.

At last there may be some grounds for hope that this tragedy is being tackled seriously and urgently by major actors in Syria and world politics. Their activity must be set against the enormous human suffering involved. Its scale was eloquently set out in a letter to this newspaper last week from the executive heads of the three principal Irish humanitarian agencies, Concern, Goal and Trócaire.

As they put it, “the numbers of people affected by this crisis are almost too large to comprehend – an estimated 470,000 people have died, 4.6 million people have fled the conflict and are now living as refugees, while inside Syria itself more than six million are displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite recently improved access, many are living an insecure, tenuous existence beyond the reach of basic humanitarian assistance. Life expectancy in Syria has dropped from 70 to 55”.

That suffering and devastation must drive this week’s political and diplomatic efforts to cease hostilities, bring the fighting to an end, provide full access to the populations needing assistance and agree arrangement towards a transition regime, a constitution and fair elections. That such a process can at least be identified is a measure of progress compared to the last five years of national and regional escalation of this war, combined with global neglect of its destructive qualities.

For Europeans it has taken the huge exodus of refugees from Syria through Turkey to Greece and the Balkans to central Europe, Germany, Sweden and other northern states last summer to bring home the tragedy’s enormity. The proposals now being decided on to confront that exodus have a brutal simplicity and elegance but will be tremendously difficult to implement. Yet they offer the best and perhaps last chance to find a collective European approach to the conflict.

The incoming government should give a high priority to resolving the Syrian war along with its EU and international partners. Ireland’s honourable humanitarian record gives this State a legitimate voice to work for a peace process stretching from a ceasefire through providing relief and refuge, to finding a political agreement.

Concern, Goal and Trócaire have long experience and widespread public support, giving strong credibility to their call for this approach throughout the EU.