After nearly three years of death, destruction and displacement, the world took a big, bold step this week toward lasting peace in Syria with word that Syria's government and opposition parties will hold peace talks on Jan. 22 in Geneva. The long-overdue talks aim to end a savage conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives, rendered nearly 7 million homeless and threatens to rip the Middle East at its seams.
The United Nations quickly committed to the talks as a vehicle for establishing a "transitional governing body with full executive powers" and for putting the best interests of "all the Syrian people" at the center of the political negotiations. With the U.N. setting a hopeful tone, it is now up to the United States, Russia and the Arab League to push the talks forward at a swift, earnest pace.
As planning begins, Oxfam is also hopeful that the talks will produce measures that will make a real difference to ordinary Syrians – those who have suffered for so long. Those measures must include: ensuring relevant groups on all sides of the conflict agree to take part, achieving a ceasefire, increasing access for humanitarian aid inside Syria and halting the transfer of arms and ammunition entering the country.
If the talks are to have any chance of success, all parts of Syrian society must be adequately represented, including non-military actors who will be crucial in the rebuilding and reconstruction of their country. The negotiations and their outcomes must not compromise or undermine the fundamental rights of Syrian women, men and children. Moreover, to ensure a just and sustainable settlement, talks must include people from different faiths.
To people around the world, news of peace talks should signal that the international community will no longer stand by and allow innocent civilians to suffer. Secretary of State John Kerry has done commendable work to bring Syria's chemical weapons under control and breathe life into the floundering peace process. But now, talks in Geneva must forcefully address the abhorrent use of chemical weapons and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Before the talks even begin, the United States and others should press for a ceasefire and an end to arms transfers, sparing civilians from further violence.
Until the fighting ends and rebuilding begins, millions of Syrians will remain in need. Right now, thousands of Syrian families are in the grips of a long, bitter winter with no end in sight. Many are cold, hungry and jobless – desperate for global leaders to bring this terrible and bloody conflict to an end. As winter descends, widespread hunger, malnutrition and disease are feared inside Syria as well as in refugee communities on the Syrian border. Innocent children will be among the hardest hit.
Increasing access for humanitarian aid inside Syria before the talks begin will help to address the most urgent needs. Additionally, it is important that all countries neighboring Syria – many of which have been generous in accepting refugees – continue to provide safe places where people have access to basic services. At the same time, rising refugee numbers are creating pressure on neighboring governments' social and municipal services – their schools, hospitals, water and sanitation services and availability of jobs.
For example, Syrian refugees now account for 25 percent of Lebanon's population. There, Syrian families are paying $300 per month to live in shacks, shops, storage basements and overcrowded apartments. Others huddle together in sprawling, informal tent communities. To make ends meet, refugees borrow money from friends and family and sell what few valuable possessions they have. Competition is high for jobs and services, creating undue stress on Lebanon's government and economy. Neighboring governments are also under strain. Meanwhile, tension and violence has spread across the region.