This week the long-delayed Geneva II peace conference will take place in Switzerland to try and secure agreement on a peaceful political transition in Syria. This conference is so vital to Syria’s future because ending the suffering can ultimately only come by ending the fighting. The conference marks the first time that representatives from the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian regime will engage in official talks since the start of the conflict.
Yet the truth is that today, the warring parties in Syria still believe they have little reason to compromise and every reason to continue fighting. This is the dangerous dynamic that Geneva II must now seek to change. To do so, it is vital that the key actors are clear about what it is that the conference is aiming to achieve.
First, given the prospect of securing a comprehensive political transition agreement in Geneva looks increasingly unlikely, securing confidence building measures between the parties to the conflict would be a vital next step. Localised ceasefires could help relieve the immediate suffering on the ground, but they could also help create the conditions for progress on political negotiations in the future. So the international community must ensure that these confidence building measures are discussed as part of the main conference agenda, and that tangible and credible progress is made in implementing them once the conference is over.
Second, as well as focusing on localised confidence building measures, the conference must also seek to address the regional dynamics of this conflict. Labour believes that the path to de-escalation in Syria, and ultimately to a peaceful transition, will have to involve the support of key regional players who have themselves become parties to the conflict. The recent deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, made possible by Russia’s participation in the process, has showed us that the role of key adversaries can prove decisive in helping to get Assad to bow to international pressure.
That is why Labour has long called for the establishment of a Syria Contact Group which would bring together countries like the US and Russia, but also crucially involve Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite Iran’s non-attendance, this week at Geneva there is the opportunity to get this kind of initiative off the ground.
Finally, within Syria itself, a lack of humanitarian access remains a key barrier to the effective delivery and distribution of aid to those most in need. That is why one specific aim for this week’s conference must be securing agreement on the implementation of the UN Security Council’s Presidential Statement on humanitarian access.
That would involve allowing immediate cross-border aid deliveries and calling on all parties to the conflict to agree on humanitarian pauses in the fighting, including along “key routes” for relief convoys. The onus lies on the Assad regime to now agree to the UN Statement. Given that Russia has already signed up to the statement, at Geneva this week they must be encouraged to use what leverage they over Assad to urge him to now comply.
Geneva II is a vital diplomatic step, but whilst the diplomats meet, the war will continue to rage. Already over 125,000 have died, and Syria’s humanitarian crisis continues to force millions from their homes, with 6.5 million people now displaced within their own country, and over 2.3 million refugees fleeing Syria altogether.
The UN’s António Guterres has warned of a terrifying situation where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not. Last week’s pledging conference was undoubtedly a step forward, and the extra £100 million given by the British government is welcome, but we would like to see even more ambition This is a crisis of historic and horrific proportions, and not just for Syria. Lebanon has taken on almost 900,000, and the UN is predicting refugees could make up to a third of its population within a year.
A still under-reported effect of this social upheaval is the impact it is having on children. Syria used to enjoy a school enrolment rate of 97%, but today, if Syria’s refugees were a country they would have the worst enrolment rate in the world – five times worse than sub Saharan Africa. That’s why Labour have called on ministers to support plans to get Syrian refugee children in Lebanon back into the classroom, through a scheme allowing young Syrians to begin their day after Lebanese children go home.
Working towards agreement on a peaceful political transition remains Syria’s best chance of ending this bloody conflict. So it is vital that diplomatic momentum must not be allowed to wane while the suffering and fighting continue to worsen. The Geneva II Conference this week is a vital step, but for real progress to be made, countries like Britain must work to keep Syria at the top of the diplomatic agenda not just for days, but weeks and months to come.
Douglas Alexander is shadow foreign secretary
Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary