Arria-formula Meeting with the Syrian National Coalition
Tomorrow morning (26 July) Council members are set to meet with the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in a closed Arria Formula session organised by the UK. The delegation will include the recently elected head of the SNC, Ahmad Jarba, the SNC’s representative to the US, Najib Ghadbian, as well as SNC members Burhan Ghalioun and Michel Kilo.
The SNC delegation will be holding several bilateral meetings during its visit to New York, including with US Secretary of State John Kerry later this afternoon. France, the UK and the US have regular bilateral interaction with the Syrian opposition, as does Russia to a lesser extent. It seems the UK convened the Arria to provide an opportunity for other Council members to have their first interaction with the opposition’s leadership. (The first Arria Formula-type meeting was convened in 1993 by Diego Arria, the then Venezuelan permanent representative, in order to hear from a Croatian priest who had just come out of the Balkan conflict zone and was eager to convey his eyewitness account to members of the Council.)
The idea of the Arria meeting was raised last Friday (19 July) during a P5 meeting with UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, whom P3 members characterised as supportive of the idea. The broader Council membership was informed about the initiative the same day. On Monday (22 July), when the Arria meeting was brought up under “any other business” during consultations, Russia argued that any such meeting would require consensus. However, the UK countered this argument saying that procedurally any Council member can independently convene an informal meeting of Council members, such as an Arria formula meeting.
Aside from the procedural challenge, it seems the main issue of concern—voiced by China, Pakistan and Russia, but shared by several other Council members— was in relation to sovereignty issues. These members do not want attendance at this meeting to be interpreted as an indirect act of recognition or as a step towards the Syrian opposition taking over the Syrian seat in UN fora. Such concerns have been heightened in the context of the Arab League’s decision of 26 March to give Syria’s seat to the SNC and the subsequent General Assembly resolution of 15 May which many member states interpreted as a move in that direction at the UN. However, at press time, it seemed all Council members would be represented at tomorrow’s Arria meeting with the SNC, albeit at varying levels.
There is broad agreement amongst Council members that tomorrow’s meeting will give Council members a chance to seek the SNC’s views on Geneva II. In this context, Council members are likely to press the delegation on its participation at the peace conference and for clarification on several public positions taken by the SNC shortly after Jarba’s election on 6 July. Shortly after his appointment, Jarba said that any political settlement allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power would be unacceptable. He has also said that the priority for the SNC would be to seek increased military support in order to make gains on the ground before attending the Geneva II conference.
While the differences among P5 members regarding Assad’s future are not new, it seems that this fundamental gap has only grown wider in recent months as attempts to convene Geneva II have faltered. It seems Russia is of the view that a national unity government comprising the Syrian regime and the opposition would be an optimal outcome whereas the US maintains that there should be a transfer of executive power to a transitional government.
The issue of arming the rebels is a sensitive one for Council members. Recently the US, which hopes to convene Geneva II with Russia, announced it would start arming the opposition. Previously on 27 May, the EU decided not to renew its arms embargo on Syria. Russia has been critical of these decisions aimed at enabling states to arm the opposition, claiming they are not being taken in the spirit of working for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Russia, however, has been criticised in a similar manner for providing military materiel to the Syrian government.
Council members are likely to be interested in hearing the SNC delegation’s views on political and humanitarian support. Other areas of discussion are likely to be on issues of humanitarian access, protection of civilians, refugees, internal displacement and human rights.