Syria: Special Envoy to Brief on Political Talks
On Monday (18 January), Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will brief Security Council members in consultations, via video-teleconference, on the preparations for political talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition in Geneva, announced for 25 January.
On 18 December 2015, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2254, setting out the sequence of events that the international community deems necessary to end the Syrian crisis: UN-mediated political talks, a national ceasefire, and a two-year timeline to achieve a Syrian political transition. The text, agreed by the P5 only hours before the adoption, did not address the role of President Bashar al-Assad. However, some Council members are of the view that the Russian and the US positions on Assad have quietly moved closer together, in that Assad would have a role in the transition but would not stand for re-election. However, regional and national actors have yet to subscribe to this understanding.
Very little detail has emerged over the last month about what to expect in Geneva. As a result, some Council members expect many questions to be asked during Monday’s consultations about the substance, format and participation of the Geneva talks. Council members also expect de Mistura to convey options for confidence-building measures and for ceasefire monitoring that were requested by the Council in resolution 2254. He will also update Council members on his rounds of consultations in Ankara, Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran, as well as his discussions with P5 ambassadors in Geneva, in preparation for the talks.
The talks are expected to be proximity talks that will focus on negotiating a ceasefire and the terms of a political transition. However, not all Council members are satisfied with the preparatory work to forge a unified opposition, facilitated by Saudi Arabia. There are likely to be questions about whether the opposition delegation will include members who are not a part of the Riyadh opposition platform. This was a prominent issue during the negotiation of resolution 2254, when Russia opposed any language that would be seen as Council recognition of the opposition bloc’s High Negotiations Committee based in Riyadh. Russia has stated publicly that a group based in Riyadh cannot speak on behalf of the entire Syrian opposition and suggested that members of the Syrian opposition who have met in Cairo and Moscow should be included in the UN-facilitated talks. Egypt too has concerns that the opposition delegation may not be sufficiently representative. Council members may also ask about the work done to include women and civil society in the political process.
Many Council members are likely to have questions about the work being facilitated by Jordan to determine which actors in Syria should be identified as terrorist groups, in addition to those already designated by the Security Council, such as Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Al-Nusra Front. Such groups would be barred from participation in the Geneva talks and could be targeted by counter-terrorism operations. Agreement on such a list has implications for the Council’s own work, as the International Syria Support Group has indicated that the Security Council should designate and impose sanctions on identified terrorist groups. However, at press time, it seems there was still no agreement on such a list.
Some members of the International Syria Support Group have insisted that Islamist opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam should be included on the terrorist list, but this is unlikely as these groups are part of the Riyadh platform. Another grey area is how to deal with opposition groups which are not terrorist groups but may cooperate tactically with groups like Al-Nusra Front. There was also strong disagreement among members of the International Syria Support Group over which other parties to include, such as some Kurdish forces and the Iranian Al-Quds Force.
Regarding a ceasefire, it seems the option for ceasefire monitoring is not particularly controversial. Most Council members are aware that the UN is planning a “light touch” option based out of Damascus whereby national counterparts call in violations that could be investigated by a small group of UN personnel. If future security conditions permit, there might be a strengthened international role.
A more controversial issue on which many Council members will want de Mistura’s views is what the negotiating parameters for a ceasefire might look like. This was another important issue during the negotiations of resolution 2254, when France placed a great deal of importance on the Council expressing support for a national ceasefire. The concern some Council members have is whether the UN might place too much emphasis on the utility of local ceasefires, which have been criticised for a number of reasons: they are often seen as surrenders after siege and starvation tactics are imposed by the government on rebel-held areas; they benefit the government by allowing them to redirect their forces to achieve military objectives elsewhere; and they have often been accompanied by massive military build-ups, disappearances of rebel fighters and population exchanges.
Council members will also be curious to hear de Mistura’s proposals for confidence-building measures. The government has demanded a list of names of the opposition delegation—however, that is unlikely to be shared until after invitations to the Geneva talks are sent and confirmations are received. The opposition has been vocal about its demands for the government to lift sieges, release detainees, and stop indiscriminate attacks—particularly aerial bombardment. Council members have mixed views about the opposition demands. Some Council members are cautious about treating obligations under international law as bargaining chips in a political process. Other members share that view, but also believe that if such demands are met as part of a larger political process it would ameliorate the dire humanitarian situation civilians are facing, and an enhanced protection environment would create a positive momentum for negotiations. A smaller set of Council members view these demands as unacceptable pre-conditions to the opposition’s participation in the Geneva talks.
Finally, Council members will want de Mistura’s assessment of the commitment of Iran and of Saudi Arabia to the political process following the Saudi execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent attack on Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran.
Council members are unwilling to speculate on whether there has been enough progress for the talks to get underway on 25 January, only commenting that the UN is working as hard as it can to prepare for the talks and that there is a unanimity in the Council on the importance of getting a political process in place.