“We’re weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry proclaimed Nov. 17.

Since then, in the real world, not a scrap of food has been delivered to the besieged town of Madaya, where some 42,000 people are trapped and trying to survive on a diet of grass, leaves and cat. Doctors Without Borders reports 23 deaths from starvation at one health center since Dec. 1, including six children less than a year old. According to Oxfam, an aid agency, a dozen people, including a family of six, were killed by land mines while trying to escape the town.

Kerry is still hoping for his big deal, in which the regime of Bashar Assad and a rebel coalition will somehow agree on a comprehensive political settlement. Talks may or may not start on Jan. 25. But the story of Madaya suggests that the Assad regime and its allies have no intention of ending their horrific assaults on the country’s civilians.

After all, the Assad regime agreed months ago to allow food and other international aid into Madaya, which is near the Lebanese border, in exchange for relief in two Shiite-populated towns in rebel-held areas farther north. The deal was supposed to be an example of the cease-fires that Kerry has suggested could be the first fruits of the diplomatic process. Humanitarian access has also been mandated by multiple Security Council resolutions, including one passed unanimously on Dec. 18 that Kerry hailed for providing “clarity about the steps that need to be taken.”

In the three weeks since then, no food has entered Madaya. The town is ringed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which fights for the Assad regime on instructions from Iran. On Thursday the United Nations announced that the regime had finally agreed to allow an aid shipment. If so, it would be the first since Oct. 18.

The rebel coalition formed to participate in the talks has been telling U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura that the blockades on Madaya and other rebel-held towns must end before the negotiations begin. According to the State Department, some 400,000 Syrians are under siege. The rebels are also calling for an end to the bombing of civilian areas. Much of that is now being conducted by Russia, which, according to multiple independent reports, is attacking areas far from the Islamic State using cluster munitions, and targeting hospitals and food stores.

The European Union rightly backed those demands Friday, and so should Kerry. Before spending more time discussing grand solutions with the envoys of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, the United States should insist that the starvation and bombing of civilians finally end.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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