February 2015 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 January 2015
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MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In February, Council members expect to be briefed on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons early in the month and on the humanitarian situation in Syria towards the end of the month.

Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is expected to brief mid-month on the political track.  

Key Recent Developments

On 6 January, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane briefed on the remaining tasks in the implementation of resolution 2118, such as the gaps in Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile and the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities in Syria, which began on 24 December 2014 and is due to be completed by this summer.

On 30 December 2014, the P3, current Council members Jordan and Lithuania and then-Council members Australia, Luxembourg and the Republic of Korea transmitted to the Security Council the report by the fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Syria’s use of chlorine bombs. Discussion of this OPCW report featured prominently during the 6 January consultations. The report concluded with “a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon” and that there was evidence that chlorine had been consistently and repeatedly used in barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. While the fact-finding mission does not attribute blame, only the government has aerial capacity and only rebel-held areas were targeted.

The OPCW Executive Council met on 21 January to consider the 18 December 2014 report of its fact-finding mission to try to reach a decision on whether it should express concern about the report’s findings, call for accountability and for Syria’s cooperation. At press time, no decision had been taken, and the Executive Council was set to meet again on the issue on 29 January. (The Executive Council includes Russia and the US and operates by consensus.)

Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang briefed the Council on 28 January, reporting that since the adoption of resolutions 2165 and 2191, there had been 54 cross-border aid deliveries but cross-line deliveries within Syria remain difficult. The government continues to use administrative obstacles to slow or block aid delivery. Medical neutrality is not observed, with the government withholding approvals for medical supplies in aid convoys, attacking medical facilities and killing medical personnel. Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups block access to each other’s areas of control.

The Secretary-General’s most recent report on the humanitarian situation in Syria states that there has been no improvement. The death toll is conservatively estimated at 200,000 people. Those requiring humanitarian assistance in Syria number 12.2 million. Of those needing assistance, 7.6 million are internally displaced, 4.8 million are in hard-to-reach areas and 212,000 are besieged, largely by government forces. Meanwhile, “host country fatigue” has challenged neighbouring countries, which shelter the overwhelming majority of Syria’s 3.8 million refugees. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have begun to restrict the refugee influx due to concerns about the destabilising impact on their own security and economic situations.

Following Kang’s briefing, Council members Jordan, New Zealand and Spain proposed press elements that thanked the neighbouring countries and expressed concern that resolutions 2165 and 2191 lacked effective implementation in Syria. The press elements called for full implementation of all of the Council’s resolutions and statements on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Council members expressed concern about the increasing number of refugees and internally displaced persons as a result of the Syrian crisis as well as violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Finally, there was emphasis that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution.

Regarding the military situation, US-led airstrikes continued in Syria, almost exclusively targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Kobane, a town near the Turkish border. Kurdish militias regained full control of Kobane on 26 January after a three-month battle supported by hundreds of US-led airstrikes.

The Syrian military has continued its devastating aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas. However, the government lost a key military base in Dera’a in the south to Al-Nusra Front in January.  Meanwhile, in the north, a previously cooperative relationship between Al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups has encountered tension as Al-Nusra Front has become more aggressive around Idlib and Aleppo.

On 18 January, Israeli airstrikes targeted two vehicles in Quneitra, a Syrian district close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The strike killed an Iranian general and several senior Hezbollah members. This incident was unlike the previous six Israeli airstrikes in Syria since 2013 that destroyed Hezbollah weaponry en route to Lebanon from Iran. It is unclear if the Iranian general was deliberately targeted, which could signal an escalation between Israel and Iran being played out in Syria. On 27 January, rockets from a Syrian military position were launched into the Israeli-occupied Golan and Israel returned fire the next day. At press time, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel were engaged in retaliatory attacks, apparently related to the incidents in the adjacent Golan Heights.

On the political track, Special Envoy de Mistura persisted in his efforts 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 met with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and has continued discussions with Damascus, the Syrian National Coalition and key rebel groups from Aleppo. In addition, there have been other initiatives outside the UN framework, such as a conference of opposition leaders in Cairo on 25 January and talks between the Syrian government and opposition leaders tolerated by the government that got underway in Moscow on 26 January.

Before meeting de Mistura in Geneva on 14 January, Kerry praised the envoy’s plans to broker a freeze in Aleppo and welcomed the Moscow talks. Some analysts have speculated that these public comments, which did not include the standard US tagline that Assad must go, indicate a shift in US policy towards a greater degree of comfort in having Assad play a role in any transition process.

Key Issues

The key issue for the Council—heading into the fifth year of a violent civil war—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.

Options

On the political track, in addition to de Mistura’s briefing on the opportunities and challenges of freeze zones that have emerged during his talks with key stakeholders, Council members could hold an Arria formula meeting with Syrian civil society representatives 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 demands regarding 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, albeit unlikely, for Council members who are concerned about the government’s use of chlorine bombs would be to adopt a resolution (avoiding the consensus requirement of a press or presidential statement) determining that Syria has breached resolution 2118 and demanding that it fully implement the resolution or face further measures, such as sanctions.

Council 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 concerned whether a freeze zone would be anything more than the opposition’s agreement to surrender as the result of the government’s siege and starvation tactics. 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. This was most recently demonstrated with the suggestion during the 6 January consultations that 2118 briefings be shifted to an every-other-month cycle. However, Council members who wanted to send a strong signal that there would be sustained and regular attention to the chemical weapons file insisted that the monthly cycle continue.

France is the penholder on Syria overall. Jordan leads on humanitarian issues, and it seems New Zealand and Spain will replace former Council members Australia and Luxembourg on this track. 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, Lithuania, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US are part of the anti-ISIS coalition—though not all directly participate in air strikes. 

On 28 January, Jordan agreed to prisoner swap in order to secure the release of a Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS after his F16 went down in Syria on 24 December 2014.  This was a sensitive development for some Council members who, while sympathetic to Jordan, were also cognizant that resolution 2133 called upon all member states to prevent terrorists from benefiting from ransom payments or from political concessions in order to secure the safe release of hostages.

UN Documents

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 Press Statements
25 January 2015 SC/11752 This press statement condemned ISIS for the murder of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa.
23 January 2015 SC/11750 This was a press statement regarding the listing by the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of four individuals, including two ISIS members and one Al-Nusra Front member.
Security Council Meeting Record
28 January 2015 S/PV.7369 This was on humanitarian access.
Security Council Letter
30 December 2014 S/2014/955 This was the transmission of the OPCW fact-finding mission’s reports to the Security Council.
Secretary-General’s Reports
22 January 2015 S/2015/48 This was on the humanitarian situation.
26 December 2014 S/2014/948 This was on chemical weapons.