UNITED NATIONS — A third round of Geneva-based talks to end Syria’s nearly five-year civil war is on track to begin in one week, said UN officials and diplomats, as the UN secretary-general’s envoy briefed the Security Council from the Swiss capital on Monday.
The conference, which starts Jan. 25 and is designed to implement the points of the Geneva Communique of 2012, cleared a major hurdle last month. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that serves as a blueprint for a cease-fire and political transition for the country that has been wracked by war since the pro-reform waves of the Arab Spring sparked a violent response from Damascus in March 2011.
The measure came amid deepening worry over the plight of Syrians in a war that UN estimates hold has claimed 300,000 lives, mobilized terrorist groups such as Islamic State, al-Qaida and Nusra Front and caused the exodus of millions of people into neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon as well as European countries.
The resolution marked a radical departure from the impasse that had gripped the UN Security Council in the first years of the war, when as many as four proposed resolutions to bring the war to an end were blocked by Russia and China’s vetoes.
Since the adoption of the latest resolution, the UN has found itself under new scrutiny from humanitarian workers on the ground in Syria who have said recently the organization failed to quickly respond to credible reports of mass starvation taking place in cities such as Madaya, where tens of thousands of people have been under siege for months.
Resolution 2254 was also adopted shortly before friction flared between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a head in the wake of the execution this month by Saudi Arabia of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent vandalism in Iran to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic premises in response to the sentence.
But Elbio Rosselli, Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN, told journalists after UN envoy Staffan de Mistura briefed Security Council members Monday that the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not derail the talks to resolve Syria’s crisis.
De Mistura got direct assurances from the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia that the skirmish was “isolated from the considerations of the agenda of 2254,” Roselli said, adding that the council reiterated its strong support for de Mistura’s role and work.
De Mistura is the third diplomat that the UN has tapped for the task of achieving peace in Syria, each of which used the Geneva Communique and the city where it was drafted for talks as starting points. Two other highly experienced negotiators, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, who has worked in high-level international relations for decades, both resigned as the envoy after they concluded their efforts failed to bear fruit.
One of the remaining hurdles for de Mistura, as host of the conference, is the delicate task of managing the attendees, which will include opposition groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian government.
During a briefing Monday, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the UN responded to reports of the burgeoning humanitarian crisis as quickly as possible, rebutting a media report in Foreign Policy magazine on Saturday about a sluggish operation and an open letter in which various humanitarian workers claimed the UN allowed people to starve while “chasing permission you do not even need” and failed to draw the world’s attention to the crisis.
“The idea that we didn’t raise attention earlier is, frankly, inaccurate,” Haq said during a briefing, adding that the UN has had trouble accessing Madaya, trying at least six times in 2015, but still managed a humanitarian delivery in October and orchestrated a medical evacuation in December. “We did point out things and are continuing to. The big problem in Madaya . . . is the siege conditions imposed by the government and by different rebel groups.”
Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said in response to the open letter penned last week that his agency has done its best to stanch the suffering.
“On the ground, aid convoys recently brought much needed assistance, including food and medicine, across conflict lines to over 100,000 Syrians in Madaya, Biqin, Foah, Kafraya and Al Waer,” he wrote on Sunday.
“I myself went across the line in Al Waer on the day we were delivering much needed lifesaving aid and supplies. I listened to people who had been subject to the restrictions on the flow of aid,” he added. “Similar efforts continue across Syria on a daily basis, bringing lifesaving assistance to millions of people in need. Sadly, this is not enough and we have been unable, despite tireless efforts, to reach many people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. I am angry and frustrated about the situation in besieged areas in Syria and the terrifying toll it is having on its children, women and men.”