Expected Council Action
In May, Council members expect to receive their regular monthly briefings on the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks in Syria. While there is no outcome planned at press time, it seemed possible that the crisis in Yarmouk will refocus the Council’s attention this month on the use of siege tactics in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
In May, Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is expected to begin six weeks shuttle diplomacy in Geneva among Syrian actors, regional actors and P5 representatives. Syrian actors are the government, the Syrian National Coalition, other opposition groups and civil society. The regional actors are Syria’s neighbouring countries as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia. De Mistura updated Security Council members on his plans on 24 April and said he hoped these consultations would tease out areas of commonality for implementing the Geneva Communiqué, a political transition plan agreed in June 2012 that has been continually stymied over the role of President Bashar al Assad. (Ahead of these UN-facilitated talks, the P3 organised a closed Arria-formula meeting in New York on 29 April so that Council members could interact with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled Khoja.)
In a 24 April briefing to the Council, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos presented the Secretary-General’s most recent humanitarian report, which included strong messages to President Bashar al Assad about his particular responsibility to end the bloodshed and start a political process, emphasising that a government aspiring to legitimacy does not massacre its own people. Amos said that despite three Council resolutions, the government, armed groups and terrorist groups continue to kill, maim, rape and torture civilians and that the total absence of accountability had undermined the credibility of the Security Council.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres also briefed on 24 April, reporting that neighbouring states are absorbing almost all of Syria’s 4 million refugees. He said these states are the first line of defence for regional and collective security and should be prioritised for support from the international community. Security concerns—as well as enormous pressures on the resources, social services and economies of host countries—have caused Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to place restrictions on the influx of refugees. At this session, the Council adopted a presidential statement on the impact of Syria’s humanitarian crisis on neighbouring countries.
Yarmouk also absorbed Council attention in April. Yarmouk—a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus—has been besieged by the government for two years and was overtaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in early April. On 6 and 20 April, Council members held emergency consultations on the situation with the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl. Following the 6 April consultations, Council members were only able to agree to “elements to the press” that condemned the terrorist groups and called for the protection of civilians and humanitarian access. These press elements did not include any specific condemnation of the government’s siege and aerial bombardment of Yarmouk. Following the 20 April meeting, Council members released a press statement, expressing grave concern and condemning aerial bombardment, but with no reference to the government’s siege of the camp.
On the chemical weapons track, opposition groups have claimed that the government used chlorine bombs in March and April. The alleged attacks occurred during clashes between the government and opposition groups over control of Idlib in northwest Syria. The countryside surrounding Idlib has been in opposition hands for some time, but in late March a coalition of rebel groups, including Al-Nusra Front, captured the city—located on the main highway linking Aleppo and Damascus—from government forces. By 27 April, these fighters had also taken Jisr al-Shughour from the government—a city located between Idlib and the port city of Latakia held by the regime.
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane briefed on 2 April on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, and the allegations of recent chlorine bomb attacks were raised during the consultations. The first of these alleged attacks occurred on 16 March, just ten days after the Council adopted resolution 2209, which condemned the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine and threatened sanctions. The US arranged a closed Arria-formula meeting on 16 April for Council members to hear first-hand accounts of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In remarks to the press, the US said the Council needed an attribution mechanism to determine who carried out the attacks.
On 12 February, the Council adopted resolution 2199, which addressed the funding of ISIS via illegal oil exports, trafficking in cultural heritage, ransom payments and external donations. To follow up on the implementation of that resolution, Jordan and France presided over an Arria-formula meeting on 27 April so that UNESCO and INTERPOL could provide guidance to member states on the prevention of illicit trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property.
A recent report of the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee’s Monitoring Team establishes that 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries are linked to Al-Qaida and ISIS, with an overwhelming majority of those fighters in Iraq and Syria. It also raises the spectre that the unintended consequence of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria could be the global dispersal of these fighters as they return home or move on to other networks.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 27 March, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution extending the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria for another year (A/HRC/RES/28/20), with 29 votes in favour, six votes against (including Security Council members China, Russia and Venezuela) and 12 abstentions. The resolution also called for all of the Commission’s reports and oral updates to be transmitted to all relevant bodies of the UN and recommended that the Commission brief the General Assembly during its 69th session. Finally, it said that the Assembly should submit the reports to the Security Council for appropriate action.
An immediate issue for the Council is the situation in Yarmouk as the government has made clear it will not tolerate the presence of ISIS so close to Damascus. There are concerns that a major military operation to rout ISIS would de facto mean an attack on other anti-government armed groups in Yarmouk and on the remaining civilians.
The overarching key issue for the Council—in the fifth year of the civil war—is to find ways to show leadership, particularly in supporting a cessation of violence and resuscitating efforts for a political solution.
In light of increasing high-level calls for accountability from within the UN system, including by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amos and the head of UNESCO, 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 on the violations of resolutions 2139, 2165 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 more than four years.
To counter the complacency among Council members that action is impossible due to Russia’s veto power, Council members could heed Amos’s call for bold action and put to a vote a resolution or resolutions that reflect her five recommendations made on 24 April:
• demand that attacks on education and health facilities cease;
• establish a commission of inquiry to conduct a fact-finding mission on the situation in besieged communities and investigate the militarisation of education and health facilities and responsibility for attacks on those facilities;
• demand humanitarian pauses and days of tranquillity;
• impose and enforce an arms embargo and targeted sanctions for violations of international humanitarian law; and
• seek accountability through an ICC referral.
While bold action may be the leverage the Council requires to shift the parties’ priorities towards a negotiated solution, the Council has a history of not escalating pressure in the midst of a political process, such as the one de Mistura is preparing to facilitate. This may limit Council options to receiving more briefings confirming what is already widely known about the brutal tactics by the government and extremist groups. In this context, 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; and
• inviting Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura to brief on her recent visit to Syria and Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, countries that host the conflict’s refugees.
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. 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.
An option for the Secretary-General to follow up on the US suggestion for an “attribution mechanism” on the use of chemical weapons would be to establish his own investigative team. It could be charged with independently reviewing the work of the 2013 Sellström investigation into the sarin attack on Ghouta and the work of the fact-finding mission of the OPCW into the chlorine bomb attacks. Because such a team would be reviewing existing evidence there would be no need to enter Syria. If the reviewed evidence warranted attribution, the findings could be transmitted to the Security Council by the Secretary-General under Article 99 of the UN Charter.
Council and Wider Dynamics
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 effort at an ICC referral. The assumption that Russia would veto any effort specific to the government remains a deterrent.
On the political track, Council members expect de Mistura will likely want to limit expectations about whether conditions on the ground have shifted enough to untangle what has become known as the “Assad knot” enshrined in the Geneva Communiqué—i.e. trying to find openings between Iran’s and Russia’s support for the Assad regime and the position of the P3 and their Arab allies that Assad must go. Several Council members have suggested the need for more action from the Council on the political track. In this regard, they see the return to higher-level talks in Geneva as a positive sign, but without major shifts on the part of the US and Russia, most members are aware that little may come from this next round of bilateral talks.
It is unclear to Council members whether the direct intervention of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, combined with the kingdom’s reported rapprochement with Turkey on a possible alliance to unseat Assad, will influence the Syrian government’s stance in Geneva. Similarly it is unclear what, if any, immediate impact two April developments—the US train-and-equip programme for the Syrian opposition and talks between Arab states to form a joint force to intervene in regional crises—will have on the parties’ calculations in Geneva.
On the chemical weapons track, fundamental differences remain despite the adoption of resolution 2209. 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 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 prohibited from attributing blame. Many Council members are curious about what form the US-suggested “attribution mechanism” might take.
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|
|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|
|24 April 2015 S/PRST/2015/10||This presidential statement was on the impact of Syria’s humanitarian crisis on neighbouring countries.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|20 April 2015 SC/11865||This press statement expressed concern about the situation in Yarmouk.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|24 April 2015 S/PV.7433||This was a briefing by OCHA, UNHCR and WFP on the humanitarian situation.|
|17 April 2015 S/2015/264||This was the report of the Secretary-General on the humanitarian situation.|
|25 March 2015 S/2015/211||This was on the 18th OPCW report on chemical weapons.|