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Updated: June 6, 2012 23:57 IST

Syria allows relief to enter hotbeds

Atul Aneja
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Newly-appointed Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Photo: AFP
Newly-appointed Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Photo: AFP

Violence, broken pledges may pose obstacles

Syria has allowed international relief agencies to deliver badly needed aid to around a million people in four major cities, embroiled in the uprising against regime of President Bashar Al Assad, which has come under sharper focus after the brutal killings of scores last month in the Houla area.

John Ging, director of operation for the United Nations Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the decision represented “very significant progress”. But with violence and broken pledges littered along the way, Mr. Ging was sceptical about the longevity of the move. “Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria is what it's all about now. The good faith of the Syrian government will be tested today, tomorrow and every day.”

Under the terms of the new understanding, relief agencies will be allowed to establish field offices in the trouble-torn cities of Homs, Idlib, Daraa and Deir al-Zour. The government will arrange visas for the personnel and organise clearance of aid supplies at custom terminals. The move is in line with the six-point plan, which has focused on providing humanitarian access to civilian population. It was authored by Kofi Annan, U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria.

As Damascus prepares to let in foreign aid workers, their impending presence is being overshadowed by the carnage in Houla, where 108 people, including a majority of women and children had been killed in cold blood. In a coordinated move, 11 Western governments last week expelled Syrian envoys from their countries as an expression of outrage. On Tuesday, it was the Syrian government's turn to hit back. Along with Robert Ford, U.S. Ambassador, Syria read out the marching orders to diplomats from Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland — countries which were on the forefront of expelling Syrian diplomats in the first place. The Assad administration was particularly harsh on Turkey, which is hosting thousands of Syrian refugees, escaping the fighting on its soil and has been a sharp critic of Damascus. The entire staff of the Turkish embassy has been expelled.

With the tit-for-tat over Houla concluded, the Syrians re-tuned to a more conciliatory pitch. They reiterated their readiness to engage in a political dialogue with the opposition, in accordance with another key element of the Annan plan. A statement run by SANA, the state-run news agency, quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying Syria “still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect.”

On Wednesday, President Assad named Agriculture Minister Riad Hijab as his Prime Minister, state television reported. Known as a staunch Baath-party loyalist, Mr. Hijab's elevation from the portfolio of Agriculture Minister follows the recent parliamentary elections held under a new constitution. However, analysts point out that Mr. Hijab is hardly known as a reform-minded individual, and his appointment is unlikely to stir hopes of Syria entering a new era of democratic transition.

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