January 2014 Monthly Forecast

Posted 20 December 2013
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MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

Council members will be briefed on the implementation of resolution 2118, regarding the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, by Sigrid Kaag, Special Coordinator of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Mission. 

Council members will also closely follow preparations for the 22 January Geneva II peace talks and implementation of the presidential statement on humanitarian access.

Luxembourg and the UK are planning an Arria formula meeting focusing on women’s participation in the Syrian transition process.

Key Recent Developments

On 3 December, humanitarian chief Valerie Amos briefed Council members reporting no progress in gaining cross-line access into hard-to-reach areas, where 2.5 million people are in need, or besieged areas, where some 250,000 people are in need. She also reported no improvement in the protection of civilians or in the demilitarisation of schools and hospitals. She said there was moderate progress with the approval of visas for UN humanitarian workers and additional humanitarian hubs. There had been some movement by the government to allow aid from Iraq to clear customs at the border, but aid from Lebanon and Jordan was still routed through Damascus before distribution. She reported that a red line for Syria was the Turkish border, where no streamlined procedures for aid operations had been approved. This is an area where civilians are in significant need and it is also the largest concentration of opposition-held enclaves where the government does not control border crossings.

The Geneva-based contact group on humanitarian access met for the first time on 26 November and met again on 19 December. The group is co-chaired by OCHA, Australia and Luxembourg and includes the P5, Iran, Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Participants have agreed on a framework to measure progress in six essential areas: protection of civilians; safe passage of medical personnel and supplies; safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance; expansion of humanitarian relief operations; non-refoulement; and funding. (On 16 December, OCHA launched its largest ever appeal, US$6.5 billion, for humanitarian aid to Syria. The UN estimates that the Syrian refugee population is likely to double over the course of 2014 and that nearly three-quarters of Syria’s population of 22.4 million will need humanitarian aid.)

On 4 December, Kaag briefed Council members on the preparations for removing critical chemical agents from Syria by 31 December. Syria would transport the materiel to the Latakia port in armoured vehicles provided by Russia (it seemed possible Russia would provide security at the port), where it will be loaded on vessels provided by Denmark and Norway. At press time, it seemed Italy had agreed to provide the necessary “trans-loading port” to move the materiel to a US ship for destruction activities using hydrolysis, a process never tested at sea. Kaag underlined that the volatile and unpredictable security conditions in Syria could derail the impending deadlines. Of particular importance was the security of the Damascus-Homs highway. On 9 December, the government regained control of this route after launching an offensive in mid-November. (During this same time period, OCHA reported an escalation in fighting along this highway resulting in further civilian displacement and limiting the dispatch of humanitarian assistance.)

Separately, Council members were briefed on 16 December by the Secretary-General on the final report of a UN team led by Åke Sellström that included the results of the investigation into seven allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria. The report reiterated that there was convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in Ghouta on 21 August. The report described credible evidence of chemical weapons use in Khan al-Assal on 19 March. Results for three other incidents suggest chemical weapons use but the investigation was unable to establish a link between sites of the alleged events with the people affected. The mission was unable to establish chemical weapons use in two allegations.

At press time, UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi was expected to convene a trilateral meeting with Russia and the US in Geneva on 20 December, followed by meetings with representatives of the P5 and Syria’s neighbouring countries. The discussions will focus on preparations for Geneva II, in particular the parameters of the peace talks and whether Iran and Saudi Arabia will be invited to participate. Reaching agreement on these issues will be daunting given that Russia and the US continue to have divergent interpretations of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué’s call for a transitional government and President Bashar al-Assad’s role in that regard.

Regarding the opposition, the 13 December statement of the “London 11” reiterated support for a transitional government with full executive powers by “mutual consent” and that Assad would have no role in Syria. However, media reports indicate that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which attended the “London 11” meeting, was told by some western partners that leaving Assad or close associates as part of a transitional government would be preferable to the rise of extremist groups. The Syrian Information Minister said on 4 December that Assad “will lead the period of transition, if there is one … he is the leader of Syria … and will remain the president.” Presidential elections under the current Syrian constitution are slated for May 2014.

Meanwhile, six factions of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) defected to form the Islamic Front, seizing on 11 December the FSA headquarters, warehouses and a border crossing into Turkey. The UK and the US suspended assistance to the FSA. However, on 16 December, the US indicated a willingness to consider supporting the Islamic Front if it re-joins the FSA and supports the Geneva II process under the leadership of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, of which the SNC is the largest bloc. At press time, the Islamic Front had refused to meet with American officials.

The next benchmark is agreement on who will represent the government and the opposition. By 27 December, Russia is to name the government delegation and the US the opposition’s delegation. Both delegations should be credible and empowered to make decisions. For the opposition, a “credible” delegation would be broadly representative, though not necessarily relying on sectarian definitions. A “credible” government delegation would be one that does not include individuals responsible for egregious crimes.

On 2 December, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that the UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) had produced massive evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed and indicated responsibility at the highest level, including Assad. The CoI’s second thematic report released on 19 December concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that enforced disappearances were perpetrated by government forces as part of a widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population amounting to a crime against humanity.

If these difficult obstacles can be overcome and peace talks are not further delayed, it seems both delegations would be asked to find ways to lower the overall levels of violence and enhance humanitarian access as immediate steps to build confidence while the thornier issue of a transitional government is worked out.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 13 December, Pillay expressed concern about the significant rise of abductions and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, religious figures and others by armed groups and government forces. She urged all parties to the conflict to “stop terrorizing civilians through abduction, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, in clear violation of international human rights and humanitarian law”.

Key Issue

The key issue for the Council is how to contribute towards a solution that can significantly lower levels of violence and improve humanitarian access.

Underlying Problems

The progress on the chemical weapons track has not altered the course of the civil war in Syria. The level of violence continues unabated, with more than 100,000 killed, and some sources put the death toll at 126,000. The government conducted air strikes against opposition-held Aleppo for several days beginning on 15 December, killing in excess of 100 civilians, including children. 

The humanitarian situation is devastating. The refugee population now numbers 2.3 million, and 9.3 million in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance (of these, 2.5 million can rarely be accessed by humanitarian workers, and 6.5 million are internally displaced). Adding to the dire situation are the challenges of winter, alarming reports of intentional policies of starvation in areas under siege by the government and a health infrastructure collapsing under deliberate attack.

Options

Aside from Kaag’s briefing on the chemical weapons track and possibly hearing from Amos on humanitarian access, another option includes a briefing from Brahimi on the details of the preparations for the Geneva II peace talks.

If Geneva II is postponed yet again, the Council could issue a statement urging a quick convening of the talks and recalling its endorsement in resolution 2118 of the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers.

If Geneva II is convened, the Council could issue a statement supporting the peace talks and urging swift agreement that could be endorsed by a resolution.

Another option for the Council is to adopt a resolution on humanitarian issues if cooperation does not improve dramatically in the near term and if the prospect of a political solution slips further into the future.

Council and Wider Dynamics

Many Council members have acknowledged that the unprecedented cooperation on the chemical weapons track has not translated into significant improvements in humanitarian access or breakthroughs on the political track. There is a certain level of confidence that the Geneva II peace talks will be convened in early 2014 but without any corresponding optimism that they will produce any imminent political solution.

If the Geneva II talks are postponed and if cooperation on humanitarian access remains limited, then some Council members are considering a humanitarian resolution as a possible next step. Saudi Arabia has drafted a resolution and, along with Morocco—the voice of the Arab Group on the Council until Jordan takes over on 1 January—is consulting bilaterally with Council members on the text. However, no action on this draft was anticipated at press time.

Also, in the lead-up to Geneva II, Russia and the US are not likely to develop an appetite for a Syria-focused resolution, preferring instead to focus on using the Geneva-based contact group as a mechanism to improve access. Most Council members value Amos’s emphasis on Council unity and agree on the need to avoid contentious negotiations at this juncture.

Council members see that the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the US and Iran could ease regional tensions. However, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence will continue to have the potential to make progress on the Syrian situation difficult. At this early stage, Council members are wary about forecasting whether there will be any immediate, positive impacts from the Iran nuclear agreement on Syria.

On the chemical weapons track, Council members are largely satisfied by the progress but are aware that the most dangerous phase of transporting chemical agents out of Syria is still to be completed. There are several technical and legal issues regarding liability over the transport and destruction of the arsenal that are still outstanding. Council members agree the OPCW is the best forum to find solutions for these concerns.

France is the penholder on Syria. Australia and Luxembourg have taken the lead on the humanitarian track.

However, most texts are thoroughly negotiated between Russia and the US prior to agreement by the broader Council.  An example of the deadlock in the Council over reaching agreement on any text without both US and Russian approval was a recent draft press statement regarding Aleppo. The US circulated the draft on 18 December, expressing outrage at the use of airstrikes by the Syrian government.  Russia blocked the statement, saying it was unwarranted to single out the government given the overall levels of violence by all parties.  The US dropped the statement rather than dilute the language to reach the necessary concensus. The US argued that the regime should be singled out due to the proportion and barbarity of the Aleppo airstrikes.

UN Documents
Security Council Resolutions
27 September 2013 S/RES/2118 This resolution was adopted unanimously by the Council and required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, called for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorsed the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers.
Security Council Presidential Statements
2 October 2013 S/PRST/2013/15 This statement was on humanitarian access in Syria and urged the government to take immediate steps to allow for expanded relief operations and lift bureaucratic obstacles.
Secretary-General’s Reports
12 December 2013 S/2013/735 This was the final report of the UN investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria.
27 November 2013 S/2013/700 This was the second OPCW-UN Joint Mission progress report.
Security Council Letters
10 December 2013 S/2013/730 This was the Secretary-General’s update regarding Phase III destruction activities of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. This letter was noted by the Council in S/2013/731.