Syria: UN-mediated talks get under way; relief agencies amplify calls for access to besieged civilians

Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura (left) meets with Syria’s Ambassador to the UN in New York Bashar Ja’afari at the Intra-Syrian Geneva Talks 2016. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

29 January 2016 – With United Nations-mediated talks on ending the five-year crisis in Syria getting under way today as scheduled, UN relief agencies and their partners are reiterating their appeal for unhindered access by relief workers to more than four million desperate people spread across 18 besieged areas in the war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva after the first set of intra-Syrian talks, which today featured only a Government delegation headed by the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said that as was standard practice, a “preparatory meeting” had been held to get an idea about what the next steps will be.

“Now the issue is obviously that any type of ceasefire discussions, which is obviously something that we are aiming at, apart from substantive discussions on the future of Syria, need two interlocutors […] that is why for us it is very important to have an indication of where we are on the presence of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC)” he said, referring to the ongoing discussions among the opposition about attending the Geneva talks.

One of their key concerns he said, included the desire “to see a gesture from the government authorities regarding some type of improvement for the people in Syria during the talks, for instance release of prisoners, or for instance some lifting of sieges.”

While noting that this particular issue is part of a UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Syria, Mr. de Mistura said that “we have been strongly suggesting to them that the best way to actually discuss the implementation of such type of discussion and there after improvement is to be done here and to do it with us, as proxy talks or directly; whatever the format.”

At the same time, he said that he expected his talks with the delegation of the Syrian opposition could begin on Sunday.

“I have good reasons to believe that they are actually considering that very seriously. And therefore to be in a position to probably Sunday to actually start the discussions with them in order to be able to proceed with intra-Syrian talks," he said, adding, that while there has been no official confirmation of the opposition attending the talks, “as you can imagine I've been hearing a lot of rumours and information already […] I have reasons to believe, but I will only react when I have a formal indication of that, but that is a good signal."

Responding to questions, Mr. de Mistura said that tomorrow, “depending on if and when we have the arrival of an additional delegation, and based on that, I will decide whether we have, like we had with the Government, a specific introduction meeting […] or whether there would be something on Sunday.”

Meanwhile, on the humanitarian front, speaking to reporters at the regular bi-weekly press briefing in Geneva earlier today, Bettina Luescher, for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said there are an estimated 4.6 million people were besieged in 18 areas.

“WFP is appealing that all humanitarian actors be given access to those areas so that they can deliver life-saving aid,” she said, referring to the town of Madaya and the similarly besieged areas of Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya, flagged by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) as being in dire need of food, medical supplies and other aid.

As for the situation in Madaya – the most widely known of Syria's besieged towns, coming to the world's attention after reports of people dying of starvation or being killed trying to flee – she said there was nothing new to report as far as humanitarian access to the more than 40,000 people remaining there.

“It is a very complicated and bureaucratic process, and only a very small number of permissions have been given access to besieged areas, where tens of thousands of families are still waiting for aid,” said Ms. Luescher, adding: “This is why putting an end to the fighting is paramount. WFP is talking to all sides, but an agreement has to be made on the ground.”

She went on to stress that it is also important to think of all the places which might not be in the headlines today, where men, women and children are desperate and in need of urgent help.

Asked if WFP has considered air-dropping supplies, Ms. Luescher said this was a “very hard thing to pull off,” requiring a safe airspace as well as a secured area on the ground, where large packages could land safely. There also had to be people on the ground to distribute those goods. That is not possible under the current situation. Trucks are the safest way to deliver aid at the moment, she explained.


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