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World >

Cautious optimism for Syria's temporary ceasefire

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent

Posted: 16 Sep 2016 @ 12:04


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Pumping: a girl fills a container with water on the first day of Eid al-Adha celebrations, in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus


Pumping: a girl fills a container with water on the first day of Eid al-Adha celebrations, in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus

AID agencies are hoping that the seven-day ceasefire in Syria, arranged by the United States and Russia, will be robust enough to enable vital supplies to be delivered to Aleppo and other towns and cities where civilians have been trapped for many weeks. At the same time, there have been further allegations that the UN in Syria is being manipulated by the government.

Earlier this year, 56 Syrian humanitarian organisations put their names to a report, Taking Sides: The United Nations loss of impartiality, independence and neutrality in Syria (News, 24 June). Now, 73 NGOs that provide assistance to the needy in Syria and neighbouring countries have signed a statement that raises “concerns about the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus and their partners, particularly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC)”. The groups accuse the Syrian government of having “a significant and substantial influence” on the UN: “We must express our concern over the manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts. . . The Syrian government has interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in multiple instances.”

The US-Russian-brokered ceasefire came into effect on Monday evening, and initial indications were that it was being observed in most areas. But hopes that the truce represents anything more than a temporary reduction in the intensity of fighting are slim. The complexity of the conflict, with countless Syrian and foreign forces involved and pursuing differing objectives, means that the path towards any deal is strewn with obstacles.

First, the terms of the truce allow the Damascus government and its allies to continue their campaign against both Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Targeting individual organisations amid a vast array of forces lined up against the Syrian authorities will not be easy. Second, one of the main Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham, has refused to accept the ceasefire, and others have echoed its concern that the truce will merely strengthen the position of the government and its forces.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing any longer-term political deal is the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Rebels groups and their Arab backers are unequivocal in their insistence that his departure from the country is a non-negotiable pre-condition of any deal. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, believe that it is essential that the President remains in power at least until the end of a transition period.

Mr Assad appeared to pour cold water on both the temporary truce, and international efforts to find a political solution to the five-year-long crisis, when he said on Monday that the Syrian state was “determined to recover every area from the terrorists, and to rebuild”. Neither the Syrian leader nor those opposing him are in the mood to compromise, which means that further violence seems inevitable, whether or not the current temporary truce holds.


Priest defends Assad talks A PRIEST criticised for meeting the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has defended the trip, arguing that Western reports of the conflict are one-sided, and that the voices of Syrians, including Christians, are going unheard, writes Madeleine Davies.

The Revd Andrew Ashdown, a priest in the diocese of Winchester, returned to the UK last week after leading a week-long delegation to Syria. His peers criticised the trip, after a picture appeared on the Syrian state news agency website, showing the group sitting down to talk with President Assad.

The morning after his return, Mr Ashdown defended the trip: “The people within Syria, of all faiths and all sectarian backgrounds, are appalled at the narrowness of Western media reporting and one-sidedness. We went to hear their voices.”

During the trip, the group met also met the government ministers for reconciliation and tourism. “There are very good people in the Syrian government, and also some very bad,” Mr Ashdown said. “But no conflict can be resolved without talking to the key parties involved. . . Whether we like it or not, we need to be talking to the Syrian government.”

The group accepted an invitation from the President to meet him, Mr Ashdown confirmed. On arrival, the President had said: “I appreciate you coming here to see a monster,” and told them that they were free to put any questions to him. They had confronted him with questions about gassing, barrel bombs, and torture. President Assad had provided answers during the “two hours of frank, open discussion and dialogue”. “It was a huge privilege,” Mr Ashdown said, “and it was open and honest.”

The UK has suspended all services of the British Embassy in Damascus, and all diplomatic personnel have been withdrawn from the country. The British Government has repeatedly condemned the “brutal violence” of the Assad regime, and supports the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition (HNC), which it describes as “an organisation representing the moderate opposition”. It expelled Syrian diplomats in 2012, in protest at the killing of civilians in Houla (News, 1 June 2012).

“I am not denying atrocities,” Mr Ashdown said. “But what I am saying is that our media presentation is so biased and one-sided it does not reflect reality.”

Christians in Syria “cannot understand the attitude of Christian leaders in the West towards them”, he went on. “If the international community wins, we have been told by everybody across the faith political spectrum that Christianity will be out of Syria. All Christians will leave.”

The consistent message from Syrians who met the group was that they wished to see an end to the involvement of foreign powers and to decide their own future, he said.

The delegation led by Mr Ashdown included Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Baroness Cox, and Lord Hylton. They went at the invitation of religious leaders: the Armenian Archbishop of Damascus, Armash Nalbandian; the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Antoine Audo; the President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Syria, the Revd Harou­tune Selimian; and the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun. Mr Ashdown described the Grand Mufti as a “spiritually profound leader . . . a person we ought to be listening to”.

Mr Ashdown emphasised that the group had met people of all faiths and sectarian backgrounds. A press release issued by the group spoke of a commitment to “impartiality and solidarity with all those who are suffering”, and described the trip as a “pastoral visit to the suffering people”. This is Mr Ashdown’s fifth visit in two years. He left his parish post and appointment as an interfaith adviser to the diocese of Winchester last year.

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