Vicar of Aleppo: more optimism than uncertainty in Astana, favouring the return of the displaced

New round of government-opposition meetings in the Kazakhstan capital. The goal is to strengthen the safe areas. Archbishop Abou Khazen points out that every opportunity to meet is always "positive" even if the situation is "uncertain". Half a million displaced have returned to the lands of origin, 1300 towns pacified.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) - Every opportunity for "meeting, discussion, dialogue" is always a "positive" factor and must induce "optimism", even if the situation on the ground "is not easy" and there remains a widespread "feeling of uncertainty "over the future, the apostolic vicar of Aleppo dei Latini, Msgr. Georges Abou Khazen tells AsiaNews, commenting on the second day of bilateral peace talks in Astana (Kazakhstan) on Syria, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. "The hope - he adds - is always for an end to conflict and that the ceasefire will help the return of displaced persons and a resumption of economic and trade activities", key factors to resettle the country.

The fifth international meeting on Syria opened yesterday in Astana with the aim of strengthening the "fragile" national truce in force since last December. A two-day encounter involving Syrian government delegates and representatives of armed opposition. The mediation set up by Tehran, Moscow and Ankara (on opposite sides of the conflict) is in conjunction with the diplomatic efforts promoted by the United Nations in Geneva (Switzerland), but which have never had long lasting effects.

In the past, the meetings of Astana, which first saw Damascus and the rebels front sit down at the same table, has proven more decisive than the UN-sponsored talks. At the last event, in May, areas of "de-escalation" of the conflict were agreed upon as well as the ceasefire, safe corridors, the immediate supply of humanitarian aid and the return of refugees.

The goal set for the two-day talks, at which the United States participates as observers, is to define the exact boundaries of the four bearing areas and procedures to verify the respectability of the truce. Two months after signing, however, priority should be given to areas of de-escalation affecting some rebel territories in Idlib province, a sector of central Homs governorate, a rebel enclave in Ghouta and the southern part of the country, home to more than 2.5 million people.

Within the anti-Assad delegation, where the chief negotiator Mohammad Allouche is absent, there is a climate of widespread scepticism. The idea is that Russia wants to promote these discussions, to "distract" the general attention from the "bombing, displacement of civilians and repeated assaults" that is taking place in the country. For its part, the Syrian government has said it will not allow its enemies to "benefit" the formation of buffer zones in the west to achieve military progress.

A complex picture, in which regional and international diplomacy is moving very slowly without any visible effort. "From the security point of view," adds Msgr. Abou Khazen - the situation in several areas, including Aleppo, has improved. We have no electricity, but water has come back and life continues. Of course, the lack of young people and men because they emigrated or were called up is felt, especially in the reconstruction work. But we shepherds encourage people to stay and we try to help them by contributing to the needs of families and their children."

Interviewed on the Astana talks, the apostolic vicar wants to be "optimistic", although "we cannot be sure that there is really a solution to the horizon, let's see what will happen." "Every meeting, every opportunity for dialogue – he continues - is important and the hope is that it will lead to a ceasefire. These talks have favored internal reconciliation in many areas, just think that 500 to 1300 towns where the fighting fronts have laid down their weapons and refused war as a means to settle disputes. I hope they can be the viatic for a national reconciliation."

In these villages and towns, the prelate tells us, people "began to cultivate the earth, reopen the schools, and resume their activities. There are more than half a million displaced persons who fled in the past and now return to their lands of origin, in the border area near Lebanon and in the central areas of Homs and Hama and along some stretches of the Euphrates. They are a significant number that encourages and could encourage others to come back. " "This – he concludes - is the first tangible result of the talks and the implementation of the safe areas I hope will give a further acceleration to this process."

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as a popular revolt against President Bashar al Assad. Over time it has become a civil war, with jihadist infiltrations and increasing interference from foreign, regional and international powers. Over six years more than 300,000 people have died; Nearly 11 million citizens have had to abandon their homes, creating an unprecedented flow of migrants and internally displaced persons.