Expected Council Action
The US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) expanded from Iraq to targets in Syria on 22 September. It seems unlikely the Council will meet separately to consider these expanded airstrikes. However, the strikes will be at the front of Council members’ thinking during their regular Syria deliberations in October.
Early in the month, Sigrid Kaag, the former Special Coordinator of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Mission, will brief Council members. Though the Joint Mission came to a close on 30 September, OPCW will continue to track implementation of resolution 2118 and Kaag will continue to brief in an advisory, good-offices capacity.
Finally, Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will likely brief Council members in October following a round of September meetings in Damascus and the region, as well as meetings in New York during leaders’ week of the 69th General Assembly.
Key Recent Developments
On 10 September, US President Barack Obama announced that his strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS included the possibility of expanding the air campaign from Iraq to Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry chaired a 19 September Council debate on Iraq—the culmination of US coalition-building that resulted in some 50 countries, including ten Arab states, agreeing to back the US-led action against ISIS in military, humanitarian and support capacities. Kerry said such a coalition could defeat the ISIS threat “wherever it exists” and Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said ISIS fighters must be removed, including from neighbouring countries—both thinly veiled references to Syria. Council members adopted a presidential statement that day, urging the international community to strengthen and expand support for Iraq as it fights ISIS.
The next day, Al-Jaafari noted in a letter to the Security Council that ISIS posed a direct threat to Iraq and had established a safe haven outside of Iraq’s borders; he requested the US to strike ISIS. In a 23 September letter to the Secretary-General, the US said that Iraq had requested it to lead the international effort to strike ISIS in Syria to end continuing attacks on Iraq, and it cited article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of individual or collective self-defence under Chapter VII.
US-led airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq that had begun on 8 August extended to Syria on 22 September in active cooperation with Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with Qatar providing support. The strikes were carried out in eastern Syria around ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, particularly along the borders with Iraq and Turkey and ISIS-controlled oil refineries.
Strikes were also carried out near Aleppo against the Khorasan group which, according to the US, cooperates with the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and was plotting an imminent attack against “the US and Western interests”. (Some analysts argued that it was more likely that the strike was intended to help armed opposition groups maintain an advantage around Aleppo. However, the strike has thrown various opposition groups into further disarray, sowing mutual mistrust since the accuracy of the strike would have required intelligence from the ground.)
Another prong of the US anti-ISIS strategy is to provide military assistance to the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia has recently agreed to host a training base for this purpose. More humanitarian and non-lethal aid was pledged on 24 September at a Friends of Syria meeting in New York.
Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria continued unabated on its devastating course. In late September, the UN Refugee Agency braced itself for hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds to cross into Turkey as ISIS fought to consolidate its control along the Turkish border. Turkey has also joined the anti-ISIS coalition but how they might cooperate is unclear as Turkey is most at risk for reprisal attacks.
On 22 August, when then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced the updated death toll, now conservatively estimated at 191,000, she rebuked the Security Council for failing to refer the case of Syria to the ICC (China and Russia vetoed a referral on 22 May). On 25 September, France and Mexico organised a ministerial meeting on the margins of the General Assembly about regulating the use of the Council’s veto in situations of mass atrocities. While not specific to Syria, the meeting was likely inspired by the Council’s paralysis on Syria.
Kaag last briefed on 4 September, reporting on the destruction plan for the 12 chemical weapons production facilities in Syria and on the successor arrangements to carry out the remaining verification and inspection activities under resolution 2118. One of these remaining activities will be clarifying discrepancies in the declared chemical weapons stockpile—in particular the three additional production facilities only disclosed by Syria to the OPCW on 17 September. During the 4 September consultations, many Council members also exhibited an interest in keeping a reporting line open to the Council regarding the use of chlorine bombs. Indeed, a 10 September report from the OPCW fact-finding mission on this issue found evidence that chlorine bombs had been used consistently and repeatedly. There were compelling indications that helicopters delivered these bombs, and only the government has aerial capacity.
On 30 September, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos reported that since the adoption of resolution 2165, there had been 14 cross-border aid deliveries, but cross-line deliveries within Syria remain difficult. The government continues to use administrative obstacles to slow aid delivery, in particular truck sealing procedures and case-by-case negotiations of deliveries to hard-to-reach areas. Meanwhile, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, including ISIS, block access to each other’s areas of control. Other key elements of resolution 2139 remained unimplemented, such as observing medical neutrality and ceasing aerial bombardments. There are 3.03 million refugees and 6.4 million internally displaced persons. Almost half of the population, 10.8 million, require humanitarian assistance, and of those 4.7 million are in hard-to-reach areas and 241,000 are in besieged areas.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 16 September, during its 27th session, the Human Rights Council considered the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria (A/HRC/27/60). The head of the Commission, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said that despite extreme violence by ISIS, the government was responsible for the majority of violations. He recalled that the Commission had repeatedly urged the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC and said its inaction nourished violence in Syria. The report documented continued mass atrocities by government forces amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity; disregard of the special protection accorded to hospitals and medical and humanitarian personnel; indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardment; and the use of chlorine gas, an illegal weapon. Non-state armed groups committed war crimes, violated international humanitarian law, targeted religious personnel and journalists and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighbourhoods. The report also documented crimes against humanity committed by members of ISIS in Aleppo and Raqqa, including torture, murder, enforced disappearances and forcible displacement.
On 25 September, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that strongly condemned the lack of cooperation by the Syrian authorities with the Commission and decided to transmit all of the Commission’s reports to the General Assembly and the Secretary-General for “appropriate action” (A/HRC/RES/27/16). (Under article 99, the Secretary-General could transmit the report to the Security Council and request that it be regularly briefed on the Commission’s work.) Current Security Council members Argentina, Chile, France, the Republic of Korea, the UK and US voted in favour of the resolution with Russia and China voting against.
The key issue for the Council—in the fourth year of a conflict that can no longer be contained inside Syria—is to ensure that its recent focus on counter-terrorism efforts does not override its attention to the original and overarching issue, finding ways to support a cessation of violence and resuscitate efforts for a political solution.
A related issue is the ever-escalating militarisation of the conflict now that the US-led airstrikes have begun and the US has decided to provide military support and training to moderate elements of the opposition.
Another issue is how the Council ensures that the US-led military operation in Syria remains limited to addressing the imminent threat posed by ISIS. The US letter citing article 51 to help Iraq assert its self-defence does not absolve the Council of its primary responsibility for international peace and security. (Article 51 gives states the right of individual or collective self-defence “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” It goes on to say that such action should be reported, as the US did, but that this should in no way affect the authority and responsibility of the Council to “take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”.)
Ongoing issues include tracking whether and how resolutions 2139 and 2165 on the humanitarian situation—in particular aerial bombardment—and resolution 2118 on chemical weapons are being implemented.
Council members could invite de Mistura to discuss his recent meetings with key regional players in Damascus, Ankara, Beirut, Cairo, Doha and Riyadh on ways to revive the political process. (He did not go to Tehran, though it seems such a visit was envisaged at one point.)
In particular, Council members could determine, in consultation with de Mistura, whether the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué should remain the guiding document for a political solution given that it has been superseded by political realities on the ground, not least the re-election of President Bashar al-Assad in a sham election, the lightening advance of ISIS into Iraq and the recent US-led airstrikes.
Council members could discuss with de Mistura how his approach will differ from those of his predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi. They could also discuss whether his UN mandate (no longer a joint post with the Arab League) will provide greater latitude to move a political process forward and how he plans to implement his mandate to fully involve countries in the region, a reference to Iran.
An important, though less likely option, for the Council includes heeding the Secretary-General’s call for the international community to support an end to all violence in Syria, in particular by stopping the flow of arms into Syria and impose an arms embargo.
The Council could also convene to discuss the scope of the US-led military action in Syria against ISIS.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Despite a dramatic shift of the situation on the ground, the Council seems to be in a holding pattern on Syria. The accountability track is frozen following the 22 May veto of the ICC referral. Meanwhile, activity on both the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks has shifted down into monitoring mode. It is unlikely either will garner much attention before year’s end when the authorisation for cross-border aid deliveries will need to be revisited and Kaag leaves her “good offices” role on the chemical weapons track.
On the political track, Council members will be interested in de Mistura’s preliminary plans for reviving the political process. However, there are limited expectations that any bold plans will be forthcoming in the near term, and Council members are as yet unsure if the quiet cooperation between Iran and the US vis-à-vis ISIS will be a help or a hindrance in this regard. Few Council members expect that there will be an attempt at a third round of highly publicised peace talks and instead presume his efforts will be focused on discreet shuttle diplomacy.
Recent activity by the Council has been limited to counter-terrorism efforts, and the US-led military response to ISIS as a wider regional threat is likely to exacerbate that trend.
While US-led airstrikes in Iraq are being carried out at the request of the Iraqi government, there has been no such request from Syria nor is the US looking to strengthen the Syrian regime as it has with the Iraqi government.
Both Iran and Russia, key backers of the Syrian regime, publicly stated that airstrikes will fuel tension in the region and that Syria’s express consent is required in the absence of authorisation by the Security Council. However, their criticism is unlikely to go beyond public platitudes, especially as Syria itself has granted tacit, if not explicit, approval when it did not formally protest the airstrikes. Iraqi officials informed Syria of the 22 September strikes in advance, and Syria said that due to prior notice the strikes were not considered an act of aggression. While the US is not directly cooperating with Syria, it is telling that Iraq—a client state of both Iran and the US—notified Syrian authorities.
The opposition-in-exile Syrian National Coalition welcomed the strikes, but rebels on the ground expressed worry that strikes will lead to infighting as well as leaving a power vacuum in areas formerly controlled by ISIS that the government will fill.
Assad has portrayed himself as a bulwark against the rise of terrorism. In reality, confrontations between government forces and ISIS were rare until ISIS advanced into north-western Iraq in June. Council members believe that the significantly increased clashes between the Syrian government and ISIS are largely due to pressure put on Damascus by Tehran to stem the flow of Sunni militants into Iraq. However, it is unclear if the same leverage will be applied to the regime to meaningfully participate in any political process. During recent P5+1 talks with Iran on the margins of the General Assembly, it seems Iran offered its cooperation on ISIS in return for concessions on the nuclear file. Council members remain wary about forecasting whether there will be any similar links made between the nuclear file and a political solution for Syria, which both Iran and the US prefer to treat as discrete issues.
While the US and its allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, may have a convergence of interest with Iran in confronting ISIS, the struggle between Riyadh and Tehran for regional influence remains one of the defining factors in the Syrian civil war and the fragile security situations in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It is unclear how the Council’s counter-terrorism approach and the international response to ISIS have in any way affected this fundamental underlying dynamic.
Council members Australia, France, Jordan, the UK and the US are part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
France is the penholder on Syria overall, while Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg are the penholders on the humanitarian track. In practice, however, most texts need to be agreed between Russia and the US prior to agreement by the broader Council.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|14 July 2014 S/RES/2165||This resolution authorised cross-border and cross-line access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria without state consent and established a monitoring mechanism for 180 days.|
|22 February 2014 S/RES/2139||This resolution demanded that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, allow humanitarian access in Syria across conflict lines, in besieged areas and across borders and expressed the intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance.|
|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 Statement|
|19 September 2014 S/PRST/2014/20||Welcomed the new Iraqi government and urged international support for Iraq’s fight against ISIS.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|19 September 2014 S/PV.7271||Was a ministerial-level debate on Iraq, particularly the ISIS threat.|
|30 September 2014 S/PV.7273||This was a briefing on humanitarian access in Syria.|
|Security Council Letters|
|23 September 2014 S/2014/695||In a letter to the Secretary-General, the US said that Iraq had requested it to lead the international effort to strike ISIS in Syria to end continuing attacks on Iraq, and it cited article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of individual or collective self-defence under Chapter VII.|
|20 September 2014 S/2014/691||In a letter to the Security Council, the Iraqi Foreign Minister noted that ISIS posed a direct threat to Iraq and had established a safe haven outside of Iraq’s borders; he requested the US to strike ISIS.|
|24 September 2014 S/2014/696||This was a report on the humanitarian situation in Syria pursuant to resolution 2139 and 2165.|
|26 September 2014 S/2014/706||This was the twelfth monthly report of the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).|
|Human Rights Council Documents|
|25 September 2014 A/HRC/27/L.5/Rev.1||Strongly condemned the lack of cooperation by the Syrian authorities with the Commission of Inquiry and decided to transmit all of the Commission’s reports to the General Assembly and the Secretary-General for “appropriate action”. Current Security Council members Argentina, Chile, France, the Republic of Korea, the UK and US voted in favour of the resolution with Russia and China voting against.|
|13 August 2014 A/HRC/27/60||This was the eighth report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.|