August 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 July 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In August, Council members will receive their regular monthly briefings regarding Syria on the political, humanitarian and chemical weapons tracks.

Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is expected to brief on the intra-Syrian political process in August (his July briefing did not take place). The talks were suspended in late April but may resume in August if Russia and the US reach agreement on military cooperation in Syria against Security Council designated terrorist group Al-Nusra Front. The US proposed this in exchange for a renewed nationwide cessation of hostilities and a formula for a political transition.

On the chemical weapons track, the final report of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), the body mandated to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is due.

Key Recent Developments

The last time de Mistura briefed Council members on 29 June, he reported that the chances of resuming political talks were remote in the absence of a common vision between Russia and the US. He said that his office would work on bridging proposals to bring the parties closer together on the issue of political transition. It seems these bridging proposals may attempt to address some of the obstacles that have stymied intra-Syrian talks to date: how to devolve power from the presidency to a new government, in particular control over the security and intelligence apparatuses, and whether a political transition is more feasible via the formation of a new transitional governing body or a unity government.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 14 July to discuss the US proposal for military cooperation to target Al-Nusra in exchange for ending attacks on other opposition groups, talks that would lead to a political transition and a renewed nationwide cessation of hostilities, including the requirement that the Syrian government ground its air force. For the US, this would be a departure from its current counter-terrorism operations in Syria, which almost exclusively focuses on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While the US has carried out strikes against Al-Nusra targets, they have been extremely limited. Al-Nusra is comprised mostly of Syrians and is regarded by many Syrian armed opposition groups as an effective anti-regime fighting force, which is why such opposition groups often seek to cooperate tactically with Al-Nusra. For Russia, agreement to the proposal would be a change from its military activity in Syria, which has targeted Western-backed opposition groups fighting the government. Aside from Russian air support to the government’s Aleppo offensive, other recent examples include two strikes near the Jordanian border: a 12 July strike against a US-backed opposition group and a 16 June strike at the At-Tanf garrison which, according to media reports, also housed American and British special forces.

The US’s greater openness to military and intelligence cooperation with Russia and the proposal’s requirement that the Syrian government ground its air force are new aspects of Russian-US dynamics regarding Syria, but the push to define which groups operate in what territory is not new. On 11 February, when Russia and the US, as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), announced a nationwide cessation of hostilities (which subsequently failed to take hold), there was an agreement to delineate the territory held by ISIL and Al-Nusra Front, so that those parties and the areas they control would be excluded from the cessation of hostilities. Until now, however, there had been no progress on that task because of concerns that Russia would use such intelligence to target opposition groups rather than avoid them.

On 26 July, Kerry said he hoped to announce an agreement on the US proposal in early August. Several issues remain. One is that the proposal does not require the cessation of the regime’s ground operations. Another issue is Russia’s resistance to the US condition for the cessation of hostilities to hold for a period of time before military and intelligence cooperation goes into effect, which Russia views as little more than time for rebels to regroup. Another obstacle has been a live issue since Russia and the US nominally agreed to the delineation task in February: there is significant concern that opposition groups that are not designated terrorist groups but may cooperate tactically with Al-Nusra or are located near Al-Nusra positions, particularly near Aleppo, will be subject to attack, placing any renewed cessation of hostilities on an uncertain foundation. In response to these negotiations between Russia and the US, on 29 July Al Nusra severed its ties with Al Qaeda. There is also the perennial question about the role of President Bashar al Assad in any transition process. As recently as 13 July, Assad said that Russia has never asked him to leave power and that he was not concerned that any deal between Russia and the US would force him from the presidency.

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura met with Russian and US officials on 26 July in Geneva to discuss the bridging proposals his office has been asked to prepare, and to get an update on the negotiations between Russia and the US on their proposed military and intelligence cooperation in Syria. De Mistura announced the possible resumption of intra-Syrian talks in late August. He added that agreement between Russia and the US on military cooperation was not a pre-condition for resuming talks but that such agreement would create a “positive environment surrounding the talks.”

Meanwhile, government offensives, particularly against opposition-held Aleppo, have continued. After months of intensified air strikes, government forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Kurdish ground support, took control of Castello Road on 17 July, severing the opposition’s final supply route into Aleppo. OCHA announced that this development left an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 civilians “closer to the line of fire and at risk of besiegement”. Shelling and attacks against government-held areas of Aleppo have also increased as rebel-held Aleppo is encircled by government and allied forces.

The provision in the February cessation of hostilities agreement that neither side would attempt to gain additional territory has been largely ignored, as demonstrated by steady government offensives to advance on Aleppo, Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus prior to any resumption of talks. On 17 July, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, said the government’s advance on Aleppo could jeopardise political talks.

In a 25 July Council briefing, OCHA head Stephen O’Brien reiterated that eastern rebel-held Aleppo was at risk of becoming another, and by far the largest, besieged area in Syria. He called for a weekly 48-hour pause in fighting to allow humanitarian aid to reach eastern Aleppo. On 28 July, Russia and Syria announced they would open “humanitarian corridors” for civilians and rebels to leave Aleppo. The HNC condemned the proposal and characterised it as a euphemism for forced displacement. At press time, media reports indicated that no such corridors had been opened and that civilians trying to leave rebel-held Aleppo had been subject to sniper fire by government forces.

O’Brien released a statement on 28 July noting his awareness of the proposal and the critical need for the security of any such corridors to be guaranteed by all parties. The statement added that people should be able to use such corridors voluntarily and that no one can be forced to flee by any specific route or to any particular location. It reiterated that international humanitarian law required humanitarian access for people to leave and for aid to come in. He reiterated his call for weekly 48-hour humanitarian pauses. 

The issue of the Berm was also raised at the 25 July humanitarian briefing. The Berm is a desert area near the Jordanian border where 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are stranded with extremely limited access to food, water and shelter. The Jordanian border near the Berm has been closed, preventing aid from transiting into Syria to reach these IDPs and impeding these people from seeking refuge in Jordan.

On 18 and 19 July, US-led airstrikes in and near Manjib, the last ISIL-controlled area along the Turkish border, reportedly resulted in 75 civilian deaths, including 11 children. The US said it had received enough credible information to open an investigation.

On chemical weapons, Acting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo briefed Council members on 22 July. The meeting focused on the OPCW Director-General’s report that described discrepancies in Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal that had not been clarified by Syrian authorities, despite repeated visits to Syria over the course of two years by the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team (DAT). In particular, the Director-General’s report included information that samples taken by the DAT at several Syrian facilities indicated undeclared chemical weapons activities at multiple locations.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 1 July, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that strongly condemns the continued systematic, widespread and gross violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities and affiliated militias, and the terrorist acts committed by ISIL and Al-Nusra (A/HRC/RES/32/25). The resolution expresses concern about the escalation in the intolerable suffering of civilians in and around Aleppo. It calls for appropriate international monitoring bodies to be granted immediate access to all detainees and for the Syrian authorities to publish a list of all detention facilities. The resolution was adopted with a vote of 27 in favour, six against (including Security Council members China, Russia and Venezuela) and 14 abstentions.

Since March 2015, Human Rights Council resolutions on Syria have decided to transmit all reports and oral updates of the Commission of Inquiry to all relevant bodies of the UN for appropriate action, including the Security Council. In 2015, no report was formally transmitted to the Security Council. In 2016, a 19 April letter (S/2016/358), but only published in the UN Journal on 20 June, drew the Security Council’s attention to the Commission of Inquiry’s 11 February report and provided its document symbol, but did not transmit the actual report. The Human Rights Council resolution adopted in July did not contain the transmittal request.

Key Issue

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.

Options

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 the implementation 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.

Council Dynamics

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 unless such talks pivot significantly in their favour. 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. In that context, some Council members view the bilateral negotiations between Russia and the US as a realpolitik necessity to lower overall levels of violence. At the same time, some Council members are also concerned that even if Russia and the US agree on military cooperation and 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.

Regarding Aleppo, many Council members have held the view for some time that if rebel-held areas of the city fell to the government, it would deal a severe blow to the armed opposition’s viability. Unlike previous months, when the situation in Aleppo received a great deal of attention from Council members, the government’s retaking of Castello Road in July did not garner any Council attention outside of the regular monthly humanitarian meeting. In press comments following the 25 July humanitarian briefing, Japan, as president of the Council, said that there was overwhelming support among Council members for O’Brien’s call for a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause to fighting in eastern Aleppo. However, Council members were unable to agree on a statement to this effect. Most Council members believe this silence was in deference to the ongoing bilateral negotiations between Russia and the US.

No Council member has suggested that the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey and the subsequent purge of military, police, judicial and civil servants and the declaration of a state of emergency by Turkish authorities is anything other than an internal matter. Nevertheless, Council members are watching closely what the implications of the Turkish situation might be for Syria in particular and the region more broadly.

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

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.
Secretary-General’s Reports
20 July 2016 S/2016/631 This was on the humanitarian situation.
27 June 2016 S/2016/577 This was the 33rd OPCW report on chemical weapons.
Security Council Meeting Records
25 July 2016 S/PV.7744 This was a briefing on the humanitarian situation with significant focus on the situation in Aleppo.