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Syrian government backs away from UN plan on humanitarian relief for Homs

GENEVA - Hopes faded Monday for a quick win at peace talks between Syria’s warring factions, with no sign that the Syrian government was prepared to allow a convoy of food to enter a besieged neighborhood in central Homs under the terms of an agreement brokered by the United Nations.

The Syrian government said Monday it would allow women and children to leave Homs’ Old City, where around 2,500 people are facing rapidly deteriorating conditions after being surrounded by government troops for nearly two years.

But the U.N.-brokered plan calls for food to enter the area, rather than for women and children to evacuate, which would divide families and leave civilian and elderly men without help. The governor of Homs, Talal Barrazi, met Monday with United Nations officials to discuss where to take women and children who left the war-torn city about 100 miles north of Damascus, Syrian state television reported. But there was no mention of permitting the convoy of food, which was readied days ago, to enter the area.

The government has given no indication that the convoy of humanitarian aid will be allowed to enter and has said no men may leave the Old City unless a list of all the men in the area is submitted in advance. Residents fear that the list of names would be used to detain the men.

U.S. officials monitoring the talks in Geneva expressed frustration with the slow progress on what was supposed to be a quick and easy fix designed to build good will ahead of tougher talks ahead on key political issues.

“Civilians must be allowed to come and go freely, and the people of Homs must not be forced to leave their homes and split up their families before receiving much needed food and other aid,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. He said the Syrian government’s tactic echoes its “kneel or starve” campaign under which troops surround rebel-held communities and deny them access to food and medicine to force them to submit.

Opposition figures said that permitting the departure of women and children, many of whom are the families of rebel fighters, forces communities that oppose Assad to choose between starvation and surrender. The Syrian opposition has made clear that surrender is not the purpose of its attendance at the Geneva talks.

The effort to bring aid to Homs came as U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating the negotiations, broached for the first time Monday the contentious subject of what the goal of the talks should be.

The gulf between the two sides was immediately apparent. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that the government presented a plan to preserve the current regime and said the opposition had immediately rejected it. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi stressed in an interview with state television that the plan did not mention the presidency.

“Can we imagine that any Syrian could ever disagree with another about the importance of the presidency and the unity of Syria unless one of them is actually Israeli?” he asked.

The opposition said it presented a plan outlining a transition to a new democratic system without Assad, which it has repeatedly emphasized is the chief reason it agreed to attend the talks.

The dispute over the delivery of aid to Homs and the gulf between the two sides’ conflicting visions for Syria’s future underscored the difficulty of securing any kind of agreement to end Syria’s civil war, which continues to rage unchecked.

The peace talks got off to a fitful start Saturday with a proposal to focus first on ending the humanitarian crisis in Homs, where about 2,500 Old City resident people have been living alongside rebel fighters without access to food or medicine for months.

Brahimi described the modest first proposal as a confidence-building measure intended to give the talks an early boost.

Diplomats said that the proposal was negotiated in advance under prodding from the United States and Russia, and that it had been expected to be swiftly adopted as a demonstration of goodwill.

Instead, the government initially denied knowledge of the plan, then set conditions for its implementation, said a Western diplomat briefed on the talks.

The opposition accused the government of cherry-picking parts of the plan in order to delay discussions on broader issues, such as ways to transition power away from Assad.

“It’s a stalling tactic,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the opposition. “The regime is attempting to put various conditions not conducive to our goals.”

Rebels with the Homs Military Council issued a statement Sunday saying that they are willing to observe a cease-fire to allow the convoy to enter. But activists said they are concerned that the government is not guaranteeing the safety of civilians who left. They also objected to the government’s demand for a list of the names of all the men in the besieged area.

“This might be because they want some specific names to arrest them,” said Abu Rami, an activist in Homs. “The very important thing is we want women, children, elderly and wounded to leave. We need them to get out to safety.”

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters Sunday that the government will allow women and children to leave central Homs and said the government is ready to allow humanitarian aid to enter.

But he added that it is important that the aid “should not go to the hands of terrorists” and made it clear that the government regards all the armed groups battling to overthrow Assad as terrorists.

Mekdad indicated that the government is unhappy with the early focus of the talks on the plight of Homs, one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and he accused the United States of being behind the push for the delivery of aid.

“Don’t insist on talking about the situation in a single part of Syria,” he said. “Because the United States wants the issue of Homs to be talked about, we are talking about Homs.”

A U.S official responded that the regime should not focus on the United States but on “engaging with the opposition in a serious negotiation on how to end the suffering of the Syrian people.”