Expected Council Action
In July, Council members will receive their regular monthly briefings on the humanitarian and chemical weapons tracks regarding Syria.
Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is also scheduled to brief on the intra-Syrian political process, which has been suspended since late April. The possibilities for the resumption of talks and the formation of a transitional government by 1 August are quickly dissipating, in light of escalating violence and steady government offensives around Aleppo, Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus.
Key Recent Developments
In a 3 June briefing to Council members, de Mistura reported that the chances of resuming talks during the month were remote. The chief negotiator of the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), resigned on 29 May, saying the international community had been unable to implement its own decisions regarding the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and the release of detainees. At press time, de Mistura was scheduled to brief Security Council members again on 29 June.
On 21 June, de Mistura briefed the General Assembly, reporting that the government and the HNC had agreed during the March and April talks in Geneva on the need for a “transition”, but remained far apart on how to achieve it. The government proposed a national unity government but explicitly rejected the opposition’s position calling for a transitional governing body with full executive powers (in line with the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué). Bashar al Assad’s presidency was not subject to negotiation, the government insisted.
De Mistura has an intention to resume talks in July, but only if Russia and the US make sufficient progress on agreeing to a common vision of a political transition. On 17 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US proposal to include representatives of the opposition in the current government was “absolutely acceptable.” The US denied ever having made such a proposal, reiterating that its policy on the departure of Assad had not changed.
In a 7 June broadcast on state television, Assad said that he would win back every inch of Syria, and highlighted the “liberation” of Aleppo as a major objective. On 22 June, Assad replaced the prime minister and requested that a new government be formed. Both of these developments signal that Assad hardening his position towards a military solution and moving away from any negotiations that would dilute his presidential powers.
On 15 June, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Oslo Forum, where Kerry also said in public remarks that US “patience is not infinite” in reference to the government’s Aleppo offensive, which is supported by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-backed foreign militias. Zarif reportedly indicated that Tehran might be amenable to finding ways to end the conflict. Separately, Iran has shown preliminary interest in a decentralised or federal structure of governance for Syria, which Assad hinted at in his 7 June speech when he said that Syrian unity is not bound to geographical borders. A Financial Times article reported that Iran may be signalling a certain degree of flexibility on Syria in return for relief from secondary sanctions and access to the US banking system. Nevertheless, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia, Hezbollah, announced on 24 June that it was sending more fighters to Aleppo.
On the humanitarian track, the 17 May statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) called for UN air bridges and air drops if the government continued to deny humanitarian access to besieged areas after 1 June. Council members were briefed by OCHA on 3 and 16 June to follow up on the status of the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria and the UN’s planning for air drops.
On 14 June, the Security Council received a letter on behalf of 59 member states regarding humanitarian access, air drops, effective implementation of the cessation of hostilities and the need for all parties to work towards a genuine political transition. The letter was an initiative of Saudi Arabia and was co-sponsored by nine Council members (the P3, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain and Ukraine). Egypt, one of the humanitarian leads on Syria in the Council, did not co-sponsor the letter.
In a 23 June Council briefing, OCHA head Stephen O’Brien said that the UN had received approval to access 15 of the 18 besieged locations in Syria. However, the approvals were ad hoc, and some were partial in nature, i.e. there were restrictions on food or medicine as well as restrictions on the number of beneficiaries. He told the Council that the Syrian authorities’ limitations on where, to whom, when and how much aid could be delivered rendered assistance to some communities a non-starter. He added that in addition to these limitations, the Syrian authorities made every effort to delay and dismantle aid convoys as the UN and its partners tried to deliver assistance. O’Brien reported that OCHA’s July plan had been submitted to the government, and it needed to be approved in full and unconditionally. In the consultations that followed, it seems that O’Brien said that despite increased aid deliveries to besieged areas, overall aid delivery remained quite low.
Also on 23 June, the Department of Political Affairs briefed Council members in consultations under “any other business” on the situation on the Syrian/Turkish border. Russia requested this briefing, expressing concern about Turkish incursions into Syrian territory and seeking more information about the wall Turkey is building on the border with Syria. There was also interest in getting more information about the allegations that on 19 June Turkish guards killed 11 Syrian refugees trying to cross the border. Turkey said an investigation is underway. Turkey, which hosts 2.73 million registered Syrian refugees, has closed its borders to further refugee flows.
On chemical weapons, Acting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo briefed Council members on 16 June. Virginia Gamba—the head of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), the body mandated to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria—also briefed on the nine cases the JIM is investigating. Eight are related to allegations of the government’s use of chemical weapons and one is an alleged use of chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 10 June, the special rapporteur on the right to health condemned the direct targeting of medical units, which amounts to war crimes and may constitute crimes against humanity. From the beginning of May alone, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documented attacks on at least eight medical units in Syria, the majority targeting health facilities in opposition-held areas.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report on 16 June, which found that ISIL had committed, and continues to commit, the crime of genocide against the Yazidis. ISIL is still holding more than 3,200 Yazidi women and children, mostly in Syria, while thousands of Yazidi men and boys are missing. The Commission recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to justice, possibly to the ICC or an ad hoc tribunal; consider engaging its Chapter VII powers, given the acknowledged threat ISIL poses to international peace and security; and include formal briefings by the Commission to the Security Council, including a further update on ISIL crimes against the Yazidis (A/HRC/32/CRP.2).
In a related development, Canada sent two letters to the Security Council, asking it to establish a mechanism to investigate reports of violations of international law by ISIL in Iraq and Syria, determine whether these violations constitute acts of genocide or other serious international crimes, and identify the perpetrators of such violations and take measures to ensure accountability, including a referral to the ICC (S/2016/499 and S/2016/545).
With Syria entering the sixth year of a war that has exacted a death toll of 470,000 and displaced half of the Syrian population, including 4.8 million refugees, the essential issue for the Council is to exert effective leadership in supporting a cessation of hostilities and efforts to reach a political solution.
The ISSG and resolutions 2254 and 2268 have identified roles for the Council in the event that talks in 2016 produce concrete results towards a national ceasefire and a parallel political process. In the near term, however, day-to-day oversight of resolutions 2254 and 2268 has been outsourced to the ISSG broadly, and Russia and the US in particular. So long as Russia and the US remain committed to this particular iteration of a political process, options are limited for other Council members to inject new thinking or energy to help resolve the situation.
Many Council members are of the view that the government’s offensives, particularly around Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus, confirm the regime’s preference for prolonged armed conflict over a negotiated settlement. There is also broad recognition that if fighting in Syria cannot be controlled, it will be difficult for UN mediation between the government and the opposition to resume with any chance of success.
Some Council members are concerned that even if Russia and the US agree on the contours of a political solution, any such deal will be so far removed from the spirit and intent of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué that it will be destined to fail. Some are also of the view that Russian-US cooperation on Syria has reached its limits, resulting in familiar divisions recurring in the Security Council.
On the humanitarian track, the increased access to besieged areas in June means that plans for air drops and air bridges will remain a contingency so long as land routes can be secured. For the UN and Council members, the cost, questionable efficacy, safety concerns and difficult logistics of air bridges and drops make it an option of last resort, though it remains on the table.
Most outcomes on Syria are agreed between Russia and the US prior to adoption by the Council. Egypt, New Zealand and Spain lead on humanitarian issues.
UN Documents on Syria
|Security Council Resolutions|
|26 February 2016 S/RES/2268||Endorsed the cessation of hostilities and called for the resumption of political talks.|
|18 December 2015 S/RES/2254||This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|23 June 2016 S/PV.7725||This was a briefing on the humanitarian situation.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|22 June 2016 SC/12415||This deplored the attack on a Jordanian border crossing post.|
|Security Council Letters|
|16 June 2016 S/2016/545||This was a letter from Canada reiterating its request that the Security Council establish a mechanism to investigate reports of violations of international law by ISIL in Iraq and Syria.|
|7 June 2016 S/2016/523||This was a letter from Belgium reporting to the Security Council that it was taking military action against ISIL in Syria, citing resolution 2249 and Article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of self-defence under Chapter VII.|
|3 June 2016 S/2016/513||This was a letter from Norway reporting to the Security Council that it was taking military action against ISIL in Syria, citing resolution 2249 and Article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of self-defence under Chapter VII.|
|1 June 2016 S/2016/499||This was a letter from Canada to the Security Council asking it to establish a mechanism to investigate reports of violations of international law by ISIL in Iraq and Syria.|
|11 January 2016 S/2016/34||This was a letter from Denmark reporting to the Security Council that it was taking military action against ISIL in Syria, citing resolution 2249 and Article 51 of the UN Charter—the right of self-defence under Chapter VII.|
|17 June 2016 S/2016/546||This was on the humanitarian situation.|
|10 June 2016 S/2016/530||This was the JIM’s second report.|
|27 May 2016 S/2016/494||This was on chemical weapons.|
|Human Rights Council Document|
|16 June 2016 A/HRC/32/CRP.2||This was a report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which found that ISIL had committed, and continues to commit, the crime of genocide against the Yazidis.|