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Consultations on the UN Mission in Syria

Tomorrow morning (11 July) during consultations, Council members will hear from UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan (by video-link) and DPKO head Hervé Ladsous on the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). This will be the last briefing prior to the end of the UNSMIS mandate on 20 July. At press time, negotiations on the draft resolution renewing the mission’s mandate were expected to begin later this week with adoption currently slated for 18 July.

Council members were briefed earlier this month (2 July) on Syria by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. She urged the Council to support and strengthen the UNSMIS mandate to monitor and report on the human rights situation and to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Pillay also said the conflict was becoming increasingly militarised and, echoing similar determinations made previously by the International Committee of the Red Cross, may have reached the level of a civil war in some areas. Additionally, Pillay briefed Council members on reports of deliberate targeting by the Syrian government of medical facilities and use of some of those facilities as detention centres; the arbitrary arrest, detention and systematic torture of detainees by government authorities; as well as rape and sexual violence against men, women and children in detention or during house raids.

Council members are likely to receive an update from Annan on his visits this week to Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad. In particular, Council members will be interested in details of the 9 July meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Press reports indicate that Annan characterised the talks as “constructive” and said agreement had been reached on an approach to end the violence. It seems such a positive message from Annan came as a surprise to some Council members, especially amidst reports of increasing spill-over effects in northern Lebanon and so shortly after the 7 July Le Monde interview where Annan expressed frustration that his mediation efforts and the presence of UNSMIS had been unable to stop the bloodshed.

Council members will also likely want to hear Annan’s assessment of whether there has been significant progress from his recent high-level meetings following the 30 June Action Group meeting in Geneva. (The Action Group communiqué called for all parties to recommit to the six-point plan and mapped out steps for a “Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”.) Fundamental P5 divisions remain over the different interpretations of what defines a political transition and what this means for Assad’s future. This was a major issue in Geneva and the issue will likely continue to have centre stage in New York. Russia’s position is that a negotiated transition cannot be contingent upon Assad’s removal from power. In contrast, the conclusions from the 6 July Friends of Syria meeting in Paris—which involved 107 states, but not Russia or China—emphasised that Assad must relinquish power.

Ladsous will likely provide more information on the range of options for the future of UNSMIS, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s 6 July UNSMIS report (S/2012/523). Broadly speaking, the options include: withdrawal of UNSMIS, expansion of the military observers with or without force protection, maintaining the current configuration, or shifting to civilian functions in Damascus with or without an additional field presence.

A majority of Council members view the option to withdraw as too severe and highly unlikely unless Annan, who has said previously his mandate cannot be open-ended, ends his mediation efforts. Similarly, expansion of the mission is not currently viewed as a serious option given that the minimum conditions for the current configuration to effectively operate do not exist.

Force protection for UNSMIS, irrespective of its size, also seems unlikely as it may raise false expectations regarding the mission’s ability to use force to protect civilians.

Continuing with the current configuration is not likely to be a choice that many Council members will push, as the current conditions make it difficult for the mission to do its job. However, it appears that Russia today circulated a draft resolution for the UNSMIS renewal which maintains the current configuration.

However, it seems most members are comfortable with the option that would see UNSMIS shift towards its core added value in the current situation: reporting on the situation and supporting Annan’s mediation efforts. It remains unclear whether such a mandate would be purely a civilian political mission or if it would maintain some of its capacity for military observation either in Syria, on standby in another location, or a mixture of both.

Aside from the UNSMIS renewal, there still remains the option to increase credible pressure on the Syrian government through a separate Chapter VII resolution imposing or threatening sanctions and linked to specific progress on the six-point plan and the Action Group communiqué of 30 June. It is likely that the dynamics over any Chapter VII approach will be intricately linked with the UNSMIS renewal. Urging the Security Council toward such action was one of the main outcomes from last week’s Friends of Syria meeting. However, it remains unclear if and when Council members might table such a draft resolution. Some members feel that any such action invoking Chapter VII should be explicitly requested by Annan in order to help foster a united Council on such an approach. However, it is unclear after Annan’s 9 July comments from Damascus if he is likely to make such a request at this point.

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