No news is what passes for breaking news coming out of the Syria talks that started in Geneva over the weekend. It’s like watching a poker game where the cards are dealt, then re-dealt, then examined, but nobody makes a serious bet. And, oh, by the way, they only speak to the dealer, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, not to each other.
Yet the fact of the talks is critically important. Millions of lives hang in the balance. The only alternative is war without end.
On Sunday, finally, there were hints of a slight accomplishment: women and children trapped for months in government-besieged neighborhoods of Homs, a strategic city near the Lebanese border, are supposed to be allowed to leave. Brahimi had hoped to get an aid convoy into them with food and medical supplies but that could not be agreed upon.
The big-picture purpose of the talks, to cobble together a transition government that would remove President Bashar Assad from power, remains a very long way off—an all-in bet, as it were, at a time when both sides hesitate to toss their ante onto the table.
“To bring Syria out of the ditch in which it has fallen will take time,” Brahimi told reporters in Geneva, as he defended what is likely to be a very long and very frustrating process if, indeed, it can be kept going at all. “I think being too slow is a better way than going too fast,” said Brahimi. “If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week.”
In the meantime, tragically, more people continue losing their lives in a conflict where 130,000 people have perished already. In Homs, several mortar rounds reportedly hit the neighborhoods under siege on Sunday.
Conversations among politicians, philanthropists and humanitarian workers attending the World Economic Forum, which ended Saturday in Davos, Switzerland, gave a pretty good picture of how difficult it’s going to be to translate even the slightest gains at the negotiating table into substantive hope for those suffering in the Syrian war.
Some called angrily for greater action by the United Nations, including an unequivocal U.N. Security Council Resolution demanding that humanitarian corridors be opened. Many such initiatives appear to have been blocked by Russia, which is supporting Assad, but in truth, the United States and other members have been reluctant to push them too hard lest they have to be backed up by a military intervention that Washington wants to avoid.
Billionaire philanthropist George Soros is especially strident as he denounces Assad’s “starve or surrender” campaign, and David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, cautions that Soros’s hope in Syria, as it was in Bosnia, may be for an external military solution. At a dinner Soros hosted in Davos he didn’t go that far, but as he and his chosen guests denounced inaction, their logic trended toward the need for force.
The Security Council “has failed shamefully,” said Kofi Annan, who was head of U.N. peacekeeping operations during the Bosnian slaughter and Rwandan genocide, then held the top job of Secretary General, and, after his retirement, briefly served as Brahimi’s predecessor in 2012 trying to broker peace in Syria. “The Security Council has failed the world, the region’s behavior has not been better, and the population of Syria is hopelessly divided,” said Annan.
“There are no heroes,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, another retired U.N. official close to Soros and his International Crisis Group.
In fact, there are a great many non-violent humanitarian heroes working on the ground in Syria every day. More Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in this conflict than in any other since records have been kept. The World Food Program, working with local nongovernmental organizations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is feeding more than 3.5 million people forced from their homes inside the country, and another 3 million outside, with the numbers growing all the time.
If we taken as a given that peace is a long way off, one of the most positive things that could come out of the Geneva talks would be measures that make the humanitarian work on the ground a little bit more productive and a lot safer.
Peter Maurer is head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization that requires no U.N. mandate to act, and is well known for its discretion, since it has to work with all sides of a conflict to try to assure humane treatment of civilians and prisoners.
At Davos, Maurer spoke bluntly of the “downward spiral” in Syria, “where poor security, restrictions by the government, and lack of acceptance by some of the armed groups create a climate in which it is almost impossible to get into besieged areas.” There are all sorts of barriers, he said: some are open political objections, some are bureaucratic obstacles. Sometimes when the ICRC has sent 50 advisories to the government and 30 requests, “and we have all green lights to go in, we are stopped at roadblocks and convoys have to return. This is the reality.”
In the Geneva talks another area where Brahimi hopes to cobble together a confidence building agreement is about prisoners, in hope exchanges can be arranged. And once again the ICRC experience suggests just how hard that will be to put into effect, even if it there’s an accord on paper.
The ICRC has not been allowed into Syria’s prisons or its detention centers, where investigations by human rights groups and thousands of photographs recently released by Syrian opposition forces suggest torture and killing take place on an industrial scale. The ICRC is kept out, said Maurer, even though Assad “promised me more than a year ago that we would have access according to our rules as we apply them in more than 80 countries of the world.”
But grim as the prison situation may be, Maurer said he is especially worried about the breakdown of Syria’s health care system. “This is a time bomb which preoccupies us most,” he told a panel at Davos. Several cases of polio have turned up; the risk of other epidemics is growing and threatens the entire region. “Viruses do not stop at borders,” said Maurer.
On the ground, “we will continue to try the best we can to negotiate spaces where a little bit of something can trickle in,” said Maurer, “but it’s terribly difficult.”
So, little deals like the one in Geneva this weekend may not be important as breaking news, but anything that can be done to help the people of that broken country is a step forward.