'Happy New Year!'. 'HNY2016!'. 'Kull a'aam wa enta bi-khayr'. It's that time of year when people give each other a boost and wish them well for the year ahead. Syrians remain incredibly generous in wishing me, 'love, peace and happiness' for 2016. I return the favour, usually with an invocation that Syria see peace, or at least a better year than last year. How hard can that be?
Well, hope for peace was in short supply in early 2015. Early 2016 looked better. The UN Security Council called for UN-convened peace negotiations in Geneva to start this month, endorsing the commitment of an 'International Syria Support Group' of States to help Syrians bring peace to their country through a peaceful transition, crucially with a timetable of up to 18 months. The UK is part of that Support Group. We are doing what we can to help Syrians make peace.
Peace has better chances if there's some hope. UN Security Council pledges offer some. Confidence Building Measures, or CBMs, offer yet more.
Confidence Building Measures are used to signal a desire to change the status quo. They can show a shared commitment by parties to a conflict to uphold international law and demonstrate a desire to solve a conflict politically. They build a modicum of trust between the parties. They show ordinary people that negotiators are doing something about the war while thrashing out the issues far away (in Europe, this time).
Confidence Building Measures should not be confused with obligations under International Humanitarian Law. The former are optional. The latter are compulsory.
In Syria, however, CBMs and humanitarian obligations are often conflated, for the simple reason that Syrians want civilian deaths, injuries and human rights abuses and violations to stop. They want to stop Syria's ever deeper slide into humanitarian catastrophe. They want the parties to the conflict to take the first steps towards that. And the UN Security Council, in its resolution 2254, agrees.
There are a number of things which could and should happen: an end to the targeting of civilians and aerial bombardment of areas populated by civilians; the lifting of sieges and provision of humanitarian access; the release of detainees; investigations into the fate of those who have disappeared; a stop to forcing people from their homes, either elsewhere in the country or abroad.
I pick two, below. This doesn't imply my prioritisation of these among others. But both are currently the subject of intense media coverage.
Firstly, humanitarian access. Harrowing images from Madaya village, north-west of Damascus, testify to the need for full and unimpeded access across Syria for medical personnel, equipment, transport and supplies. The situation, as it stands, is unacceptable. Between January and November last year, the UN could only reach 7 percent of 4.5 million people in hard to reach areas. Impeding access causes suffering and death, which can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.
Sieges continue to pose a major threat to civilian life. There are 400,000 people in need in besieged areas; last year the UN could only reach 1.5 percent of them. The lifting of sieges could restore Syrians' access to their most basic human rights and save lives. Three relief convoys have finally got in to Madaya, after 84 days of a brutal siege imposed by the Asad regime and Hezbollah. These convoys should be only the beginning of full, unimpeded and sustained access to this village and all other besieged areas in Syria.
Secondly, detentions and disappearance. Human Rights Watch estimate that over 85,000 people are being held by the Asad regime in conditions that amount to enforced disappearance. Armed groups operating in Syria, including terrorist organisations such as Daesh and Al-Nusra Front, also arbitrarily detain civilians. Releasing prisoners and revealing the fate of the disappeared are both steps all actors, particularly the regime who holds tens of thousands of detainees, should take as confidence building measures towards a negotiated peace.
Taking measures to end the violence and restore dignity will help bring the parties to the Syrian conflict closer to a nationwide ceasefire. They may also help avoid negotiations breaking down due to the mistaken belief that there should be 'a ceasefire or nothing at all'.
We will know very soon whether negotiations will start under UN auspices. We want them to. And Confidence Building Measures can only help to make the prospect of negotiations a firm reality.
The UK will continue to play its part, supporting agreement on CBMs and backing all peace efforts with both humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid. Prime Minister Cameron has pledged at least £1billion for Syria's stabilization reconstruction to turn a peace on paper into a peace in reality. The UK will co-host with Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations a Conference on 4 February in London which aims to reset the international community's response to the whole crisis. This will include raising significant funds for the immediate needs of those affected in Syria and the region. We will also agree measures and funding to create new educational and economic opportunities for refugees in the region, and support to the communities and countries that are hosting them.
So here's to hope, some confidence to get there, and a better 2016 for Syria than 2015 was.