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Syria War Foes Discuss Political Transition As Aid Stalls

Children walk down a street as they bring food back to their families in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Jan. 23, 2014. Photographer: Ahmad Aboud/AFP via Getty Images
Children walk down a street as they bring food back to their families in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Jan. 23, 2014. Photographer: Ahmad Aboud/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations pleaded with Syria’s warring sides to allow a humanitarian convoy into the besieged city of Homs, as peace talks in Geneva failed to make progress even on issues both have committed to addressing.

“I’m still begging, asking that something be done” to allow food, medicines and other aid into areas surrounded by government or opposition fighters, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN official who is mediating the discussions, told reporters after the third day of face-to-face talks. “The government is willing to make it happen, but it’s not easy because there are snipers and there are all sorts of problems,” Brahimi said.

The urgent need to get assistance to the people of Homs delayed what had been an expected push to begin discussions on a transitional government, and what role, if any, President Bashar al-Assad could play in it. The main Western-backed opposition coalition has ruled out including Assad in the future administration, while he has refused to step aside.

The war has killed at least 130,000 people and caused 2.4 million to flee their homeland. More than 9.3 million people in Syria need humanitarian aid after three years of fighting that has destabilized the Middle East as violence spilled over into neighboring countries.

The U.S. added its voice to calls for a response to the suffering in Homs, saying those trapped needed both relief aid and the chance to leave the ravaged city, something the Assad government offered yesterday.

Red Crescent Trucks

“The Syrian regime must approve the convoys to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance,” U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said in a statement. “The situation is desperate and the people are starving. What the regime has proposed -- an evacuation of women and children from the Old City -- is not sufficient.”

Twelve Syrian Arab Red Crescent trucks carrying food and other aid items are waiting for permission to enter Homs, where some 3,000 people have been under siege, the opposition says.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, said yesterday that the government is willing to let women and children leave the city on condition that armed rebels guarantee their safety. He said the government was willing to provide them with shelter and medicine.

The two parties will tomorrow start negotiating the so-called Geneva communique, which includes the formation of a governing body with full executive powers, “probably the most complicated subject” that the talks will address, Brahimi said.

The opposition’s rejection of an Assad role is backed by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies. Russia, one of Assad’s main allies, argues that the formation of a transitional government doesn’t mean regime change.

The talks are expected to last until Jan. 31, and the two sides will meet again following a break to be determined by Brahimi, according to the opposition.

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