The first round of Geneva peace talks between the Syrian government and the Western backed faction of the opposition known as the Syrian National Coalition have concluded without any tangible outcome. The Western promoted deal to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged central section of Homs and evacuate civilians who want to leave the Old City remains stalled, amid a deadlock between two sides over the transition of power.
Despite UN Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi’s statement on Sunday that the Syrian government had consented the transfer of women and children from Homs through safe corridors, there has been no tangible action. The Syrian state news agency SANA said that Homs governor Talal al-Barazi gave assurance that all measures for the evacuation of civilians were put in place, awaiting a response from the UN representative.
The Old City of Homs has been under under siege since June 2012. Homs used to have a population of three quarters of a million of whom about half were Arab Sunni (the balance being predominantly Alawite and Christian). Now only about 500 Arab Sunni families are left. Of these about 4,000 people, some of whom are rebel fighters but the bulk of whom are civilians, are said to be currently living in dire conditions, without proper supplies of water, food and medicine. Activists in Homs issued a plea on Tuesday, urging the opposition delegates to insist on lifting of the 600-day siege. They asserted that, without any concrete steps towards ending the siege, “all solutions will be futile, and will do nothing to end this tragedy”.
The Position in International Law:
Under international humanitarian law (IHL), parties to an armed conflict are under an obligation to protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and prisoners of war). The protection afforded to the first category finds its origins in the principle of distinction, a norm of customary international law, which suggests that parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The armed violence across Syria is currently being described as an armed conflict of a non-international character which paves the way for the application of Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol II and customary international humanitarian law. Although Syria is not a party to the Additional Protocol II and accordingly its provisions are not directly applicable, Common Article 3 and the customary IHL provide a sound legal basis for the protection of civilians trapped in Homs via humanitarian aid and evacuation. According to Rule 24 of the ICRC Study on Customary IHL, which originates from “a general practice accepted as law”, “Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove (evacuate) civilian persons and objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives”. In its Kupreškić judgement, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) also affirmed the customary nature of this duty.
Speaking to the reporters in Geneva on Thursday, UN Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said that he was “extremely disappointed” with the delay in delivery of humanitarian assistance to Homs. Describing the talks as “tense but rather promissing”, Brahimi expressed his hope that when the talks reconvene for a second round, they will be able to have a “more structured discussion”. Brahimi has called for the resumption of the talks on 10th February and is waiting for confirmation that this is acceptable from the Syrian government.
One of the Board members of the NCF sent us this comment on the talks:
As peace conferences go, the effort to begin discussions to end the horrific Syrian civil war is on somewhat wobbly ground. William Morris, head of the Next Century Foundation quite aptly characterized the atmosphere in Geneva as "cautiously pessimistic."
The big cloud over these talks was the absence of participation of key players in these talks. These include Iran -- which was invited and disinvited in one of the more embarrassing public displays of international discord surrounding these talks.
Other key absences include the secular opposition such as those supporting former Vice President Rifaat al-Asad. (Curiously, Dr. Rifaat was spotted in Geneva, and his presence undoubtedly raised questions among those government and Islamist opposition present as to what this might signify.)
Other notable absentees were key internal opposition elements ranging from the Islamist jihadist to the Kurdish coalition which has established an autonomous zone of eight Syrian districts in the north eastern part of the country.
On the more positive side, representatives of the two sides met face to face alone for the first time on Saturday with the UN seated between them. This session was not attended by any of the principal leaders of either the government or the the opposition teams in attendance at this meeting due to what one might call "protocolular hubris." Jarba would not attend, so neither did the three top Syrian government representatives.
Not that this really mattered.
They all spoke through UN Envoy Lakhdar Ibrahimi and not to each other (which may have been a good thing as it reduced insults and personal invective to a minimum.
Thankfully, other back channel and back room discussions of other mechanisms to advance this process forward are in play. Perhaps this is why Dr. Rifaat is in the vicinity. It is too early to tell if these still confidential proposals have traction, but it is clear that some thinking "outside the box" will be necessary if the Syrian question is to move away from a killing field and towards some kind of more positive resolution.