February 2014 Monthly Forecast

Posted 31 January 2014
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MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In February, Council members will be briefed by OCHA head Valerie Amos on humanitarian access in Syria. Council members will also be closely following the Geneva II peace talks, which began on 22 January. Developments there will likely inform any Council activity on Syria.

There will also be a briefing in consultations 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.

Key Recent Developments

Amos last briefed Council members on 3 December 2013, reporting that there had been no progress in gaining cross-line access or access to besieged areas and no improvement in the protection of civilians or in the demilitarisation of schools and hospitals. In a 17 January note to Council members, Amos reported nominal progress in some areas but reiterated that intense needs continued to go unmet, particularly in besieged areas. While in Damascus on 12 January, Amos said that she raised access to besieged areas with the government and that she was “particularly worried about reports of starvation”. The 17 January note recommended intense engagement by Council members to respond to these increasing reports of malnutrition and starvation.

On 31 December 2013, the Secretary-General and Amos condemned attacks against civilians in Aleppo and voiced concern over the government’s indiscriminate use of heavy weapons. Earlier in the month, Russia had blocked the release of a Council press statement condemning the Aleppo attacks, which began on 15 December. Russia said singling out the government was unwarranted, given the overall levels of violence by all parties. The US argued that the regime should be singled out due to the magnitude and barbarity of the Aleppo airstrikes. Russia blocked a similar press statement again on 8 January using the same arguments.

On 8 January, Kaag briefed Council members, reporting that the 31 December 2013 deadline for removing priority-one chemicals was missed, though Syria did transfer an initial tranche on 7 January. She told Council members that the first movement of chemicals must not be a symbolic action and that the government should continue its cooperation in a safe and timely manner. Kaag also reported that Syria continued to request security equipment despite consistent advice that such “dual use” equipment would not be procured by the mission. Finally, Kaag encouraged key member states to continue to exert pressure on Syria to fulfil its obligations.

In remarks to the media following her briefing, Kaag said she expected that the 30 June deadline for the complete removal and destruction of the chemical weapons programme would be met. On 16 January, the OPCW said that the original 31 March deadline for the removal and destruction of most critical chemicals may not be met until June due to security concerns and bureaucratic delays.

The OPCW reported a second cargo transfer on 27 January. According to media reports, the two batches represent only 5 percent of the total arsenal.

On 12 January, the “London 11” met with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Paris. The resulting statement reiterated support for a transitional government with full executive powers by “mutual consent”, with no role for President Bashar al-Assad, and urged the SNC to send a delegation to Geneva II talks. It condemned recent statements by the regime that it would not agree to establish a transitional government and that Assad would run for re-election. It also condemned the presence of foreign fighters in Syria, including Hezbollah, Iranian-backed forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and noted that, despite its claims to the contrary, the regime had taken no significant measures to fight extremism.

The next day, UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi convened a trilateral meeting with Russia and the US in Paris, where issues of humanitarian access, local ceasefires and prisoner releases were discussed as possible confidence-building measures in the lead up to Geneva II talks. The issue of Iran’s participation was also raised with the US maintaining its position that such participation would be predicated on Iran’s public acceptance of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué as the basis for Geneva II.

On 18 January, under significant pressure from international backers such as the “London 11”, the SNC voted to attend Geneva II, despite misgivings that the international community had any significant leverage to compel the regime to make concessions. A third of the SNC membership boycotted the vote due to concerns that agreeing to negotiate with a regime responsible for war crimes and with a stated intention of staying in power would further alienate the SNC from opposition groups operating on the ground.

On 19 January, the Secretary-General invited Iran to participate after intensive consultations with the US and other P5 members. Shortly after it was issued, Iran said it did not support the Geneva I communiqué as a basis for a transitional government despite verbal assurances given to the Secretary-General otherwise. Under pressure from the US and with a SNC ultimatum that it would not attend if Iran participated, the Secretary-General withdrew the invitation on 20 January. On 22 January, Iran said Geneva II was unlikely to succeed “because of the lack of influential players at the meeting”. The next day Iran echoed Syria’s call for elections (versus a negotiated transition) as the “best solution” and that “we should all accept” the outcome.

Geneva II opened on 22 January. Predictable, yet fundamental, divisions quickly emerged, with the US saying it was unthinkable Assad would have any role in a transitional government while Russia argued against predetermining the outcome of the process. Meanwhile, the SNC cast doubt on whether the government was there to negotiate in good faith, and the government framed the purpose of the talks strictly as a forum to discuss counter-terrorism. UN-mediated talks began on 24 January with Brahimi shuttling between the SNC and government delegations. At press time, agreement had been reached that direct talks would take place on 25 January with Brahimi expressing hope that they would at least continue through the end of January.

On 17 January, Security Council members held a closed Arria formula meeting focused on women’s participation in resolving the Syrian conflict. A key message was that neither the government nor the opposition sufficiently represent the Syrian people and the integrity of the talks would be undermined if women and civil society were excluded.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 16 January, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said mass executions by ISIS of civilians and fighters no longer participating in hostilities may constitute war crimes. On 17 January, Pillay condemned the repeated obstruction of food and medical aid deliveries to 18,000 people living in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, stressing that starvation of civilians as a method of combat was prohibited under international law and may amount to a war crime.

Separately, on 20 January former prosecutors of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Special Court for Sierra Leone released a report citing credible evidence that the Syrian government systematically tortured and executed some 11,000 detainees.

Key Issue

The key issue for the Council is how, three years into the conflict, it can contribute towards a solution in Syria 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, with some sources reporting a death toll that exceeds 130,000. The level of violence has only escalated since the agreement on chemical weapons was inked as the regime has increased its use of incendiary weapons, cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Escalating violence is also attributable to the proliferation of extremist armed groups, such as ISIS, whose agenda is to control territory for a future Islamic state. These groups are strategically targeting opposition-held areas and are not fighting the regime. Likewise, the regime is making no significant efforts to confront ISIS.

The humanitarian situation is devastating. The refugee population numbers 2.4 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 depopulating and razing residential areas, intentional policies of starvation in areas under siege by the government and a health infrastructure collapsing under deliberate attack.

Options

An option for the Council is issuing a statement supporting the peace talks, recalling its endorsement in resolution 2118 of the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers and urging swift agreement that could be endorsed by a resolution. 

Another option is a briefing from Brahimi on the Geneva II peace talks.

Regarding chemical weapons, Kaag’s last briefing seemed to indicate a certain wariness regarding Syria’s cooperation. If such concerns are amplified in February, the Council could issue a statement reminding Syria that resolution 2118 decided to impose measures under Chapter VII in the event of non-compliance.

A more remote option for the Council is to adopt a resolution on humanitarian issues if access does not dramatically improve in the near term.

Council Dynamics

Many Council members are firmly of the view that, five months after the 2 October 2013 presidential statement on humanitarian access was adopted (S/PRST/2013/15), the lack of substantial cooperation demonstrates a deliberate political decision by Syria to deny aid as a war tactic and that the small, incremental allowances it does agree to are mere tools to buy time. Council members are also aware of Russia’s efforts to compel the regime to improve access. However, given the astonishingly low level of cooperation relative to the cooperation on the chemical weapons track, some Council members are beginning to question whether Russia has the desire or leverage to get major concessions from the regime on this particular issue, especially without any corresponding pressure from Iran. 

While Council members are relieved to see that the Geneva II peace talks are underway, there is little optimism that it will produce any imminent political solution. There is also concern by some Council members that the talks may get bogged down in negotiations over humanitarian access, prisoner exchanges and local ceasefires. While all Council members see value in any agreement which can alleviate suffering, there is concern that engagement on these issues will likely come at the expense of immediate negotiations on a transitional government. Furthermore, the SNC has extremely limited political and military influence on the ground and will be largely unable to deliver on any agreements on these issues. (Its most effective fighters defected in December to form the Islamic Front, which did not agree to participate in Geneva II.)

If the Geneva II talks produce no tangible progress and if cooperation on humanitarian access remains stunted, then some Council members are considering a humanitarian resolution as a necessary next step. In this regard, most Council members will place a great deal of emphasis on Amos’s view of what the Council could do to best help OCHA improve its access to populations in need.

On the chemical weapons track, Council members are largely satisfied but have noted that “bureaucratic delays” on the part of the government have begun to impede progress, much as they do on the humanitarian track.

Despite many Council members becoming frustrated with the Council’s inability to alter the course of events in Syria, it will be difficult to move forward on any initiative without buy-in from Russia and the US. Neither will likely develop an appetite for a Syria-focused resolution in the coming month.

France is the penholder on Syria. However, most texts are thoroughly, if not exclusively, negotiated between Russia and the US prior to agreement by the broader Council. Australia and Luxembourg have taken the lead on the humanitarian track.

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  
27 January 2014 S/2014/52 This was the fourth OPCW-UN Joint Mission monthly progress report.
27 December 2013 S/2013/774 This was the third OPCW-UN Joint Mission monthly progress report.