Exclusive: Secret Talks to Save Syria Begin

Exclusive: Secret Talks to Save Syria Begin

The United States, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia and others held secret and informal discussions on Thursday to devise a strategy for improving the U.N.’s stalled relief effort in Syria, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the effort.

The meeting — which was held at the French mission to the United Nations in Geneva — was convened to lay the ground work for a more formal meeting scheduled for November 26 on the future of international relief efforts in Syria.

The participation of American and Iranian officials provides further evidence that the decades-long diplomatic freeze between the two countries is beginning to thaw, offering new areas beyond the ongoing round of nuclear diplomacy where the long-time enemies can cooperate.

The U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, organized the session to bring together regional and outside powers with influence on the warring parties. The goal: get both sides to allow international relief workers into the country, so they can help hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off from humanitarian aid. The United Nations is straining to deliver life-saving essentials, including food and medicine, to more than 2.5 million people, including more than 300,000 civilians who live in towns under siege by the Syrian army, some of them forced to survive on a diet of leaves.

"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential note from Amos to the U.N. Security Council, obtained by The Cable. "Key humanitarian access has been cut off by fighting. The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, and transportation by all parties to the conflict remains a daily reality. Kidnapping and abductions of humanitarian workers are growing, as is hijacking and seizure of aid trucks. Syrians have yet to lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles hindering humanitarian work."

Their plight has been worsened by Syrian government policies that impede the delivery of assistance to civilians in opposition strongholds; the Assad regime has routinely denied deliveries of medicine and thrown up bureaucratic hurdles when relief workers have filed for visas. Extremist opposition groups have also targeted Syrian and international relief workers, and laid siege to towns near the city of Aleppo.

On October 2, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that condemns "all cases of denial of humanitarian access" and calls for the facilitation of the "safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance in the whole country." But the situation has improved little in the six weeks since.

Frustrated at the lack of progress, Australia and Luxembourg last month began drafting a more formal provisional Security Council resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on the parties to comply. But Russia fiercely opposed the measure, and Amos subsequently persuaded Australia and Luxembourg that that it would be better to hold off, and pursue a diplomatic route by organizing a group of influential countries to press the case.

The governments of the U.S., Britain, China, France Russia, Kuwait ,Qatar, Australia and Luxembourg have all formally accepted the U.N.’s invitation to meet in Geneva on Tuesday. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia told their counterparts in Geneva Thursday that the delegation was awaiting a formal decision from the capital. Diplomats have provided conflicting accounts as to whether Iran has accepted the invitation. On Friday, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, was non-committal, but suggested Tehran looked favorably on Amos’s effort. "Ms. Amos had discussed some humanitarian ideas on Syria during her visit to Tehran with Iranian officials," Miryousefi added. "The Iranian authorities welcomed the United Nations initiatives in order to help those in need [of] help." The U.S. and Iranian delegations at the United Nations did not respond today to a request for comment. 

One Western diplomat complained that Amos’s original plan — to organize a relatively small, nimble group of influential players — was now giving way to a much larger, and potentially unwieldy group of countries.

Thursday’s meeting also involved representatives from Germany, and officials from the U.N.’s chief relief agency, including the World Food Program and the U. N. Children’s Fund and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Diplomats familiar with the talks said that France has insisted that Syria’s neighbor, Turkey, be allowed to participate in Tuesday’s talks, while Russia proposed that most of Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, be invited. Israel has not been invited.

"The group is getting bigger and bigger. What was supposed to be a small is now becoming a monster," said one diplomat, raising concern that Tuesday’s session would degenerate into an oversized gathering of diplomats delivering political speeches. It’s not clear, the official, said that this is "something workable."

The diplomat said that while the plan to put the Security Council resolution is "on ice" the council could quickly press for the adoption of the Australia and Luxembourg resolution if the Geneva talks fail to yield progress. Saudi Arabia has also been circulated language for a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access. Amos is scheduled to brief the 15-nation Security Council the first week of December, the official noted. If she says the government is not cooperating, the "resolution will come back to the table very quickly."

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