The Syrian government and its opponents, in their first face-to-face meeting, on Saturday discussed opening an aid corridor to the besieged old city neighborhood of Homs, raising hopes that a humanitarian gesture might spur progress toward ending Syria’s devastating civil war.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, said a convoy with food, medicines and supplies could go in as soon as Monday – if agreement can be reached with local belligerents on Sunday.
The old city has been under siege for well over a year, and the last aid delivery there was in November 2012, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross told McClatchy. He said the ICRC, and its partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, have repeatedly been refused permission to send in food and medicine.
The ICRC does not know how many people are living in the largely destroyed old town, but estimates there are between 1,000 and 3,000, said Robert Mardini, the ICRC director of operations in the Middle East.
Louay Safi, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s negotiating team, told reporters his group believed there might 500 families still in the besieged areas of Homs, suggesting a slightly higher number of individual men, women and children, given aid group estimates that the average Syrian family includes seven people.
“People have been eating animals from the street…leaves and grass,” Safi said. “Nothing gets in – food or water,” and residents of the old city have to dig wells to get water, he said.
“Homs is a test balloon,” Safi said. “We want to see if the regime will be able to provide food to people who are going hungry.”
While most of Homs is under government control, some rebel-controlled districts have been the target of fierce government attacks this week, and even as the negotiators were meeting here, the Houla district was under shell fire, according to the anti-government Local Coordinating Committees. Also attacked this week were the Homs districts of al Waar, al Hamra and al Ghouta, activists reported.
Elsewere in Syria, anti-government activists reported government helicopters had dropped so-called barrel bombs – improvised explosive devices with immense destructive force – on Daraya, a Damascus suburb, and had shelled several other places. At least seven people were killed, the committees said.
There were airstrikes against two towns in the vicinity of Homs on Wednesday, resulting in 10 deaths and the destruction of residential buildings, according to activists.
Asked about the continued shelling even as peace talks kick off, Brahimi said, “It is very unfortunate that the fighting continues, that the shelling continues.” He said it was “extremely unfortunate” that barrel bombs were being used, as they are a forbidden weapon under international law. But he said he had not raised the subject in the talks so far.
Brahimi hosted two rounds of talks Saturday, lasting about three hours in total, he said. “We haven’t achieved much, but we are continuing,” he said.
The first rounds of face-to-face talks were devoted to so-called confidence building measures, and both sides sent lesser-known figures to represent them. No United States or Russian diplomats, the two outside powers backing the Syrian protagonists, were present for the talks.
The opposition delegation was led by Hadi al Bahra, a Kansas-trained engineer who was named chief negotiator only Friday. The Syrian government delegation was led by Bashar Jaafari, the country’s ambassador to the U.N. But Brahimi said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallam was at the Palace of Nations, the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters where the talks were held, and that he had spoken with him.
The two sides are due to meet twice on Sunday, with the topics expected to be the release of prisoners held in government jails and other humanitarian measures to improve the atmosphere, Brahimi said. The talks on the central political dispute of the conflict – the naming of a transitional government with full executive powers to replace the current government led by President Bashar Assad – will begin Monday, he said.
By Roy Gutman
McClatchy Foreign Staff