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Focus on truce

Feb 12,2014 - Last updated at Feb 12,2014

In a war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, injured many more and devastated most of the country, this week’s three-day humanitarian truce allowing for the evacuation of stranded families in the old city of Homs presented a rare sign of hope, largely symbolic, in what has become an intractable conflict.

The UN-mediated truce was shaky. The Syrian government and the opposition traded accusations when international relief convoys were hit by mortars. But the evacuation effort continued and those weary civilians coming out from the midst of gutted buildings told harrowing stories of their ordeal that lasted for many months.

It was another reminder that the humanitarian side of this three-year-old conflict is one that the international community has failed to address adequately.

No one really knows what will happen next. The truce might be extended for a few more days. There are still people in old Homs who are not able to come out. And once the relief operation is concluded fighting will most likely resume.

Most of those who remain in the city’s destroyed centre are opposition fighters, and the regime will not be so forgiving.

As the UN tried to salvage the Homs truce, the regime continued to drop tens of explosive barrels on Aleppo, forcing the majority of residents in the rebel-held areas to abandon the city. The death toll among civilians there is in the hundreds.

There are also hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped in rebel-held areas in the two Ghoutas, Yarmouk and in Daraya near Damascus.

At least eight million Syrians are internally displaced, with limited access to aid and relief.

The magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Syria is beyond imagination. Both the regime and the opposition accuse each other of using civilians as human shields.

As the second round of Geneva II talks opened on Monday, most Syrians were sceptical about the ability of the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to force the two sides to agree on anything.

But the Homs operation gave some hope.

In the first round last month, Brahimi was quick to bring up the issue of forming a transitional body with full executive powers to run Syria. But the government’s side refused to discuss it — agreeing instead to tackle the points in the Geneva communiqué one by one and focusing on battling terrorism.

The opposition refused, citing UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which gave priority to forming that contentious body.

It would be encouraging if Brahimi focused instead on confidence-building measures, starting from what happened in Homs this week.

Can he convince both sides to declare a humanitarian truce in other towns and cities?

Even more, will he be able to convince the two warring sides to adopt a ceasefire in certain areas?

The talks are supposed to go on until Friday. But few believe that a breakthrough on anything is possible.

The regime is feeling buoyant at the moment; it still enjoys Moscow’s backing and is making modest headway on the ground, especially in Aleppo.

If the regime can retake the city, it will be an important military and political victory. It will cut off supply lines to the rebels in the north from Turkey. For the regime, this can change everything.

The opposition’s stance is not as good. The head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, travelled to Moscow last week but came back empty-handed. He was told to expand the opposition’s front to include dissenting groups such as the coordination committees and the Kurds.

But Jarba got nothing from the Russians on the fate of President Bashar Assad.

In reality, the two sides can achieve little in Geneva.

Syria is a victim of regional and international power struggles.

The anatomy of the conflict is complex.

Syria is being played as a card, among many, between Washington and Moscow, and more generally between the Russians and the West.

Unless the two sides can manage to move forward on intersecting issues, such as the Ukraine uprising and the deployment of US missile defence system in Europe, the Syrian issue will go nowhere.

Chief adviser to the Syrian president, Buthaina Shaaban, said last week that the outcome of the war in Syria will determine which axis will have the upper hand in the region.

The United States is busy with other challenges as well, such as preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process and nuclear talks with Iran.

Keeping the two sides engaged in Geneva is acceptable for now. Rearming the non-radical opposition in Syria so as to maintain the status quo on the ground is another option.

We should not expect much to occur in the coming few weeks, except more fighting on different fronts.

All Brahimi can do now is to keep the political process alive and push for an accord on the humanitarian side of the conflict.

The Russians do not want to involve the UN Security Council at this stage. And efforts to set up a special tribunal on Syria’s war crimes have failed.

It is up to the two sides to find ways to salvage the talks.

There is one positive angle to all this: Neither side wants to withdraw from the peace talks now, so as not to be blamed for their failure.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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