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Syrian talks’ modest goals risk backfiring

Sides couldn’t even agree on aid

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures as he speaks during an interview with a Russian newspaper, in Damascus, Syria. As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures as he speaks during an interview with a Russian newspaper, in Damascus, Syria. As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

The failure of the first round of Syrian peace talks to achieve even their most modest goal – allowing humanitarian access to the city of Homs – now threatens to derail the effort to end the country’s civil war.

The government of President Bashar Assad has refused to let an aid convoy enter blockaded areas of Homs, blocking United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi’s effort to build confidence in the “Geneva II” talks by reaching consensus on matters less contentious than forming a transitional government that might not include Assad.

While President Obama said in his State of the Union address this week that “we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear,” the talks may have the opposite effect after the first round ended yesterday without tangible accomplishments.

“The regime can use agreements over humanitarian issues – which will be difficult to implement anyway – to claim that it is cooperating with the international community, even as the regime continues its brutal actions in Syria,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “The longer the Geneva II talks last, the longer the Assad regime can stay in power.”

Fighting and suffering continued as the government and its opposition began their first face-to-face talks last Saturday in Geneva. At least 1,900 people have been killed in Syria since the peace talks began, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday in an email.

Western diplomats monitoring the talks say they expect the negotiations to continue for weeks or months, and possibly more than a year.

“The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the first round of negotiations,” the United States and 10 other nations, including Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia, said yesterday in a joint statement. It condemned Assad for a “starve or surrender” strategy blocking humanitarian aid.

More than 130,000 people have died since the conflict started in March 2011, according to the U.N.

More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the three-year-old war, four times the number of just a year ago, according to Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

They include 5 million children, the equivalent of every student in the 25 largest U.S. school districts combined, Shah said yesterday in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. D.C. “The scale of this challenge is unprecedented,” he said.

Three former war crimes prosecutors on Jan. 20 accused Assad of torturing and killing about 11,000 detainees since the war’s start, in a report released to the Guardian newspaper in Britain that cites 55,000 photographs of the victims from a military police photographer who defected. Government forces have reduced thousands of homes in rebel-held areas to rubble in the past month, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

The U.N.’s World Food Program has readied trucks to deliver a month’s rations for about 2,500 people trapped inside the Old City of rebel-held Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters in Geneva.

The shipment includes 500 ready-to-eat family rations, 500 bags of wheat flour and 100 boxes of Plumpy’Doz, a specialized nutrition product made by the French company Nutriset that helps treat children suffering from acute malnutrition, Byrs said.

The U.N. Children’s Fund has sent the Syrian government a list of medical supplies it wants to send to civilians who haven’t received any aid for more than a year, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told reporters Jan. 28.

“All of these supplies are available at our warehouse in Homs and can go in as soon as we have a green light,” Mercado said. “At this stage, we have no clarity yet on when that may be.”

While it’s not unexpected for the Assad regime to “drag their feet on things they should already be doing,” the talks’ inability to prevent such stalling will strengthen its negotiating power and damage the fragile political standing of the moderate, Western-backed opposition, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Without a “force component,” the U.S. isn’t able to exercise direct leverage over the Assad regime, Tabler said. While Secretary of State John Kerry maintains that no option, including a military strike, is off the table, Obama has “no appetite” to use force against Syria, he said.

Obama’s last-minute cancellation of a September air strike in exchange for Assad agreeing to surrender his chemical weapons arsenal, has made it clear to the Syrian government that, at least for now, it faces no military retribution, Tabler said.

Kerry said today in Berlin that the regime is “not moving as rapidly as it promised to move the chemical weapons out of Syria.” He said the U.N. Security Council can take action against Syria if it fails to comply.

The opposition’s participation in the Geneva talks “has to lead to some sort of change, in either how Assad sees the situation or in how the international community is seeing things and what they decide to do about it,” Tabler said. “Unfortunately, there is no change on either of those fronts, and it seems unlikely there would be any until Russia and Iran make up their minds.”

Russia, Assad’s key ally, argues that while it’s not wedded to Assad, a political transition in Syria doesn’t necessarily mean regime change.

“Imagine Assad disappears: Who is going to keep it together?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Jan. 28 in Brussels, where a Russia-European Union summit was being held. “There is no answer.”

“If anyone is capable of bringing decisive pressure on Assad to knock off the worst of the criminal behavior, it would be Iran,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy research group. “Iran and Russia need to decide whether it’s in their respective interests to have their client continue to build a self-damning case for eventual war- crimes charges.”

Iran wasn’t officially been involved in the Geneva II talks after the U.N. rescinded its invitation.

With no demonstrable change from the Assad regime, Western diplomats who support the moderate opposition are considering whether to pressure the U.N. Security Council to pass a binding resolution requiring Assad to provide humanitarian aid access.

Council diplomats in New York are reviewing a draft by Australia and Luxembourg and another by Arab nations. They were discussing whether to put a resolution on the humanitarian situation to vote under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force or other measures if a country fails to comply.

Russia and China, which have veto power as permanent members of the Security Council, have blocked previous attempts to introduce such a resolution.

“Moscow is moved not in the least by the humanitarian abomination taking place in Syria,” said Hof.

After the first day of talks with the rival Syrians, Brahimi, an 80-year-old U.N. official from Algeria, said the meetings were “encouraging,” with all parties hoping that success on relief for Homs “will be the start of talking on other things.”

Seven days later, he said today that “the gap between the sides remain wide. There is no pretending otherwise.”

Even the date for the next meeting remained to be resolved. While the opposition agreed to resume talks on Feb. 10 in Geneva, Brahimi said, the Syrian government delegation was going to discuss that possibility with the leadership at home.

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