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A Faux “Humanitarian Pause” in Homs?

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Are the Warring Parties Playing Round Two of Geneva II?

A Faux "Humanitarian Pause" in Homs?

By Franklin Lamb

El Nubek, Syria. 

As two delegations, one representing the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, led by Bashar Assad, and the other claiming to represent the popular opposition which is seeking its overthrow, arrived in Switzerland this morning to continue with Round Two of Geneva II, there is uncertainty over the agenda and whether to extend this weekend's 36 hour "Humanitarian pause" to allow aid into the Old City of Homs.  Such a deal, which could come at any time, would bolster confidence ahead of the Round Two of the peace talks.

Some observers, including this one, predict that the ceasefire will in fact be extended as a result of a meeting on 2/10/14 being held between Syrian government officials here in Homs and UN representatives that will likely result in more civilians being allowed out of the old city later today or tomorrow.

But it is not certain.   And meanwhile, on 2/10/14, the meager amounts of aid trickling into Yamouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus was stopped due to   yet another breach of a "humanitarian pause" that was agreed upon last week.

The governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, has advised journalists and observers gathered in his office yesterday that the ceasefire may be extended by a further three days; to allow all those who might want to leave the chance to do so. The operation to help trapped civilians in Homs was the one concrete agreement reached at recent peace talks in Geneva, which are due to resume on Monday.

There remains much mistrust and plenty of PR jockeying from both sides as the public awaits the sound of the gavel from UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to resume discussions to end the killing in Syria. The new opposition team, at press time, is not fully identified but has announced that it wants the focus of Round Two to be solely or how to transition ( it demands a  clean slate in Damascus)  and nothing else.

In contradistinction, Syrian government Presidential Political and Media Adviser Dr. Buthaina Shaaban argues that the continuing essential problem in the search for a political solution through the Geneva track lies in the fact that "we don't know whom is representing those who came by the name of opposition, how many, and what is their relation to Syria."  She added that the coalition delegation came to Geneva for discussing one word in the 12/12/13 Geneva I Communiqué; transition.   Whereas the Syrian official delegation wants initially to discuss the first item in the Communiqué, the halt of violence, combating terrorism and the preservation of state institutions.

Whether there will be an extension of the just competed "three day" humanitarian pause cease-fire" is not yet sure. In point of clarification, the  so-called "three day" partial ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to the area which for more than 600 days has experienced nearly daily bombardment of the city which is labeled by some as the "Birthplace of the Revolution." is a misnomer in the extreme. The so-called "Humanitarian Pause" such as it was, never comprised three days. Rather in reality it was for less than 36 hours given that aid deliveries and evacuations were strictly limited to 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. over three days.

One spokesman for a European aid organization, attempted to enlighten this observer on the ceasefire terms by claiming that " After 6 p.m. any aid distributors within a snipers scope is fair game and they are for warned. I told them it is kind of like caveat emptor after six or before six."

Frankly, the gentleman could not be more mistaken and he should have known better given his job. His view constitutes a shocking and fundamentally flawed edict  and misstatement of applicable binding international norms anchored in black letter public international humanitarian law, including but not limited to the Geneva Conventions and other principles, standards and rule of international humanitarian law requiring protection by all belligerents of aid workers whenever and wherever they perform their humanitarian work.  Nor can International customary law and treaty law on this subject be abrogated bilaterally by warring parties who may choose not to kill aid workers or civilians only during a mutually declared 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. day shift.

The aid workers in Homs, as are all civilians, are inviolate during military action.  Nor is there any suggestion that either party has complied international law, which requires all warring factions to allow unconditional humanitarian access. It is no excuse, but there does appear, according to information given to these observers from local residents, that more than 30 different armed groups operate in the Old City, making any agreement among them unlikely.  The   Regional Advisor of UNICEF,   Mr . Geoffrey Ijumba a reasonable sounding fellow, claims that "the main stumbling block is that the 30 plus militia groups inside Homs want guarantees that the aid will still be delivered to the Old City once the civilians are evacuated." An extended ceasefire, given recent government military gains is, according to some observers monitoring developments in Homs, a rather tough precondition to expect from the Syrian government given the price it has paid for advancing militarily over the past two years in this area.

There is currently plenty of mistrust and much PR jockeying from both sides. The new opposition team, at press time not fully identified, wants the focus of Round Two to be solely transition and nothing else. Syrian government Presidential Political and Media Adviser Dr. Buthaina Shaaban strongly argues that an essential problem in the search for a political solution through the Geneva track lies in the fact that "we don't know whom is representing those who came by the name of opposition, how many, and what is their relation to Syria."  She added that the coalition delegation came to Geneva for discussing one word in the Geneva I Communiqué; transition whereas  the Syrian official delegation wants initially to discuss the first item  in the Communiqué, the halt of  violence, combating terrorism and the preservation of state institutions. For its part, Damascus has been keen to portray the humanitarian deal outside the framework of talks, with pundits and parliamentarians taking to the airwaves to tout the deal as evidence of the government's ongoing efforts to aid civilians. It has come under pressure from its allies Russia and Iran to make humanitarian concessions.

Predictably perhaps, both sides accuse the other of violations of the claimed three-day humanitarian aid ceasefire as the Opposition team announced that its delegation to "Round Two" was being re-configured.  Many observers of Genera II judged that the strong personalities and intellects of the Syrian delegation, including Foreign Minister Walid Mouallum, Dr. Bouthania Shaaban, and Minister of Information Omran Zoubi as well as Faisal Mekdad, among others, "won" Round I of the public relations challenge of G II and that the Obama Administration via John Kerry advised the opposition to that, "It had better field a stronger team or risk losing ground".

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Dr Shaaban's observations are the most credible.As... by George W.Reichel on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 12:05:37 PM