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Column Can new peace negotiations end Syria's three-year nightmare?

For the first time, tomorrow representatives of Bashar Al Assad will meet with the western-backed opposition for talks. This presents an historic opportunity to end a war that threatens to engulf the wider Middle East in conflict, writes Maurice McQuillan.

THE PEOPLE OF Syria will this week hold their collective breath in the hope that negotiations held on European soil can help bring to an end their three-year nightmare.

The Geneva II Peace Conference begins tomorrow, Wednesday (22 January), with diplomats from four continents coming together in an attempt to bring Syria’s civil war to a close. The global make-up of the conference reflects the reality of this conflict – although it is called a civil war, regional and global powers continue to pull the strings. In reality, this is a proxy war.

After months of speculation, it now seems certain the conference will at least take place. Whether those in attendance will be the right people to achieve an end to the bloodshed is the big question.

Geneva I

Geneva I, the initial peace conference mediated by Kofi Annan, took place in June 2012. At that point, more than 10,000 people had been killed, 92,000 people had fled to other countries and 4.5 million were displaced.

Opening Geneva I, Kofi Annan warned that time was running out for the Syrian people. Since then, 120,000 lives have been lost and over two million people have poured over the borders of neighbouring countries. Humanitarian aid agencies continue to face insurmountable difficulties and extreme danger to help the hungry and the injured.

The war in Syria has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Aid agencies and host communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling to meet the needs of refugees, while inside Syria, millions of people live with the reality of violence and hunger.

This process must not be allowed to fail. For the first time, representatives of Bashar Al Assad will meet with the western-backed opposition. This presents an historic opportunity to end a war that threatens to engulf the wider Middle East in conflict.

Stop double-speak

Much has changed in terms of the dynamic of the war since Geneva I. The credibility of the main opposition coalition on the ground in Syria has been weakened. Other powerful Islamist forces have rejected the talks before they even start. Meanwhile there remains an unhelpful focus on whether Al Assad should remain in place as part of a transitional arrangement. This is an area on which the talks could hinge. A real focus would be on how to end the bloodshed and create a vision for the future of Syria.

There are few striding with confidence up the path to Geneva II, but at least with attendance there is hope, and that is a powerful thing.

The only lasting solution to this crisis is a political one, yet there are those who still continue to provide military, logistical and diplomatic support to one or more parties to the fighting. The reality is that some countries are signing up to peace talks with one hand, while continuing to fund the war with the other. Stopping this double-speak is a precondition to peace.

The good of the wider region and the world

These negotiations must be underpinned by a deep sense of realism, courage and leadership. The humanity of the Syrian people must be the central focus, not counter-terrorism, not geo-politics, not religious or political ideology. The good of the wider region and of the world, will be served by this focus. We know only too well the atrocities that have taken place in this world when we forget our shared humanity.

The diplomats who attend the conference have an onerous responsibility. The parties to this brutal conflict can only be held accountable if the international community accepts the collective failure to protect the innocent. The road to peace and healing for Syria will be long, even after the fighting ends.

Let us hope that events this week in Switzerland will move all parties just one step closer toward peace and healing.

Maurice McQuillan is Head of Humanitarian Programmes at Trócaire.

Read: War crimes report accuses Syria of torture and 11,000 executions

Read: UN cancels Iran invite to Syria talks, Iran says they weren’t going to go anyway

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