HOPES that the start of 2017 would coincide with progress towards peace in Syria are fading, against a background of a worsening humanitarian crisis during a freezing winter.
A ceasefire, arranged by Russia and Turkey, came into effect last Friday, and received unanimous support from the UN Security Council the next day. This appeared to be effective in most places, but less so in Wadi Barada, an area north-west of Damascus controlled by rebel groups.
The Syrian government and its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, said that they were targeting jihadist groups that were excluded from the ceasefire deal. But other rebel groups said that the authorities were taking advantage of the ceasefire to try to retake Wadi Barada, an important source of water for the capital.
The intention of Russia, Turkey, and Iran was that the ceasefire would provide the prelude for the resumption of peace talks, involving the government and rebel groups, in Astana, in Kazakhstan. But on Monday, a range of opposition factions operating under the Free Syria Army umbrella said that the Syrian army and its allies had “continued their onslaught”, and had committed “many big breaches” of the truce.
As a result, the opposition leaders said that they were “freezing all discussions regarding the Astana negotiations or any other consultations regarding the ceasefire agreement until it is fully implemented”. The rebel groups ended their joint statement with a pessimistic assessment of the proposed Astana process. It said that the inability of Russia to impose the terms of the ceasefire agreement “makes us wonder at its ability to impose any other obligations . . . on the regime and its allies”.
One area where the guns are silent is Aleppo, the scene in the last quarter of 2016 of some of the most intense fighting seen since the Syria conflict began. But the hardship endured by civilians in and around the devastated city . . . continues.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in a report issued on Sunday, made an urgent appeal for donations “to provide immediate and long-term support to the over 100,000 highly vulnerable people in Aleppo, displaced, so they can continue to receive life-saving assistance and help. Tens of thousands of people in Aleppo still do not have sufficient water and electricity supply.”
The UN said that a vast clearing and rebuilding programme was required before the displaced could return. Some neighbourhoods were off-limits because of “unexploded ordnances or enormous piles of debris. . . There is the colossal future task. . . Heavy machinery is needed that is not presently available.”