Aleppo (AsiaNews) - The situation "remains difficult, but one can see something new. Tentative talks, small localised deals, a certain desire to stay together are encouraging and hopeful signs,” said Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo of the Latins.
The prelate spoke to AsiaNews about the diplomatic efforts to deliver aid to besieged locations, where residents are starving. "What is happening in Madaya and two other Shia villages in northern Syria, where aid has arrived during a truce, does not mean peace in the country. It is a small first step to stop the conflict.”
For the apostolic vicar, it is worth noting that “the government and rebels are talking to each other. Some are pulling back. Others have handed over their weapons.”
Up to 4.5 million people have lived in hard-to-reach areas, including almost 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid.
One of them is Madaya, 25 kilometres north of Damascus and 11 kilometres from the Lebanese border, which has been besieged since early July by government forces and their allies, Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.
Aid lorries have also reached Foah and Kefraya, two northern towns besieged by rebel forces where the humanitarian situation is also said to be dire. Some 20,000 people have been stuck in the two towns since March without outside help.
In the case of Madaya, an aid convoy of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society arrived last Monday under UN auspices with food and supplies. Today a second convoy of 50 lorries arrived from Damascus with flour, medicines and hygiene products.
"In Syria, most of the people now believe that the war is no longer the only option,” the apostolic vicar said. “Only Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group) and the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria) want to continue the conflict and the violence. However, local groups have realised that the violence must stop. Dialogue is needed to reach peace."
In the past, local agreements were "imposed from the outside.” Now “people want an end to the violence, and end to the fighting. For this reason, I see this as a small sign for optimism."
Several prominent figures, including the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham, have warned recently of the danger that the food might fall into the hands of criminal gangs or terrorist groups.
"We're still in a war situation,” Fr Abou Khazen said. “There is always the risk that aid might fall into someone else’s hands. Even in peacetime, some merchants speculate on food. Imagine now! The fact that the United Nations will hand out the aid should be a guarantee" that this will not happen.
"We too in Aleppo have been under siege,” he explained. “Perhaps in Madaya, the situation has been exploited. Raising the alarm was right, but the situation should not be exploited for political purposes."
Against this backdrop, there seems to be some movement at the diplomatic level, with the major powers pushing for immediate action to help hard-pressed civilians.
The UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura met with the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the Security Council (Great Britain, China, France, Russia, United States).
During the meeting, the envoy emphasised "the crucial importance for the people of Syria to see sustained and unimpeded access to a number of besieged areas in the lead-up to the talks” on 25 January in Geneva.
For the prelate, such efforts are "real and sincere" because "other nations in the region like Turkey," which was recently attacked, “have come to realise that the violence must be reined in. Outside forces are pushing for the country’s break-up, fuelling the conflict by exploiting religion and sectarian hatreds for their own economic and political interests.”
"Attacks and acts of violence are everyday problems,” the apostolic vicar said. “For the past 100 days, Aleppo has been without power. Water is in short supply. People just survive. When they can, they rely on generators. . . . It’s cold, frosty, and things are bad for children, the elderly, and the sick."
Still, despite these circumstances, certain signs elicit some cautious optimism because "we must never lose hope. One example is the daily help that some families, both Christian and Muslim, give to poorer families, who have no food or water.”
“Such disinterested charity is blind to other people’s religion or ethnicity,” he added. “In this context, we can see the value of mercy, in the Jubilee Year, in a country that has known only violence and terror for five years. Through mercy, we can change everything: mind-set, feelings, and behaviour."