Expected Council Action
In early November, Special Adviser Sigrid Kaag will brief on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Later in the month, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos will brief on the humanitarian situation in Syria.
The authorisation in resolution 2165 for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access in Syria, including the monitoring mechanism expires in mid-January 2015.
Key Recent Developments
The civil war continues on its devastating course, and the militarisation of the conflict has escalated with the advent of US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The strikes have been particularly focused around the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria to counter the ISIS offensive to seize the town and consolidate its control along the Turkish border.
The US has said that it will not coordinate its military activities with Damascus. However, it seems there is at least a tacit agreement that Syrian offensives should avoid interfering with the US-led airstrikes against ISIS.
Meanwhile, since these airstrikes began on 22 September, the Syrian military has ramped up its own air campaign against rebel-held areas. Anti-ISIS strikes are enabling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to refocus its attacks on opposition groups and regain ground around Damascus and Aleppo and along its border with Jordan. Analysts have noted that another government objective is to weaken rebel groups before they receive promised, yet elusive, equipment and training from the US in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Ankara is part of the anti-ISIS coalition but has not allowed its Kurdish population to be armed and cross into Syria to help defend Kobani, largely due its decades-long struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey. But it has given permission for 200 Peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq and 1,300 Free Syrian Army fighters to transit Turkey into Syria to defend Kobani. On 19 October, the US air-dropped material supplied by Iraqi Kurdish authorities—weapons, ammunition and supplies—into Kobani.
In exchange for more direct military support against ISIS, Turkey has advocated for a buffer zone in Syria and widening the targets to include the regime. These demands have strained relations between Washington and Ankara and have demonstrated the gap between the immediate aim of the US—namely to contain ISIS—and the much broader objectives of Turkey which also include a political transition that excludes Assad and a halt in the nascent formation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
Visiting Turkey between 18 and 20 October, Amos said the ISIS onslaught around Kobani had caused nearly 190,000 civilians to flee to Turkey in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, Lebanon has announced it will stop receiving Syrian refugees. She also said that humanitarians can save lives but they can’t deliver safety and security and that a political solution in Syria was urgently needed.
Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefed Council members on 30 October on possible ways to revive the political process following his meetings with key players in Damascus, Amman, Ankara, Beirut, Cairo, Moscow, Riyadh and Tehran. Since he took up his post in September, he has been working around the “Assad knot” enshrined in the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué—i.e. trying to find openings between Iran and Russia’s support for the Assad regime and the position of the P3 and their Arab allies that Assad must go. De Mistura is expected to return to Damascus in early November.
Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang also briefed on 30 October and presented the Secretary-General’s report on the humanitarian situation in Syria. There are 3.2 million refugees and 6.4 million internally displaced persons, according to the report, and almost half of the population, 10.8 million, require humanitarian assistance. Of those, 4.7 million are in hard-to-reach areas and 241,000 are in besieged areas. The report said that since the adoption of resolution 2165, there had been 23 cross-border aid deliveries, but cross-line deliveries within Syria occur but 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. Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups block access to each other’s areas of control. Key elements of resolution 2139, such as observing medical neutrality and ceasing aerial bombardments, remain unimplemented. The report also identified some civilian death and displacement resulting from anti-ISIS strikes.
Kaag briefed on 7 October, reporting on the destruction plan for chemical weapons production facilities in Syria—in particular the four additional facilities disclosed by Syria only in September. She also updated Council members on the 10 September OPCW report that found evidence that chlorine had been used consistently and repeatedly in barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. Media reports indicate that there has been an upsurge in the government’s use of chlorine bombs against rebel-held areas since the US-led air strikes against ISIS began.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 16 October, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said his office intends to issue an updated count of reported deaths in Syria by the end of the year, which will be well over the conservative estimate of 200,000.
Over the next several months, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria is planning to release thematic reports on abuses perpetrated by ISIS, deaths in custody, torture and forced disappearance, the impact of the conflict on women and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.
The key issue for the Council—in the fourth year of a civil war that can no longer be contained inside Syria—is to ensure that its recent focus on counter-terrorism efforts does not diminish its attention to reports that the Assad regime remains responsible for the majority of violations in the conflict.
A related issue is whether Council members will meaningfully engage with De Mistura to find ways to support a cessation of violence and resuscitate efforts for a political solution.
Ongoing issues include tracking implementation of resolutions 2139 and 2165 on the humanitarian situation and 2118 on the destruction of chemical weapons—in particular aerial bombardment and the use of chlorine bombs.
Aside from following the Syrian situation through briefings, Council options seem limited. However, one option would be to issue a statement of support and priorities for mediation ahead of De Mistura’s next round of talks with Damascus.
Another option for Council members who are concerned that elements of resolution 2139, such as human rights and protection of civilians, are being ignored is to request to be regularly informed of the work of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. (A 25 September Human Rights Council resolution decided to transmit all of the Commission’s reports to the Secretary-General for “appropriate action”. The Secretary-General could choose to bring the report to the attention of the Council using his article 99 powers.)
An important, though less likely, option in the face of the ever-increasing militarisation of the conflict is for the Council to heed the Secretary-General’s call for the international community to stop the flow of arms into Syria and impose an arms embargo.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Despite a dramatic shift of the situation on the ground, the Council continues to be in a holding pattern on Syria. Activity on both the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks remains in 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.
Council members’ response to US-led airstrikes has been muted. Recent activity by the Council vis-à-vis Syria 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 the US and its allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, have a convergence of interest with Iran in confronting ISIS, the struggle between Riyadh and Tehran for regional influence remains the defining factor in the Syrian civil war as well as an obstacle to any political solution. The Council’s counter-terrorism approach and the international response to ISIS do not seem to have shifted this fundamental underlying dynamic. The overwhelming focus on ISIS has left Assad in a strengthened position. If a political process were started in the current environment, there would be very little incentive for the government to make any serious concessions to the Syrian opposition.
Nevertheless, some Council members think that it is not acceptable that the Council has ignored the political track for so long, and there is an eagerness to hear regularly from the new Special Envoy. However, De Mistura will likely want to limit expectations that there will be any bold plans forthcoming in the near term. 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.
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.
Council members Australia, France, Jordan, the UK and the US are part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
|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 Meeting Records|
|30 October 2014 S/PV.7292||This was a briefing on humanitarian access in Syria.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|3 October 2014 SC/11590||Condemned ISIS for the murder of UK aid worker Alan Henning.|
|3 October 2014 SC/11589||Condemned the 1 October twin bomb attacks on a school complex in a government controlled area of Homs.|
|23 October 2014 S/2014/756||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 OPCW-UN Joint Mission monthly progress report regarding Syrian chemical weapons.|