Expected Council Action
The mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) ends on 20 July. Council members will have two briefings in consultations—likely from UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The Secretary-General’s UNSMIS report is expected in early July and will include options for the mission’s future. At press time, it remained unclear if the mandate would be renewed and if so in what capacity.
Key Recent Developments
The overall level of violence in Syria has escalated dramatically with a qualitative shift in military positions. The UN estimates 10,000 dead due to the crisis and other monitoring groups reporting casualties as high as 14,000.
On 7 June, Annan briefed Council members saying that the violence was worse than before the 12 April deadline for the cessation of violence, the government of Syria was primarily responsible for not implementing the six-point plan, UNSMIS had been deliberately targeted and there needed to be consequences for non-compliance with the six-point plan.
Prior to this briefing, Council members held an interactive dialogue with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby on the League’s 2 June resolution urging the Security Council to take measures to ensure the protection of civilians in Syria. (Syria was a focus of the Council’s 25 June open debate on the protection of civilians.)
Incidents affecting UNSMIS continued in June. Media reports indicate that as many as 78 people were killed in Mazraat al-Qubeir near Hama on 6 June by government forces and pro-government militias (Shabihah). When UNSMIS reached the site on 8 June, the village was empty, with evidence of shelling, burned homes and tank tracks; there were local reports that most of the bodies had been removed. (UNSMIS was shot at and obstructed from reaching the site on its 7 June attempt.) On 11 June, Annan expressed concern about the use of mortars, helicopters and tanks in el-Haffa near Lattakia. UNSMIS reached the town on 14 June, reporting that it appeared deserted with many government buildings burnt and a strong stench of dead bodies. (UNSMIS was also shot at and obstructed from reaching the town on its 12 June attempt.)
On 16 June UNSMIS head, Major General Robert Mood, decided to suspend mission activities due to the continued deliberate targeting of the mission and related security concerns. (Media reports at the time indicated the government’s use of attack helicopters and opposition fighters in possession of anti-tank capabilities.) Mood briefed Council members on 19 June on developments and the suspension.
On 22 June, Annan said it was time for countries with influence to raise the level of pressure on the parties and that planning was underway for an Action Group meeting on Syria in Geneva on 30 June. (The idea for the Action Group originated as a proposal for a “contact group” during the 7 June UNSMIS consultations.)
Annan’s deputy, Nasser al-Kidwa, briefed Council members on 26 June on the planning for the Action Group meeting. During the same consultations, DPKO head Hervé Ladsous said the violence prevented UNSMIS from resuming its activities. (At press time, there were reports of explosions in Damascus on 28 June as well as clashes and shelling earlier in the week near where the elite Republican Guard is located. Government shelling of Homs has been severe in June despite appeals by UNSMIS and ICRC for a pause to evacuate civilians.)
On 27 June Annan announced the Action Group would meet in Geneva at ministerial-level on 30 June to discuss ways to implement the six-point plan—in particular a Syrian-led political transition. (It seems this proposal calls for an interim, unity government that does not specify President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation but rather stipulates such a government could not include figures who jeopardise stability.) Besides the P5, invited participants include Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar in their relevant Arab League capacities; the Secretaries-General of the Arab League and the UN; the EU; and Turkey. (Iran and Saudi Arabia weren’t invited.)
Regarding the Syrian opposition, Abdel Basset Sayda, a Kurd, was elected to lead the Syrian National Council (SNC) on 10 June after Burhan Ghalioun resigned on 23 May due to criticism that the SNC was not inclusive enough. Sayda has called on Assad to leave office and urged defections from the Syrian government.
Media reports indicate several high-level defections by Syrian military officers, including an air force colonel who flew his jet to Jordan on 21 June and a general, two colonels, two majors, and thirty soldiers who defected to Turkey on 24 June.
Various Syrian opposition groups, including the SNC, met in Brussels on 24-25 June to work on a common platform for a democratic transition in Syria that could bridge rifts over views on military intervention, dialogue with the Assad regime and Islamic political parties.
The next Friends of Syria meeting is slated for 6 July in Paris. (The Friends of Syria Working Group on Sanctions met on 6 June in Washington, D.C.)
On 26 June NATO condemned Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet on 22 June. In a 24 June letter to the Council, Turkey said it considered the attack a hostile act by Syria and reported that the unarmed jet had been shot down in international airspace without warning after it had strayed into Syrian airspace.
On 26 June, Assad swore in a new cabinet saying that Syria now faced a real situation of war. The cabinet was formed by Prime Minister Riyad Hajib—appointed on 6 June—with the heads of the defence, interior and foreign ministries remaining the same. The SNC dismissed the new government as illegitimate.
Human Rights-Related Developments
Also on 27 June, the Commission’s head, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, updated the HRC after returning from his first visit to Damascus between 23-25 June. (The Commission’s final report is expected in September.) He said the human rights situation in Syria had deteriorated rapidly noting a shift to increasingly militarised fighting. Regarding the el-Houleh attacks, the Commission considered that forces loyal to the government may have been responsible for many of the deaths. In its conclusions, the Commission considered that government forces and the Shabiha have perpetrated unlawful killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture including sexual violence against women, children and men. The Commission also detailed violations by anti-government forces including extra-judicial execution and torture of government forces and/or their alleged supporters, abductions of civilians and government forces and the use of children as porters, messengers and cooks exposing them to risk. (The Secretary-General’s recent report on Children and Armed Conflict also listed Syria as a perpetrator of grave violations against children.)
The key issue for the Council is the broken commitment by the Syrian government to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from population centres. The opposition’s more sophisticated tactics, including in its offensive posture, have become a complicating factor over the past month. Additionally, the 4 June declaration by the Free Syrian Army that it was no longer committed to the cessation of violence is another complicating factor.
A related issue is the militarisation of the crisis with implications that the situation is evolving toward a full-scale civil war.
Another issue is whether the opposition will be sufficiently galvanised to hold talks with the Syrian government in the event that the political dialogue gets underway. (On 28 June the SNC said that if Annan’s proposal for an interim government is not explicit that Assad must step down then they would find it unacceptable.)
UNSMIS-related issues that will need to be addressed if the mission is to be renewed in its current capacity include:
- safety and freedom of movement and access for UN personnel;
- the lack of a finalised status of mission agreement; and
- the lack of independent air support.
Shelling and the use of heavy weapons by the government continue while opposition armed groups appear more capable both in terms of organisation and weaponry. Media reports indicate Russia is attempting to send refurbished attack helicopters to Syria under an existing contract. The US is providing logistics and communications assistance to the opposition. Media reports indicate the US—while not providing arms to the opposition—might be providing intelligence assistance in vetting which anti-government fighters receive weapons.
Increasing tension between Turkey and Syria over the downed jet, Turkish military build-up on the border and issues around the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey, and the spill-over effects of the Syrian situation to Lebanon and beyond, all have the potential to negatively impact regional security.
The Secretary-General’s UNSMIS recommendations might include:
- withdrawal of the mission;
- reducing the mission to a small political office with liaison tasks and limited verification and reporting capacity;
- maintaining the mission with its current mandate and observer levels; or
- enhancing the mission by including more military and civilian observers.
It seems the most likely option—in the absence of a political breakthrough and if the level of violence persists—would be to retain a small political mission. A further option, if such a reduction occurs, is to maintain a provision for the redeployment of military observers in the event that there is again a conducive environment.
It appears highly unlikely that the Secretary-General will include force protection in his recommendations. DPKO’s view is that unarmed monitors more transparently convey the message that UNSMIS is there to liaise, observe and report and does not have a mandate to use force.
An option for the Council to encourage implementation of the six-point plan could be a Chapter VII resolution with a credible threat of targeted sanctions (travel bans and assets freeze) and perhaps even an arms embargo, given the increasingly militarised nature of the conflict. Such a resolution could set out timelines for progress on the six-point plan with sanctions if benchmarks are not met.
Alternatively, given the severity and the duration of the crisis, a more robust Chapter VII option for the Council could be a resolution imposing sanctions with a timeline for the removal of such measures directly linked to progress on the six-point plan.
If the Action Group meeting is productive, the Council has the option to endorse the outcome and perhaps enforce implementation through the calibrated pressure mentioned above in a Chapter VII resolution imposing sanctions or the threat of sanctions.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Council members are unanimous in their concern about the devastating level of violence, which has already significantly undermined UNSMIS’s ability to operate and be an effective calming presence on the ground (as well as its own safety). Several Council members think that if the crisis continues to deteriorate and the mission is unable to resume its activities then UNSMIS should not be extended in its current configuration.
Council members see signs of increasing frustration from Annan at the lack of progress and note that he has taken a more critical posture vis-à-vis the Syrian government and its commitments and responsibilities. There is a sense that Annan may be close to ending his mediation efforts if there is not a meaningful outcome on 30 June.
It seems Council members are aware that a more concerted approach by the Council, particularly the P5, and the international community is needed if mediation efforts are to succeed and to avoid a full-scale civil war.
However, the strain among the P5 is palpable. Fundamental differences remain over how a Syrian political transition can come about. While Russia has publicly said that it is not insisting Assad stay in power, it does not want any Council involvement in regime change. This dynamic seemed to be in play vis-à-vis Annan’s proposed plan for a unity government. (Some Council members were under the impression that Russia had accepted this plan as a basis for an outcome from the Action Group meeting. However, it seems Russia still has several concerns in that regard.) These issues are expected to come up during the meeting between US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on 29 June in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Action Group meeting.
It seems some Council members have heightened expectations for an Action Group outcome, especially as there was no breakthrough during the 18 June meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20. On the other hand, several Council members are concerned that the deadlock in the Council has led to a process-oriented approach towards the crisis instead of a substantive response (a dynamic that the Action Group may simply reinforce). They are uneasy that the Council might soon be in the position of having to react to a catastrophe they all saw on the horizon versus having a proactive and effective response now.
Council members are aware that a Chapter VII resolution is a possible next step. Russia and China are still opposed to such measures. However, given the increasing levels of violence and the suspension of UNSMIS activities, it seems a significant majority of Council members might be more comfortable with a Chapter VII approach than was the case a month ago.
Security Council Resolution
Security Council Letters