UN to join Syria talks in Astana, with humanitarian hopes

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UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday he would take part in the latest round of Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana on Friday, with a month to go before he hopes to break the deadlock in political talks in Geneva.

De Mistura’s Geneva peace process reached deadlock this month, missing what he said was a “golden opportunity” to close out almost seven years of war.

Blaming intransigence on both sides, he told the UN Security Council he would start 2018 with a proposal to involve a wider constituency in constitutional and electoral reform, since the warring sides were stuck.

He said on Thursday he planned to hold the next round in Geneva in the second half of January.

“I am planning to go to Astana just after this meeting,” de Mistura said in Moscow at the start of Syrian talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

UN timetables routinely slip, but the presence of many of the global power elite at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos on Jan. 23-26 could also create some political momentum.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have made big gains on the ground since Russia joined the war in late 2015, but the fighting shows no sign of ending conclusively.

Humanitarian aid

De Mistura’s humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said that although fewer people were now under siege or out of reach of humanitarian aid, 2017 had defied expectations by being worse than 2016 in many respects, and fewer aid convoys were going in.

“In December we haven’t reached a single soul (in besieged areas),” Egeland told reporters in Geneva.

He hoped Astana might bring a cessation of hostilities in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where Assad’s forces are besieging almost 400,000 people. UN aid convoys are waiting for Syria’s government to give them a green light. Food prices have risen eightfold since August, Egeland said.

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“495 people were on the priority lists for medical evacuations. That number is going down. Not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying.”
Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq could all bring their influence to bear, he said.

“If we are going to get out of this quagmire it is because there will be political agreements, really. So I hope that out of the Astana meetings in the next couple of days we will have some kind of impulse for a change on the humanitarian side.”