Expected Council Action
In early January 2015, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane is expected to brief Security Council members on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Later in the month, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang will brief on the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
On 3 December 2014, Special Adviser Sigrid Kaag provided her last briefing to Council members on the chemical weapons track. She focused on remaining tasks in the implementation of resolution 2118, such as the verification of the ongoing destruction of chemicals outside Syria, plans to complete the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities in Syria by the summer of 2015 and clarification of any discrepancies in Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. Syria’s use of chlorine bombs was also discussed.
The Council adopted resolution 2191 on 17 December 2014, extending until 10 January 2016 the humanitarian access provisions of resolution 2165—the authorisation to deliver aid across borders and conflict lines without Syria’s consent and the monitoring mechanism that ensures the humanitarian nature of such aid convoys. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos had briefed the Council two days earlier, reporting that brutality, violence and callous disregard for human life were the hallmark of the Syrian crisis. The death toll is conservatively estimated at 200,000 people. There are 7.6 million internally displaced persons and 12.2 million require humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, since the US-led airstrikes began in late September 2014 against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian military has dramatically ramped up its own air campaign against rebel-held areas. However, while coalition strikes have continued around Kobane, overall the intensity of such strikes in Syria has lessened. Separately during December, ISIS made two failed attempts to take a military air base held by the government in Deir al-Zour, an oil-rich province bordering Iraq.
On 7 December 2014, Israeli airstrikes targeted a weapons depot near the Damascus airport and the town of Dimas near the Lebanese border—home to military bases and research centres. This strike was the first in 2014, but there were at least five Israeli airstrikes in Syria in 2013. Israel has maintained a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis with a parallel policy to take action to stop any transfer of strategic weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah.
Heavy fighting also continued in northwest Syria as government and rebel forces tried to restrict one another’s supply lines. On 16 December 2014, Al-Nusra captured two Syrian military bases in Idlib along a strategic highway that links Aleppo and Damascus, potentially disrupting the government’s ability to support its forces attacking Aleppo. On 14 December, the government captured an area north of Aleppo, putting in jeopardy the opposition forces’ main supply line from Turkey.
This fighting took place as Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was trying to secure a UN-mediated freeze zone for Aleppo to de-escalate violence and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid. In recent weeks de Mistura has visited Iran and Russia and met with EU ministers in Brussels. In Turkey, he met with Turkish officials, the Syrian National Coalition and key rebel groups from Aleppo. He has warned that if Aleppo falls there may be 400,000 more refugees to add to the current 3.3 million.
De Mistura’s deputy visited Damascus and on 15 December 2014 presented further details of the plan, which reportedly envisions UN monitoring of crossing points between rebel and government-held areas. Several issues have emerged. Syria wants to limit the freeze zone to the city of Aleppo. The government argues that state-run services, such as the police, should return to rebel-held areas and a freeze should lead to the “cleaning of the area of armed groups”. Rebels, however, want the freeze to extend to the Turkish border and agree with the UN position that there should be self-rule in opposition areas. Opposition groups have also said that any freeze needs to be linked to a political process that is in line with the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué and expressed concern that the government would use a freeze to make military gains elsewhere.
During talks with the Syrian National Coalition based in Turkey, de Mistura was urged to also include as part of his plan “refuge zones” on the borders of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey that would exclude regime forces, establish no-fly zones and protect civilians. Turkey has made any US access to Incirlik airbase for its anti-ISIS strikes conditional on the establishment of a no-fly zone. The US has not agreed to increase its military engagement in Syria beyond anti-ISIS strikes.
The key issue for the Council—in the fourth year of a civil war that can no longer be contained inside Syria—is to meaningfully refocus its attention on finding ways to support a cessation of violence and resuscitate efforts for a political solution.
Ongoing issues include tracking implementation of resolutions 2139 and 2191 on the humanitarian situation and 2118 on the destruction of chemical weapons—in particular aerial bombardment and the use of chlorine bombs.
On the political track, Council members could follow up their own decision in resolution 2191 and invite de Mistura to brief on the opportunities and challenges of freeze zones that have emerged during his talks with key stakeholders and have preliminary discussions of what the role of the Council might be to move this process forward.
In addition to de Mistura briefing, Council members could hold an Arria-formula meeting with Syrian civil society who have first-hand experience in negotiating cessations of violence on the ground.
An option for Council members who are concerned that elements of resolution 2139, such as human rights and protection of civilians, are being flagrantly ignored is to request to be regularly informed of the work of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria as well as request regular briefings on Syria from the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
An option for Council members who are concerned that the government’s use of chlorine bombs violates elements of resolution 2118 would be to request that the reports of the OPCW fact-finding mission be disseminated as a Council document. (Resolution 2118 obligates the OPCW to report non-compliance to the Security Council.)
Council and Wider Dynamics
Despite overwhelming indications that resolutions 2118 and 2139 have been continually breached, there is no appetite among Council members to push for follow-up measures against the Syrian regime, such as targeted sanctions, due to the assumption that Russia would veto the effort in any event.
On the political track, it seems Russia is fully supportive of “freeze zones”. Other Council members are supportive of de Mistura’s incremental approach but remain wary about endorsing a plan that has yet to be fully formulated. Furthermore, in the absence of a concrete plan, it is unclear to these Council members whether a freeze zone would be more than the opposition’s agreement to surrender as the result of the government’s siege and starvation tactics. The recently adopted resolution 2191 reflects this tension, seeking further advice from de Mistura on his proposals and linking any Syrian political process to the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué.
On the chemical weapons track, deep divisions remain within the Council, in particular over the government’s use of chlorine bombs. The US has said such allegations raise serious questions about Syria’s obligations under resolution 2118 and the Chemical Weapons Convention, whereas Russia has argued that the OPCW at The Hague, not the Security Council, is the appropriate arena to address any alleged breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
While Jordan will continue as one of the humanitarian penholders in 2016, at press time it was unclear which other Council member or members would join it to replace Australia and Luxembourg, the two leading members on this issue that rotated off the Council at the end of 2014.
Of the new Council members, it seems Venezuela’s position may be closer to that of China and Russia on Syria. All three cast negative votes on the 18 November 2014 Third Committee resolution on human rights in Syria. During the same vote, incoming members Malaysia, New Zealand and Spain voted for the resolution, while Angola abstained.
France is the penholder on Syria overall. In practice, however, most texts need to be agreed between Russia and the US prior to agreement by the broader Council.
Council members France, Jordan, the UK and the US are part of the anti-ISIS coalition. In a 25 November 2014 letter, the UK said it was taking measures to support the US-led international effort against ISIS and cited Article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of individual or collective self-defence under Chapter VII.
Regarding regional dynamics, it is unclear whether the global oil price, which has dropped to its lowest point in five years since Saudi Arabia has not cut production, might influence Moscow’s and Tehran’s support for Damascus. Unlike Saudi Arabia, both Iran and Russia require higher oil prices to meet their revenue goals. Iran has said the fall of oil prices is “treachery,” in a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|17 December 2014 S/RES/2191||Renewed authorisation for cross-border humanitarian access until 10 January 2016.|
|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|
|15 December 2014 S/PV.7342||Was a briefing by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos on the humanitarian situation in Syria, with a focus on protection of civilians and human rights.|
|Security Council Letters|
|25 November 2014 S/2014/851||Was a letter from the UK that said it was taking measures to support the US-led international effort against ISIS and cited Article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of individual or collective self-defence under Chapter VII.|
|26 November 2014 S/2014/853||Was the 14th OPCW report on chemical weapons.|
|21 November 2014 S/2014/840||This was a report on the humanitarian situation.|