Geneva, Asharq Al-Awsat—Hopes raised in the last two days for an agreement to allow humanitarian aid into the old town in the besieged Syrian city of Homs during the Geneva II conference were quashed on Sunday when the Syrian government refused to allow humanitarian aid convoys into the city.
The atmosphere at the conference became tense on Sunday following the failure to make a breakthrough in the two dossiers related to humanitarian issues—lifting the siege from Homs and releasing the detainees held by the Syrian government.
Following efforts by the US, the UN and Russia on a plan to deliver humanitarian aid to Homs, where an estimated 500 Syrian families are reported to be trapped by the fighting between rebels and government forces, the Syrian government delegation announced that “we must talk about the whole of Syria, not only Homs,” according to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad.
Miqdad said his government was prepared to allow women and children to leave the city, which has been besieged for eight months, but did not say it would allow food and humanitarian aid to enter. The government’s delegation demanded a list of the names of all men inside the city before allowing anyone out, in order to “ensure they are civilians.”
The opposition rejected the government’s proposal and said it did not see the government’s offer to allow women and children out of Homs as a breakthrough. A member of the opposition’s delegation, Louay Al-Safi, said the proposal was an act of “procrastination by the Syrian government.”
Robert Mardini, spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said evacuating civilians from the old town of Homs was a good idea, “but independent agencies such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent must be allowed in.”
Mardini added: “We are prepared to provide aid to Homs and other besieged Syrian areas if we receive agreement and security guarantees from all parties.” The opposition provided a document signed by all armed factions in Homs to allow humanitarian aid into the city, but the government refused to give such guarantees.
Meanwhile, UN and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said at a news conference on Sunday that “the government says women and children in the besieged area can leave immediately and the remaining [population] can leave, but we need their names first.”
Responding to a question on fears that the provision of the names of men in Homs would lead to their detention and possible death at the hands of the Syrian government, Brahimi said: “I think I was clear. The government said women and children can start leaving old Homs now, and the government is requesting a list of the names of civilians to ensure they are civilians, not insurgents.”
On lifting the siege, Brahimi said: “The UN team is discussing with the [Syrian] government allowing humanitarian aid into Homs and it is expected that the governor will discuss this with his advisers and with Damascus, and we hope something will happen today.”
Brahimi held separate meetings with each delegation to discuss the issue of detainees. The opposition provided a list of 20,000 names of detainees it says are being held in Syrian government prisons, demanding the release of women and children first. The Syrian government’s delegation refused to address the list.
Brahimi said a “long discussion” about the detainees was ongoing and added that “regardless of the discussions, we call on the government to release women, children and old age detainees.”
Faisal Miqdad, speaking at a news conference on Sunday, said a “friendly government”—referring to Russia—delivered the list previously, and after inspecting it, “we found that more than 60 to 70 percent of the names were of people who had not been detained and 20 percent were detainees, and as for the remainder, we do not know anything about them.”
Miqdad rejected the opposition’s demand to release children saying “we have no children detainees.”
The government asked the opposition to provide names of detainees held by the armed groups and the opposition agreed to try to bring these lists from groups which were under their authority or with which they had relations.
Despite failing to reach agreement between the two sides on humanitarian issues, political efforts continued.
Miqdad said “we will discuss the issue of reforms in Syria in the next few days.” In reply to a question on whether they will discuss the future of President Bashar Al-Assad, Miqdad said “the Syrian people will decide,” adding that “we are open to all issues which may lead to elections being held in Syria.”
On the development of the political process, Brahimi said “this is a political negotiation process and everything we discuss is political. On the first day no one gave any comment about this issue, I think both parties will present proposals on Monday for moving forward,” and that both sides will have to provide their visions for the forthcoming political process and the “mechanism of the transitional government” in Syria.
The opposition was expected to present a political roadmap including the removal of Assad from power, while the government’s team was expected to present a mechanism which allows elections to take place in which Assad could stand as a candidate.
Miqdad said: “President Assad is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic until the Syrian people say otherwise.” He added that the delegation had full powers at the negotiations.
Louay Al-Safi of the opposition delegation accused the Syrian government delegation of using “delaying tactics,” and said that a transition of power in Syria was inevitable.
The negotiations are expected to continue until Friday evening, at which time the first round ends and each party returns home, before returning for a second round a week later. Although Brahimi refused to put a timetable to the negotiations, the parties are preparing for the process to last a few months.
Western diplomatic sources in Geneva told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the process is complicated and long, and no one knows how the next phase will pan out, although what is important is to continue the dialogue, even if it is slow.”
Brahimi said “some people accuse me of being very slow, but being slow is better for progress. If you run, you may gain an hour, but may lose a week . . . we are moving slowly but we are making progress.” In reply to a question on whether he has made any progress, Brahimi said he made a “quarter of a step,” after saying the amount of progress was “half a step” on Saturday night.