Just two days after declaring the official start of delayed intra-Syrian talks in Geneva to end five years of bloody warfare, the United Nations mediator suspended them for three weeks today following differences between Government and opposition delegations on the priority of humanitarian issues.
“I have been asking even before issuing the invitations that there is an immediate implementation of a humanitarian initiative, even before the talks start,” UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told journalists, citing such issues as lifting sieges and providing access for humanitarian aid to all the places which are at the moment unreachable.
“I was told and reassured that they were going to take place during the talks. Well, I have been hearing from the Government that they had some procedural issues before talking about humanitarian side. I have been hearing from the opposition that they are urgently feeling the need for the Syrian people.”
He stressed that the suspension was only “a temporary pause” and not the end or failure of the talks, noting that both sides insist they are interested in having the political process begin. He set 25 February for the next session.
Mr. de Mistura has made clear from the start that he is under no illusions about the difficulties in ending a war that has killed over 250,000 people, sent over 4 million fleeing the country, displaced 6.5 million internally, and put 13.5 million people inside the country in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
“There will be a lot of posturing, we know that, a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or because someone has done an attack, and you will see that happening,” he said last week.
Today he was asked how he felt. “I’m not frustrated, I’m not disappointed, I have been long enough with the UN to know that when you have a five-years war and have had so many difficult moments, you have to be determined but also realistic,” he replied.
“When you see things going in a certain direction, you take – we are the convener, we manage the conference, we decide when the conference producing results or not and if they don’t produce results we need to go deeper, that’s what we are doing,” he said, dismissing the idea of holding talks just for the sake of holding talks.
“The UN cannot allow simple procedural matters to actually become more important than actually the results of humanitarian situation of the Syrian people who have been waiting for us to deliver this time, not a conference, but something concrete for them.”
He was asked if the military escalation by the Syrian government and the Russian bombardment have “basically bombed your talks.”
“I’m not referring to military activities, I’m saying to an impossibility through military activities and other reasons for the fact that the humanitarian signals which are meant to be sent to the Syrian people – for instance lifting of the sieges, for instance the access for all the places which are at the moment unreachable – should be seen,” he said.
“The whole matter is, again, are we here to have another Geneva conference without any result for the Syrian people, or are we serious about what we have been saying, that while we are having a conference, talking about the future, and political future of Syria, and the new constitution, and the new elections, the Syrian people will see and expect me and they expect all of us to produce something while we are talking.
“Since I am not seeing that, I have to be honest and say with myself, it is time now to have a pause only a pause and give time for this to happen.”
Mr. de Mistura declared the official start of the talks on Monday after meeting for two hours with the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) at the UN’s official Geneva headquarters in the Palais des Nations. He met Government representatives yesterday.
The talks between the sides are not face-to-face but indirect, involving ‘close proximity diplomacy,’ with the UN envoy shuttling between them in different rooms.
Both Government and opposition are reported to have denied that the talks have officially started but Mr. de Mistura said today: “They are talks, and the talks have started, you can call them as you want, but they were talks, but there is more work, more work, to be done.
“Not only by us, we have done our part. but by the stakeholders, who have been telling us ‘go and start this initiative,’ while in fact they, the Security Council and the ISSG, are now expected to address some of the issues pending, one in particular, what are these talks going to make as a difference to the Syrian people.”
The ISSG - the International Syria Support Group comprising the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries including the United States and Russia – laid the groundwork for the Geneva talks at a meeting in November.