Famished and traumatized Syrians were able to leave besieged parts of the Syrian city of Homs for the first time in more than a year on Friday as part of a potentially ground breaking agreement between the Syrian government and the United Nations. The deal, accompanied by a three-day ceasefire, allows for the evacuation of the elderly, women and children, followed by the delivery of food to those who choose to remain inside the rebel-held enclave. Deals like this have collapsed at the last minute before in Syria, and skepticism is high. Syrian government authorities have made it clear that no men of fighting age will be able to leave unless they renounce ties to the rebellion, raising fears about what will happen to those who remain inside. The delivery of humanitarian assistance, say regime officials, may take some time. Western diplomats following the situation closely are not convinced. “Nothing suggests that the regime has done what it is required to do by international humanitarian law, and that is to allow unconditional aid in and then let people decide whether they want to leave or not,” says one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But if the deal does go to plan, it will be one small glimmer of hope in a war that has taken the lives of 130,000 people and displaced an estimated nine million Syrians over the past three years. Not only that, it provides a litmus test for what may happen when government officials meet with representatives of the opposition groups aligned against the regime of President Bashar Assad in Geneva next week for another round of peace negotiations. Both the regime and the opposition have made it clear that the upcoming talks will not prioritize humanitarian issues, but as a confidence building measure the Homs ceasefire could pave the way for a more fruitful discussion. And no one wants that more than Syria’s most important ally Russia, which helped knit the Homs agreement together. As buses started shuttling women, children and the elderly out of Homs’ besieged areas, Russia’s foreign ministry announced that it had “played an energetic role” in crafting the ceasefire agreement.
The regime was quick to clarify that this is not a deal made with the opposition, but with the United Nations. While that doesn’t augur well for a breakthrough in Geneva — and few are expecting one — it does indicate that Syria’s government is getting significant pressure from ally Russia to play ball. And that, in the end, may be even more promising. Russia does not want to see military intervention bring about regime change in Syria, but it also acknowledges that the status quo is not viable. So Russia has invested heavily in a political solution, and the Geneva process offers the best opportunity. But without any progress on the humanitarian aid front, the upcoming round of talks could have foundered before they even got started. “The Russians did not want to go back to Geneva [without] having anything delivered” on the humanitarian aspect, says the diplomat. “The Russians are committed to Geneva. There is Russian prestige involved in Geneva delivering a resolution.”
As one of Syria’s principal political and financial backers, Russia has the best chance to get momentum rolling at the talks. But only if the government adheres to the terms of the Homs ceasefire agreement. And that is up to the Syrians alone.