GENEVA — The Syrian government and opposition moved their fragile peace talks to a newly concrete state Saturday, meeting face to face here for the first time in an attempt to win government approval for an aid convoy to neighborhoods in the city of Homs long blockaded by the army.
The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said at a news conference here that the governor of Homs had met with UN employees inside the country and was consulting with security forces on whether a shipment of food and medicine could enter the rebel-held old city of Homs on Sunday or Monday. Most of Homs is controlled by the government, but some parts are contested.
“The convoy is ready,” Brahimi said, adding that talks Sunday would aim to agree on an exchange of prisoners held by the government and insurgent groups. “I hope it will be allowed tomorrow.”
If it materializes, the delivery of aid will be the first tangible success in talks that have been criticized by hard-liners on both sides, the first sign that negotiations could make a difference in the lives of suffering Syrians.
The government has routinely given approval for aid deliveries to rebel-held areas, only to revoke it at the last minute, leaving parts of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, isolated for months amid increasing reports of deaths from malnutrition. Insurgents have also blockaded government-held areas, like the villages of Zahra and Nubol in Aleppo province.
The prospect of concrete results had people in Damascus and its suburbs glued to television screens Saturday to follow the conference. They paid it more attention than had been expected, given Syrians’ mistrust of international conferences after nearly three years of fruitless meetings during a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people.
There was relative quiet in the suburbs Saturday as several areas experimented with fragile localized cease-fires and awaited the outcome of talks, according to residents. Opposition activists said the government had hit two suburbs with “barrel bombs,” which Brahimi called a violation of international law.
The choice of Homs as the first site of a humanitarian cease-fire to come out of the Geneva talks could prompt the government to object that it is being called upon to make greater concessions at the outset than its opponents, since rebels are not blockading government areas in Homs.
Asked what the government would have to gain from a deal in Homs, Louay Safi, a spokesman for the exile coalition representing the opposition in the talks, said: “When you feed people who are starving, it’s not about gain. Starvation should not be used as a weapon of war.”
A Western diplomat in Geneva said the government would gain by showing that it was being statesmanlike and responsible in addressing the humanitarian needs it has said are one of its top priorities at the talks. The government had proposed a cease-fire in Aleppo, but opposition members said the deal was more like surrender.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks, one opposition member in Geneva said Homs had been chosen in part for its significance as one of the first places where large protests broke out against President Bashar Assad in 2011 and the site of the first major bombardments of rebel-held areas by the Syrian military in 2012.
Also, he said, rebel groups in Homs are somewhat more cooperative with the coalition leadership than those in Aleppo, where jihadist groups have gained a stronger foothold. The coalition, dogged by its lack of influence over fractured insurgent groups on the ground, is loath to promise something at the talks that it cannot deliver.
At least 4,000 civilians remain trapped in the blockaded neighborhoods along with rebel fighters, according to opposition negotiators and antigovernment activists in Homs. The government disputes that — at a news briefing, a reporter from the state-run SANA news agency asked Safi whether the plan aimed “to save the terrorists in the old city.”
Speaking from Homs via Skype, Hassan Abu al-Zain, a spokesman for the Revolution Youth Coalition there, said nine people had died of malnutrition, scores had been sickened by unclean water, and families were eating weeds to survive. He said that he doubted that the government would follow through on commitments and that if it sought a truce in Homs it was “to control our area.”
But Abu Alaa, a paramedic in Homs, said via Skype that he hoped the deal would succeed, even though international talks have disappointed people there.
“We hope this doesn’t happen again, and we don’t become a log that they throw away after it gets burned,” said Abu Alaa, 24. He said the old city was sealed by concrete walls and guarded by government snipers.