Expected Council Action
In April, Council members expect to receive their regular monthly briefings on the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks.
Key Recent Developments
At press time, a coalition of rebel groups, including Al-Nusra Front, had just captured the city of Idlib—located on the main highway linking Aleppo and Damascus—from government forces. The surrounding countryside has been in opposition hands for some time.
Meanwhile, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s efforts to negotiate a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo stalled. Opposition representatives rejected the plan unless it was linked to a comprehensive solution based on the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué—bringing the political track back to the issue of whether President Bashar al Assad would have a role in any transitional arrangement.
On 15 March, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that there could be a place for Assad in a diplomatic solution, drawing swift criticism from Arab and European states. Washington denied its position had changed, reiterating there was no future for Assad in Syria. On 29 March, Assad said he would welcome dialogue with the US but that Washington had not directly communicated with Damascus.
Other political initiatives in April, outside of the UN framework, include ongoing talks between opposition leaders in Cairo and a second round of talks in Moscow between the Syrian government and opposition leaders tolerated by the government.
On 6 March, the Council adopted resolution 2209, which condemned the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine, without attributing blame, and threatened sanctions. (UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane had briefed Council members the previous day.) Ten days later, allegations emerged that the Syrian regime had again dropped chlorine bombs, killing a family of six.
On 26 March, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos briefed the Council on the devastating humanitarian situation, breath-taking levels of savagery and unrelenting aerial bombardment and indiscriminate shelling of populated areas. She also focused on the needs of neighbouring countries that host the 3.9 million refugees who have fled Syria. The same day, Council members issued a press statement supporting Amos’s call to fund the UN’s 2015 Syria response plan at the Kuwait Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria on 31 March.
The needs of the 12.2 million requiring humanitarian assistance in Syria continue to outpace the reach and resources of humanitarian actors. Of those needing assistance, 7.6 million are internally displaced and 4.8 million are in hard-to-reach areas. Amos updated the estimates of the besieged population from 212,000 to 440,000, largely by government forces and ISIS. However, some analysts have estimated the number of besieged to be in excess of 640,000. The death toll in Syria is conservatively estimated at 220,000 people.
Amos reported there had been 85 cross-border aid deliveries but cross-line deliveries within Syria remain difficult. She said conditions for those in besieged areas continue to deteriorate, education and medical facilities continue to be attacked, health workers are killed and medical supplies cannot pass unrestricted to people in need. (The NGO, Physicians for Human Rights, has documented that the government is responsible for 88 percent of the recorded hospital attacks and 97 percent of medical personnel killings, with 139 deaths directly attributed to torture or execution.)
Regarding accountability, the Human Rights Council held an interactive dialogue with its Commission of Inquiry on Syria on 17 March and continued to advocate for an urgent Security Council referral of Syria to the ICC or an ad hoc tribunal. The Commission announced that information relating to specific alleged perpetrators will be shared confidentially with states preparing cases for an impartial judiciary willing to exercise universal jurisdiction. The Commission declined to comment on whether any states have requested such information.
On 13 March, the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee listed “Indonesia Hilal Ahmar Society for Syria” and three affiliated individuals for recruiting, funding and facilitating travel of foreign terrorist fighters to Syria (SC/11816).
The key issue for the Council—as the civil war enters its fifth year—is to find ways to show leadership, particularly in supporting a cessation of violence and resuscitating efforts for a political solution.
In light of the Commission of Inquiry’s decision for targeted disclosure of alleged perpetrators, pressure on the Council to respond to the widespread impunity in Syria may re-emerge.
Ongoing issues include how to get agreement to follow up the violations of resolutions 2139 and 2191 on the humanitarian situation and 2118 and 2209 on chemical weapons—in particular aerial bombardment and the use of chlorine bombs.
While the Council has many tools at its disposal—such as imposing an arms embargo or targeted sanctions, referring Syria to the ICC and authorising a no-fly zone to disable Syria’s aerial capacity—P5 divisions have made it impossible for the Council to fulfil its role in maintaining international peace and security in the case of Syria. There has been a modicum of agreement on humanitarian, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism efforts, but there has not been the corresponding ability to effectively stop or hold accountable a government that has systematically attacked its own citizens for over four years. Although unlikely, the Council could vote to refer Syria to the General Assembly under “Uniting for Peace” so that the General Assembly may recommend collective action, including sanctions and the use of force.
This would be a procedural vote and therefore cannot be vetoed by the P5 and only requires nine affirmative votes. A “Uniting for Peace” resolution by the General Assembly can confer legitimacy on international collective action, but it would carry no binding obligation for such action. (Separately, the Arab League agreed to form a military force to counter regional security threats at its 28-29 March summit.)
The “Uniting for Peace” formula has been used a dozen times, but the Council has not resorted to it since 1982.
However, it seems more likely that the Council will continue to receive more briefings confirming what is already widely known about the brutal tactics by the government and extremist groups. In that context, the Council could invite de Mistura to brief so members could engage with the Special Envoy on possible next steps on the political track, such as:
- opportunities to continue to pressure the parties toward implementation of the “Aleppo freeze”;
- opportunities for UN-negotiated ceasefires in less contentious areas;
- a UN role in the Cairo and Moscow processes to make them more credible by including a wider array of opposition groups; and
- reviving the defunct Geneva process toward a negotiated political transition.
Options for Council members concerned that elements of resolution 2139, such as demands regarding human rights and protection of civilians, are being flagrantly ignored include:
- inviting the Commission of Inquiry or the High Commissioner for Human Rights to give periodic briefings;
- attempting to seek accountability through an ICC referral or an ad hoc tribunal; and
- following through on previous threats to adopt targeted measures against persons and groups credibly implicated in egregious violations.
An option for Council members concerned about the government’s continued use of chlorine bombs would be to put forward a resolution determining that Syria has breached resolutions 2118 and 2209 and impose targeted sanctions. In addition, given that chlorine is delivered in barrel bombs, such an outcome could be an opportunity to address the broader and more pervasive issue of indiscriminate aerial bombardment.
Despite overwhelming indications that various resolutions threatening consequences for lack of implementation have been continually breached, it is unlikely that Council members will push for follow-up measures, such as targeted sanctions or another attempt at an ICC referral. The assumption that Russia would veto any effort specific to the government remains a deterrent.
In the meantime, some Council members have been trying to compensate for the lack of a Syria sanctions regime by targeting extremist groups via the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida sanctions regime and, with considerably less success, attempting to target Iranian support for pro-government militias in Syria via the 1737 Iran sanctions regime.
On the political track, Council members seem resigned to de Mistura’s stalled efforts. This appears to tacitly acknowledge that no one has been able to devise a way to overcome the government’s intransigence to a negotiated political settlement. Complacency over fresh thinking, however, has led Council members to view the problematic Cairo and Moscow processes as viable “placeholders” until some as-yet unforeseen initiative takes shape.
On the chemical weapons track, fundamental differences remain despite the adoption of resolution 2209. As with the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, the US and Russia have agreed to intentionally vague documents, leaving both free to interpret the same text at opposite ends of the spectrum. The US views resolution 2209 to be a final warning to Damascus before consequences are sought for its use of chlorine bombs. Russia insists that the Council cannot apportion blame to Damascus since only the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has the capacity to fully assess the situation. While the OPCW fact-finding mission can investigate whether chlorine has been used as a weapon, it is specifically prohibited from attributing blame. Despite the recent allegations of Syria’s continued use of chlorine bombs, no Council member called for a meeting or suggested follow-up measures. However, the OPCW confirmed its fact-finding mission would investigate this claim as well as claims by the government that they too had been subject to chlorine bomb attacks.
France is the penholder on Syria overall, though the last text it put forward was the vetoed ICC referral in May 2014. Jordan, New Zealand and Spain lead on humanitarian issues. In practice, however, most texts need to be agreed between Russia and the US prior to agreement by the broader Council.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|6 March 2015 S/RES/2209||Condemned the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine, without attributing blame, stressed that those responsible should be held accountable, recalled resolution 2118 and supported the 4 February 2015 decision of the OPCW.|
|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 Statement|
|26 March 2015 SC/11838||Expressed support for the Kuwait Humanitarian Pledging Conference.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|26 March 2015
|This was a meeting on the humanatarian situation.|
|6 March 2015 S/PV.7401||Was the record of the 14-0-1 vote on resolution 2209 that condemned the use of chlorine bombs. Venezuela abstained.|
|25 March 2015 S/2015/211||This was on the 18th OPCW report on chemical weapons.|
|25 February 2015 S/2015/138||This was on the 17th OPCW report on chemical weapons, including the reports of the fact-finding mission on the use of chlorine bombs.|
|23 March 2015 S/2015/206||This was on the humanitarian situation.|
|General Assembly Documents|
|3 November 1950 A/RES/377 (V)||This resolution established the Assembly’s Uniting for Peace procedures.|