Karim Abou Merhi
Last updated: 31 January, 2014

Talking in Geneva, killing in Syria

As Syria’s regime and opposition held high-profile talks in upscale Swiss hotels, their country’s brutal conflict claimed the lives of nearly 1,900 people, far from the international spotlight.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and the opposition National Coalition, have little to show for the talks that began on January 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux and wrapped up Friday in Geneva.

On the ground there was no let-up in the brutality that has devastated the country since March 2011, with more than 130,000 people killed in nearly three years and some nine million displaced.

No ceasefire was agreed, talks on a transitional government never began, and a deal to allow aid into the besieged Old City of central Homs went nowhere.

In the nine days between the start of the conference through to Thursday night, 1,870 people were killed in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“There should have been a total halt to military operations and arrests during the talks,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Instead, the fighting continued as fiercely as ever, with an average of 208 deaths a day, he said.

The Britain-based Observatory said that at least 498 civilians were among those who died as the peace talks were under way.

Fighting between the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and rival rebel groups that erupted in early January continued unabated.

Activists also spoke of harrowing raids by regime forces on the northern city of Aleppo and the town of Daraya in Damascus province which were both hit by explosive-packed barrel bombs.

“During Geneva II, explosive barrel bombs have rained down on us,” activist Abu Kinan told AFP on Friday from Daraya.

“Today there were at least 12 and yesterday (Thursday) 20.”

Sole glimmer of hope

Echoing many regime opponents, Abu Kinan said the talks “have achieved nothing. They haven’t opened a single humanitarian corridor, they haven’t stopped the bloodshed, or the bombing.”

“Do you think that the regime is negotiating? Not at all. Daraya is being brought down on the heads of its residents to force them to surrender or accept a truce.”

The sole glimmer of hope was the entry on Thursday and Friday of food aid to tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged Palestinian Yarmuk camp.

But that development appeared to have taken place independently of peace talks in Geneva, where discussion on moving aid into the besieged Old City of Homs went nowhere.

“Since the regime says all of Homs’s residents are terrorists, including women and children under siege, it’s impossible for them to allow food to enter,” said Yazan, an activist in the Old City.

“At the same time, they’ve allowed aid into Yarmuk to show that where there are civilians, aid can enter, but nothing will be allowed into ‘terrorist’ areas,” he told AFP from central Syria.

The government offered safe passage out of Homs for women and children, but there was no deal on distribution of aid, with activists inside the city fearing arrest.

“The residents of Homs refuse humanitarian aid without a deal on roads and humanitarian corridors that will allow people to come and go. They don’t want just enough food for two days,” said Yazan.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre think tank, said the talks “are not affecting the trajectory of this conflict”.

“It’s not affecting even the trajectory of the humanitarian situation in the country,” he said.

“One of the great challenges… is whether diplomacy could have an impact on the situation on the ground,” he told AFP.

“It hasn’t done so right now, and I suspect that if the process is set up the way it is between regime and opposition, it’s not going to.”