Analysis

First Syria talks in 2 years — if they happen — will move slowly

In Syrian towns like Fua, Kefraya and Madaya, where hunger is widespread after nearly five years of civil war, the hours are ticking loudly, marking every delay in peace talks now set to begin Friday in Geneva, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes.

For Syrians under siege and desperate for aid, every delay counts

A Syrian girl waits with her family as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, on Jan. 11, 2016, the day the convoy went into the besieged town where thousands have been trapped without supplies for months and people are reported to have died of starvation. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

In a region where conflicts — and regimes — are measured in years and often in decades, a few days or even a few months can seem inconsequential.

Syria has been ruled by an Assad since 1971. Current president Bashar al-Assad has now clocked nearly 16 years in power.

Under him, the country is now just weeks from marking its fifth bleak year at civil war.

So this week's delay from Monday until Friday for UN-brokered talks between government and opposition in Geneva to try to even pause the war barely registers.

Yet in Syrian towns like Fua, Kefraya and Madaya, the hours are ticking loudly.

The UN says there are now 18 areas housing half a million Syrian people effectively cut off from the rest of the world.

Still under siege, they are places where, in the face of the widespread hunger, the minutiae of who is or isn't invited to the talks tentatively scheduled to begin tomorrow also fail the relevance test.

"We have to talk here about a matter of life or death," Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross said in an interview from Damascus.

Immediate worries

He was one of the few foreign aid workers to enter the town of Madaya earlier this month to deliver badly needed aid to more than 40,000 people living under siege.

"You know what I realized? I realized that many Syrians, they don't think 'future' anymore.

"They are really worried. What is going to happen tomorrow, in a week's time, in a month's time."

If the talks in Geneva do actually proceed without another delay, the next few days will put the Syrian crisis — and the plight of its people — front and centre on the international stage, a place that has eluded it for much of the five years it has raged.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for the Syria crisis, says he expects it will take two to three weeks to come up with a ceasefire. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

On Monday, the U.K. and Germany will co-host another donors' conference at which countries supportive of Syria, including Canada, will pledge millions of dollars to help the millions of Syrians whose lives have been interrupted by a vicious war.

And tomorrow could see the first talks between the Syrian regime and opposition figures in two years.

The UN special envoy overseeing the talks, Staffan de Mistura, said he envisions two to three weeks to just come up with a ceasefire and deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.

The rest of the talks could last up to six months.

Will they happen at all?

Syrian activists say that just in the handful of days that have slipped by since one aid convoy entered Madaya, as many as 10 people have died of hunger there.

Krysiek says many more convoys of food and medicine — and a way out — will be needed in Madaya and other places like it to avert an even deeper humanitarian disaster.

And yet the planned talks to end the suffering will be measured not by how long they will take to get help to those who need it but by whether they happen at all.

"There's a problem we need to clarify with de Mistura," one opposition member told pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera. "Is the principal aim for the negotiations to succeed, or to be held?"

As another measure of the low expectations, the negotiations will not even be face-to-face.

Success will be in simply getting the various sides in the same city — Geneva — "speaking" through de Mistura.

And in the background, U.S., Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Saudi and other interests seem to have determined the invitee list — partly causing the delay in the talks that had been scheduled to start on Monday.

If all sides make it on Friday, the hope is that no one walks out. But the expectation, even from de Mistura himself, is that someone inevitably will.

Not much faith

And yet even if the talks are held, Syrians — who stand to gain or lose the most depending on their progress — have little faith.

"My impression it is failing anyway. It's going to be a failure," says Dr. Mohammed Najjar, a U.K.- based medical doctor and activist close to the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

One of the main reasons: the West's refusal to acknowledge the opposition's "red line" where Assad is concerned, he says. Where once the U.S. said Assad must go, now it is busy persuading the opposition to engage in a process that accepts his presence.

A convoy of aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross waits on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya on Jan. 11, 2016. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

"They can see the terrorism of [the] Islamic State, but they don't see the terrorism that is coming from the regime and its allies," Najjar said in an interview.

"So this is why the Syrian people do not trust the Americans and do not trust that they are real friends."

The opposition had also insisted on an immediate end to the bombardment and the provision of humanitarian aid as preconditions for the talks.

The U.S. and others have pressured them to forget preconditions and just show up.

But for the opposition, the wrangle over who exactly is invited, and who is orchestrating that lineup, has loomed largest.

No such argument on the Syrian government side.

Word is that Walid Mouallem will lead that delegation. In a few short weeks, he will mark a decade as Syria's foreign minister.

For the Syrians living in places where minutes count, even one day of such talks will seem interminable.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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