The effort to find a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war resumed in Geneva on Monday between government and rebel delegations. The failure this past weekend to honor a short cease-fire for humanitarian purposes underscored the very long odds that the U.N-brokered talks will yield a political end any time soon to a conflict that is turning into a war of attrition.
In July, the United Nations estimated that about 100,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict. More than 2 million have fled the country. About three-quarters of the refugees are women and children. In neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the influx poses heavy financial and political risks. An additional 4 million or so are internally displaced. The toll of the conflict, which is nearing the three-year mark, is grim and inflicting incalculable damage on the country’s social and economic structures.
Humanitarian agencies document the worsening conditions for civilians caught in the brutal struggle for power. Government forces, as well as rebel factions, are laying siege to enemy strongholds, preventing the entry of food and medical supplies in an attempt to starve opponents into surrender. The result is rising starvation and disease in the targeted areas, civilians surviving in some cases on weeds and grass. Among the most desperate situations are the heavily bombed rebel-controlled areas in the city of Homs, which have been under siege by pro-government forces for more than a year.
The cease-fire negotiated by the U.N. aimed to break the Homs siege for 12 hours a day from Friday through Sunday, enabling aid agencies to send food and medical supplies into the city and to evacuate women, children and the elderly. But the operation met resistance. Truck convoys bearing aid supplies came under mortar and sniper attacks. More than a dozen civilians were killed fleeing their neighborhoods or waiting for evacuation. In the end, aid workers managed to deliver food and medicine to the besieged neighborhoods and to evacuate roughly 700 of the estimated 2,500 civilian residents.
The forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels accuse each other of violating the cease-fire. If the hope was that the temporary cease-fire would serve as a model, a humanitarian stop-gap to reduce the suffering while the Syrian delegations hashed out the conditions for peace, the attacks make clear that even that modest goal is hostage to the entrenched interests.