The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria today announced that ‘substantive’ UN-mediated peace talks will begin next Monday, as humanitarian aid convoys continue to reach more people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas following a nationwide cessation of hostilities that began on 27 February.
“Quite an achievement,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva, referring to the 238,485 people the UN and its partners have delivered aid to via 536 trucks.
Mr. de Mistura informed the press that participants have begun to arrive in the Swiss city, where he will hold “proximity talks” over the coming days as more of the parties arrive. He said he expects to start substantive discussions, known as the intra-Syrian talks on 14 March, in a round which he expects will end by the 24th.
“We believe that having a timetable and a time limit is healthy for everyone,” the Special Envoy noted. “When we start having the talks on Monday, the focus will be on substance, on the agendas, in other words on new governance, constitution, and elections, the future elections in 18 months’ time, both presidential and parliamentarian.”
Turning to the humanitarian situation, Mr. de Mistura’s Special Advisor, Jan Egeland, highlighted the progress made in recent weeks.
“Ten areas have been reached by UN and partners, several with multiple convoys,” he announced. “UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East]has had progress reaching people in Yarmouk, and WFP [World Food Programme] has been systematically working to overcome all of the obstacles to be able to do airdrops to Deir ez-Zor.”
However, Mr. Egeland added that six “important” besieged areas – including Darayya and Douma – remain unreached as permits and security guarantees have not yet been obtained. He also underlined that April will be “the month of new procedures,” noting that these have been “too cumbersome” with too much time spent asking for permission for access.
“We believe by then we will have a more rational, speedier, easier system that will enable us to overcome this very black stain on the conscience of Syria and on the international community, namely that people starve in besieged areas and hard-to-reach areas while humanitarian workers have supplies that can reach them and are prevented from reaching women, children, other civilians in great need,” he stressed, adding that a “tremendous plan” to access more areas through the cessation of hostilities is underway.
Meanwhile, Yacoub El Hillo, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said the global community must work together to ensure that the ceasefire is not just extended for two weeks or two months, but that it lasts.
“Looking at the horizon between now and April, we are aiming to reach 870,000 people in hard-to-reach areas, but also the specific locations in besieged areas that we have so far not been able to reach,” Mr. El Hillo said.
“The hope is that in the next few days, with the help of members of the taskforce, we will be able to complete deliveries and reach the thousands of people trapped in these places,” he added, referring to humanitarian task force set up by the International Syria Support Group to ensure access and the delivery of aid.