Syria: Presidential Statement in Support of Special Envoy
The Council will adopt a presidential statement early next week on Syria, expressing its support for the work of UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. The draft presidential statement was circulated to all Council members by France, on behalf of the P5 members, on 11 August and placed under silence procedure till noon on 12 August with the idea of being able to adopt later that day. However, Venezuela broke silence which led to several days of negotiations between Venezuela and P5 members, it seems that agreement was reached for the presidential statement to be adopted with no changes, but for Venezuela to then dissociate itself from the parts of the presidential statement in a statement following the adoption. (The last time this occurred was in August 2011, when then elected member Lebanon, chose to dissociate itself from a presidential statement expressing concern over the deteriorating situation in Syria.)
The permanent members have been negotiating the draft presidential statement for over a week. It seems there were several contentious areas. Language on human rights and humanitarian issues important to the P3 required substantive negotiations, as did text critical to Russia on terrorist acts by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Al Nusrah Front (ANF). Another area that required delicate negotiations was how and whether to reference a transitional governing body, closely linked with the problem of the so-called “Assad knot”. (The June 2012 Geneva Communiqué enshrined what has come to be known as the “Assad knot” i.e., trying to find openings between Iran and Russia’s support for the Assad regime and the position of the P3 and their Arab allies that Assad must go).
This draft presidential statement is intended as a follow-up to de Mistura’s first public briefing to the Council on 29 July and expresses support for the approach he set out. It covers de Mistura’s plan for his office to facilitate intra-Syrian working groups that would address ways to implement key elements of the Geneva Communiqué, based on four thematic areas: safety and protection for all; political and legal issues; military, security and counterterrorism issues; and continuity of public services, reconstruction and development. The working groups are expected to start parallel discussions on the various thematic areas in September, with the aim of generating a “Syrian-owned framework document” on the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué. Such a framework could provide for a transitional governing body, procedures for a national dialogue, the constitution drafting process and transitional justice issues. During his briefing, without elaborating further, de Mistura also referred to the necessity of a contact group to support this initiative, to be formed in due time. While the draft does not explicitly refer to such a contact group, it emphasises the need for robust international and regional assistance in support of the Special Envoy’s efforts. The main regional and international players likely to form part of such a group include Russia, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is probable that the US and Iran would be hesitant about the formation of such a group until mid-October for domestic reasons related to the Iran nuclear deal.
The most controversial paragraphs in the draft presidential statement were regarding the political transition and the transitional governing bodies. There were differences among the P5 on appropriate language for this issue but it seems that ultimately there was agreement on using the formulation which had met with general agreement from Council members during an informal meeting with de Mistura after the 29 July briefing. The draft text circulated to elected members refers to the need to launch a Syrian-led political process “leading to a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, and enables them independently and democratically to determine their future, including through the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers, which shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent while ensuring continuity of governmental institutions”. Venezuela broke silence over this issue arguing that the language on transition and a transitional body or authority went beyond the Syrian constitution. It suggested amendments including adding specific references to the Syrian constitution. This, however, was not acceptable to other members. (The Syrian constitution contains a number of clauses which could make it difficult for many opposition members to be part of a transition government.)
While negotiations among the P5 might have been difficult on areas related to humanitarian issues and terrorism, the draft text contains substantive paragraphs on these two areas. It includes language on the need for all parties to cease any attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate use of weapons, including barrel bombs, in populated areas, an issue of concern for the P3. (France has been working on a draft resolution on indiscriminate attacks which it may now choose to move forward.) Addressing issues emphasised by Russia, the draft expresses concern that parts of Syria are under control of terrorist groups such as ISIS and ANF; condemns the ongoing and multiple terrorist acts by ISIS, ANF and all other individuals; and expresses concern about the negative impact of terrorism on Syria and the region.
In addition, the draft presidential statement requests that the Secretary-General report back to the Council on the results of the next phase of consultations within 90 days. It is unclear if this will be in the form of a written report or an oral briefing.
The majority of elected members appear to agree with the substance of the draft presidential statement. Nonetheless, there was considerable unhappiness among a number of elected members that they had not been given the chance to contribute to the draft. New Zealand raised its concerns with the process under “any other business,” following the consultations on Syria chemical weapons on 12 August. It seems that other elected members such as Angola, Nigeria and Venezuela expressed similar frustrations with having been given only 18 hours to consider the draft after the P5 had spent more than a week negotiating it. However, given how difficult it has been to get consensus on Council action on the Syria political track, elected members were generally open to adopting the presidential statement as soon as possible. The one exception was Venezuela, whose position is consistent with the strong support it has shown for the Syrian government.
Postscript: The Council adopted the presidential statement (S/PRST/2015/15) on 17 August. In his statement following the vote the Venezulean permanent represetative said that while Venezuela joined the consensus on the presidential statement, his delegation did not subscribe to paragraphs 8 and 10 of the statement, and was dissociating from them.”