Syrians in race against time as six months of peace talks begin
As Syria's war grinds into its fifth year and the multitude of tragedies slip from the daily news headlines, a fresh attempt at ending the conflict began yesterday in Geneva, with a new round of UN-brokered talks.
Needless to say, expectations are low as Syrian delegates converge for the third time in the Swiss city. The last round of Geneva talks ended in acrimony two years ago, bookended by the use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and Isil's rapid expansion later that summer.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is hoping for six painstaking months of what are known in diplomat-speak as 'proximity talks', with delegates sitting in separate rooms and de Mistura's team shuttling between them trying to forge some common ground.
But with representatives of the bitterly fractured opposition insisting they will not participate unless the regime stops bombing and besieging civilian areas, the talks could be stillborn from the outset.
De Mistura is pushing on regardless, saying he would open the talks by meeting the Syrian regime's delegation and then continue with other participants, including civil society figures. Top of the priority list are the possibility of local ceasefires, ensuring better humanitarian access and stepping up efforts to counter Isil.
Crucially, however, the perennial question of Assad's future is not up for discussion, though these talks are aimed at feeding into a wider settlement including a transitional period that would culminate in elections, according to a UN Security Council resolution adopted in December.
Syria's horrors seldom make the news these days, though the conflict that has claimed up to 300,000 lives and forced millions from their homes has made itself felt in Europe in the form of the refugee crisis which continues to challenge the continent.
Images of emaciated children in the Damascus suburb of Madaya, where dozens have died during a siege lasting seven months, recently served to remind the world of the human cost of a war that continues with no end in sight.
Stephen O'Brien, who oversees the UN's emergency relief, told the Security Council this week that humanitarian conditions inside the country were getting even worse and access remains a serious challenge.
"More and more people are living in areas that are under siege or are harder to reach than ever before," he said, adding that last year the UN was able to deliver aid to only around 1pc of people in besieged areas. "We are in a race against time," he warned.
According to UN estimates, which other aid agencies say are conservative, some 490,000 people are stuck in besieged areas across Syria by different factions, largely cut off from humanitarian assistance.
The UN has warned that such tactics may amount to war crimes and estimate more than 270,000 Syrians are hemmed in by their own government's forces across at least a dozen towns.
Isil is besieging an entire community of some 200,000 people in the eastern town of Deir Ezzur.
And in Idlib province, in Syria's northwestern belt, fighters from the al-Qa'ida-aligned Nusra Front are besieging two towns with a total population of over 12,000.
Earlier this month, the regime allowed three UN-led aid convoys into Madaya after the images of its starving residents prompted international outrage.
Much has changed since Syrian delegates last walked the corridors of Geneva's Palais des Nations in 2014.
Russia's decision last year to embark on a robust military intervention in Syria, where it has been bombing mainstream anti-Assad forces as well as targets linked to Isil, led to what was known as the Vienna process, aimed at "charting a course out of hell" - as US Secretary of State John Kerry put it.
Those talks in the Austrian capital brought together for the first time Iran and Saudi Arabia, both key backers of the warring sides in Syria's conflict, with Tehran supporting its long-time ally Assad, and Riyadh the forces battling his regime.
But whatever tentative hopes the Vienna initiative signalled have been undermined in recent months by deteriorating relations between the two powers following Riyadh's execution of a prominent cleric from the kingdom's marginalised Shia population. The fate of Syria and its traumatised population, pummelled by five years of war, remains at the mercy of a wider regional power-play.