World must not give up on some kind of peace in Syria, however distant that prospect may appear

All parties involved in the tragic conflict have to work towards meaningful talks; after all, after so much destruction, there can be no winners

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 12:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 1:34am

The guns are supposed to fall silent and the bombers grounded in Syria today so that relief agencies can get humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of besieged people. Whether the warring sides respect the agreement struck last week in Munich chiefly by the US and Russia depends on the willingness of those not involved in the discussions to give peace a chance, even momentarily. If they do, there is a possibility, however slim, that talks to find an end to the conflict scheduled to resume later this month will go ahead. If not, even greater disaster seems likely for Syrians, the region and international relations.

Pessimism is understandable given the circumstances. The deal was initially hailed as a breakthrough. But hopes quickly evaporated when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sensing victory after a series of battlefield successes with the help of warplanes from ally Russia, declared that the war would not end until the country was again under his control. He was not represented in Munich, nor were Western- and Arab-backed rebels seeking his removal. Islamic State extremists and al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front fighters, meanwhile, follow their own dastardly rules.

The past week has therefore been as deadly as ever, most worryingly marked by air strikes on several hospitals, in contravention of UN agreements. Russia denied Western accusations that its planes were responsible for the bombings that left dozens dead. Further dashing hopes, offensives by Syrian government troops and Kurdish militia fighters on rebel-held towns continued unabated in the northern province of Aleppo. Turkey stepped up attacks on the Kurdish positions and Saudi fighter jets were deployed to Turkish bases.

There has been a bright spot, though: aid began arriving in towns near Damascus and northern villages on Wednesday. More than 500,000 people live in besieged areas and many lack basic supplies. For the warring sides to allow trucks loaded with essentials to pass unhindered is the best of signs. It is a start, but the area involved is limited and the respite fragile.

Latest UN estimates put the death toll from the five-year conflict at 470,000, with 45 per cent of the population of 23 million displaced. A victory for Assad would be hollow; Syria has been torn apart and perhaps can never be patched back together. After so many false starts, meaningful peace talks seem unlikely. But Syria and Russia and their ally Iran, opposition rebels and the US and its partners have to continue to try. After so much destruction, there can be no winners, after all.