PARIS – In a first, fragile step toward peace, Syria’s government and the main but disputed moderate opposition group seeking to oust it have agreed to allow humanitarian aid into some blocked-off parts of the scarred Middle East country.
The agreement was announced by the top envoys for the U.S. and Russia, who together are working the opposite sides to broker any progress to ease the bloody strife that has engulfed Syria for nearly three years with no end in sight.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are still pushing for a cease-fire in local pockets around the country and a prisoner exchange, which they said would help set the tone for compromise in the run-up to a peace conference scheduled for next week.
Both men grimly conceded that a final settlement for both sides to build a new government would happen no time soon, if ever.
“But we must begin, and we must begin now,” Kerry told reporters in Paris. He said the process “will be difficult and will take some time.”
Lavrov said, “We’re going to do everything in our power to initiate a process. … This is not going to be a one-time event.”
The peace process has been beset in recent weeks by chaos within the Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, one of the only alliances of rebel fighters and political leaders willing to deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. The coalition is in exile, and has lost widespread credibility within its ranks and among rival opposition officials and rebel groups in Syria who have broken away and are fighting for the upper hand against al-Qaida-linked militants.
An estimated 130,000 people have died in the war that began in early 2011, and as many as 8 million others have been forced from their homes, Kerry said. The number of refugees stands at about 2 million, he said.
But even the tentative steps forward announced Monday carry high risks of being thwarted by militants.
Lavrov noted that rebel insurgents attacked a recent government-sanctioned humanitarian aid convoy to the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, where there were fresh reports of illnesses and deaths among residents from hunger-related ailments last weekend.
A U.N. official last week confirmed at least 15 people have died in Yarmouk in recent weeks, but residents say the real number is close to 50. The U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency that supports Palestinian refugees had until recently shipped food into the area, but has not been able to do so since September as the government tightened its blockade.
The U.N. humanitarian chief said last month that about 250,000 people in besieged communities in Syria were beyond the reach of aid.