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Syrian peace deal allows civilians to leave Homs

14 February 2014


Salvage operation: residents collect their belongings near a damaged church in Qusair, on Saturday

Salvage operation: residents collect their belongings near a damaged church in Qusair, on Saturday

THE first fragments of the foundations for a Syrian peace deal have been laid in the form of a limited agreement to allow some civilians to escape a blockade of Homs that has been enforced by the government since the middle of 2012. But there is no sign of the willingness to compromise that will be neededif representatives of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian opposition are to end the civil conflict.

On the positive side, about 1100 civilians, mainly elderly men and women, and children, were allowed to leave the city at the weekend after an agreement brokered by the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. They were shown trudging towards UN vehicles with whatever possessions they could carry.

Urgent talks mediated by both the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent brought an agreement to extend the truce for a further three days from Monday, although logistical difficulties forced the suspension of operations on Tuesday. The Syrian government's conditions have stipulated that young men of fighting age suspected of having taken part in the fighting against the army, would not be allowed to leave Homs.

In the event, some 300 men joined the other civilians, and were immediately detained for questioning by the security services. About one-third were allowed to leave. The UN said that it was concerned about the detention of the men, and would insist that they be treated in accordance with international standards.

But the success of the Homs initiative falls short of an agreement to stop the civil war. A UN report published last week, which focused on the plight of children between March 2011 and November 2013, concluded that they had been subjected to "unspeakable" suffering.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, called for "all parties to the conflict to take, without delay, all measures to protect and uphold the rights of all children in Syria." Mr Ban said that the report highlighted the fact that the "use of weaponry and military tactics that are disproportionate and indiscriminate by government forces and associated militias has resulted in countless killings and the maiming of children, and has obstructed children's access to education and health services."

Both sides in the conflict are accused of recruiting children as fighters. In some cases, children as young as 11 were detained by government forces for allegedly associating with rebel fighters. Some of these young detainees were ill-treated and tortured to extract confessions or humiliate them, or to force a relative to surrender or confess.

The difficulty that Mr Brahimi faces is that he has thus far failed to persuade the two sides participating in the Geneva talks to agree on the fundamental subjects to be discussed. The government delegation insists that proper negotiationscan begin only when the issue of "terrorism" - as the anti-Assad insurgency is characterised in Damascus - is addressed.

The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, described a fruitless meeting on Tuesday as "another lost day", because the opposition had insisted "that terrorism in Syria does not exist and [they] did not want to discuss it".

For their part, the opposition representatives said that the main premise of any serious talks should be the removal of President Assad - a notion rejected out of hand by the government. So, an early breakthrough in the talks seems a far-off prospect. The most pressing question at the moment is whether the Geneva process can even be kept upright on such meagre foundations.

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