January 15, 2021 :

A new round of talks on the conflict in Syria began today in Geneva under the aegis of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura saying “We will address the whole spectrum of the situation in Syria: what has happened since 2014 and what the next steps are.


Today’s talks are the fifth of the new round of so-called “Geneva peace talks”, all of which have so far failed to make progress. De Mistura said today that the conference was not an attempt to bring warring factions together but rather to discuss and map out a political process.


On a day of high-level meetings, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, met with Turkish and US counterparts, as well as UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, at the UN in New York.


Le Drian confirmed that France is “ready to take part in a ceasefire”, following a meeting with the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. He said that this would “ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and that the most fundamental requirements are met to enable refugees to return”. Le Drian also said that Russia and the US were “committed to that, and the UN is working towards it”.


Hajer al-Abous, the SDF spokeswoman, said that the Syrian opposition forces had not accepted any position on a ceasefire. “We cannot take part in talks on a truce which has no political platform, and we will not accept to participate in talks under conditions which will amount to violations of the Syrian revolution.”


A Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, demanded that talks take place in eastern Ghouta in the midst of a “humanitarian crisis and a brutal siege”.


In New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that a return to the Geneva peace talks process would be “instructive”. He did not say whether the Syrian opposition would attend, but said that if there was a ceasefire it would be “a stepforward”.


The UN Security Council is due to meet later on Wednesday. The French and British foreign ministers are due to speak to their counterparts and are expected to discussthe question of Ghouta and possible sanctions.


What is clear is that Ghouta is still under siege, and a month after its liberation, there are still shortages of food and medicines. This is particularly damaging given that only ten miles away in the northern rebel-held pocket of Afrin a similar siege is being enforced.


The Norwegian Refugee Council warned this week that civilian hospitals in the north of Syria were being bombed daily, while there was still no access for desperately needed supplies to the south of the country.


“These attacks oncivilians, and medical personnel, are unacceptable,” said a spokesperson for the NRC. “This year we have seen more intense air attacks than any other sincethe war started, causing scores of civilian deaths.”


De Mistura also raised the issue of Aleppo, saying that the north of Syria needs access to aid.


“There is a need to open humanitarian corridors to all these areas,” said de Mistura. “We must open corridors to give civilians the possibility to get out. We must also open corridors for humanitarian supplies.”


I visited Syria in December and met residents in eastern Ghouta. I travelled across the north, visiting some of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ checkpoints and meeting the Kurdish forces there.


I also visited areas controlled by the Syrian government and met with aid workers in the south. Syrian authorities, and the Russian military, have been preventing civilians.