Koenders: ‘The parties to the Syria conflict must return to the table without delay’

The international community made some essential progress at Tuesday’s high-level meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna, but much remains to be done. Speaking after the meeting, foreign minister Bert Koenders said, ‘It’s a tricky balancing act, but there’s no alternative. The ceasefire is meant to apply to the whole country, and the same goes for humanitarian access.’

The participants in the Vienna meeting agreed that the ceasefire must be fully respected. The US and Russia are to monitor compliance more closely. Once the ceasefire is a reality, the Geneva process can resume as soon as possible.

Last week Koenders emphasised the need for emergency consultations on Syria, after countless violations of the ceasefire. ‘The desperate humanitarian situation in Syria necessitated this meeting,’ said the minister. At the meeting, he stressed that the Assad regime must guarantee unconditional humanitarian access to aid organisations. Otherwise, the ISSG will explore the scope for humanitarian airlifts to get aid to civilians who are hard to reach. Koenders also urged that the Red Cross be permitted to monitor the situation of detainees, for instance in Hama. In addition, he pressed for executions to be halted. ‘The political process is only viable if progress is made with regard to protecting civilians and humanitarian access’, concluded the minister.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is negotiating with the belligerent parties about an interim government and a long-term political solution. Koenders assured that he would do his utmost to speed up the process of bringing the parties to the table. ‘We need firm commitments and dates which can be used to hold each other to account. Then it is up to us, and subsequently to the parties on the ground, to keep to these commitments. Only then can we reach an agreement about the political transition in Syria in August.’ The Dutch government is hesitant to applaud the renewed ceasefire too vigorously, since experience has shown that processes of this kind move slowly. In Vienna the minister therefore emphasised the importance of frequent reports to verify compliance with the terms of the ceasefire.

The Vienna meeting dwelt at length on the humanitarian situation in Syria. After years of war and the recent bombings of medical facilities and the refugee camp in Idlib, aid is needed more than ever before. The city of Derayya was to receive emergency aid including medicines and milk last week. But Assad’s troops have continued to deny the convoy access. ‘The regime must stop violating the fundamental principles of international law; the right to emergency aid and medical neutrality must be respected’, said the minister.