As the first temporary truce in years has begun in Syria, the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, a new entity organized by the United Nations, expressed hope that the long-awaited pause in the civil war would mean that “Syrians will wake up with the hope of resuming their lives among their families and loved ones without the threat of death hanging over them.”
The advisory board, originated by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, is the first group of its kind to be established by a chief mediator in UN history, said Christina Shaheen, the gender adviser for the Syrian envoy, on loan from UN Women. Although many women’s groups have lobbied persistently for at least 15 years to obtain actual seats at conflict-related negotiating tables, this board is not playing that part yet.
So far, the cessation of hostilities, which went into effect midnight Friday in Syria, is enduring, with reports of low-level breaches. The pause in fighting was brokered by the United States and Russia in the last week as desperately needed humanitarian aid channels were opened. The truce requires that Syrian government forces and Russia stop aerial bombardments against rebel groups, while the latter must refrain from rocket and mortar attacks and other ground weapons.
The rebel groups agreeing to the pause mainly fall within the High Negotiations Committee, formed in December and made up of such wide-ranging members as the National Coalition, an alliance of exiled Syrian politicians; Free Syrian Army factions; and independent rebels. Only two women were appointed to the Committee, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Airstrikes in Syria can continue, however, by government forces, Russians and the American-led coalition against Al-Nusra Front, an arm of Al Qaeda, ISIS (or Daesh) and other terrorists designated by the UN Security Council, though no official list has been made available. One Security Council member, Venezuela, told reporters on Friday, immediately after the Council approved a resolution outlining the truce, that he did not know who was included in the list of terrorists.
The truce is expected to last at least until UN-led peace talks are scheduled to resume on March 7 in Geneva. The first round of talks, held in late January, died within days.
On Feb. 26, less than an hour before the cease-fire started, de Mistura acknowledged to the Security Council the precariousness of the pause in fighting, while he also laid out plans for the talks to convene with the same representatives from the government and opposition as before as well as others.
As he told the Council by webcast from Geneva: “I have consulted and will continue to consult civil society and women, Syrian women. They are a remarkable contribution and they need to be a remarkable contribution to our work, and I will continue this practice.”
The Women’s Advisory Board said in its first statement, released hours after the truce was initiated: “We, Syrian women, urge all parties to implement the terms of the agreement and exercise utmost constraint as this is the first step towards a sustainable and comprehensive cease fire. Every day we lose without achieving peace is another day of suffering.”
The board consists of 12 civil society representatives chosen by Syrian women’s organizations through their own consultations. Its aim is to enable Syrian women from all walks of life, including across ideological lines, to articulate their views and recommendations on everything that is discussed through the duration of the peace talks.
For now, Shaheen, the gender adviser, said the women’s identities were being kept confidential for security reasons. Five of them live in Syria, while most of the others left Syria recently because of the intensification of the conflict.
Mouna Ghanem, however, said she was on the board. By email from Denmark, where she lives, she described the board as “advisory” in the basic sense, ready to work from an office in the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva in March. “The plan is to talk to all parties and to push for the talk[s] between them and provide the UN special envoy with our best advice on issues.”
Right now, the cessation of hostilities is utmost. As the board’s statement said: “For more than four years, we have witnessed the indescribable suffering of our people: the death of our loved ones, the destruction of our homes, the arrests and disappearances of our relatives and friends, the malnourishment of our children, and the displacement of our communities. The ongoing conflict is taking a grave toll on all Syrians, on their safety, their dignity and their hope for the future for their families and children. This has to stop.
We welcome the growing efforts to bring urgent humanitarian aid to our people. The unhindered delivery of aid must be sustained and expanded to reach all people in need across Syria. We know that halting violence and delivery of aid are only the first steps. We urge all parties to resume the peace talks in good faith to forge inclusive workable solutions. We call upon them to live up to their responsibility to end the suffering of our people.
We support all efforts to build lasting peace and a unified, democratic Syria in which all Syrians are assured of their rightful place as equal citizens. We urge all parties to work diligently to give us hope that this can be achieved.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.