Syria: Adoption of a Resolution on the Cessation of Hostilities
This afternoon (26 February), the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution endorsing the cessation of hostilities in Syria. The adoption is slated for 3 p.m., two hours before the cessation of hostilities will go into effect at 00:00 Damascus time on 27 February. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who will brief via video link from Geneva, is expected to announce that political talks will resume on 7 March, if the truce holds.
Council members learned of the draft resolution on 24 February after Russia and the US announced their initiative during consultations on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The draft resolution has been almost exclusively negotiated between Russia and the US, and was only shared with other P5 members yesterday morning, and the entire Council membership yesterday evening. Council members generally accept that the discussion between Russia and the US has determined the substance of the draft resolution and that there was little room to make significant changes to what has been already achieved through a very sensitive and high-level negotiating process. It seems that there were suggestions to strengthen references to confidence-building measures and language regarding the requisite environment to resume talks. However, no changes were made to the draft, and the US requested that the draft be put in blue shortly after midnight.
Today, the ceasefire task force of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), co-chaired by Russia and the US, is meeting in Geneva to review the parties’ agreement to the terms of the cessation of hostilities. The terms agreed between Russia and the US on 22 February include the necessity for all parties to agree to participate in UN-facilitated talks towards full implementation of resolution 2254; allow sustained and unfettered humanitarian access; cease attacks, including aerial bombardment; refrain from acquiring territory from other parties to the agreement; use force proportionately and only in self-defense; and commit to work for the early release of detainees.
The government, which had previously said it planned to fight until it re-established control over all of Syria, has agreed to cease combat operations except those against ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and “other terrorist organizations”. The Riyadh-based opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) also agreed, but signaled that they would give the truce two-weeks to establish the seriousness of the government’s commitment. Opposition groups have also flagged significant concerns about the selective nature of the agreement, which allows counter-terrorism operations to continue. Russia and the US, via the ISSG ceasefire task force, have agreed to delineate the territory held by ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, and other terrorist organisations designated by the UN Security Council, so that such parties, and the areas they control, would be excluded from the cessation of hostilities. However, it seems the draft resolution to be adopted later today does not provide any specific details of the delineation.
The draft resolution demands that the cessation of hostilities begins at 00:00 Damascus time on 27 February and endorses in full the terms of the cessation of hostilities agreed between Russia and the US on 22 February. It demands the full and immediate implementation of resolution 2254 on a Syrian-owned political transition in accordance with the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué as set forth in ISSG statements; demands that all parties to the cessation of hostilities fulfil their commitments and acknowledges the agreement by the government and the HNC to be parties to the terms; welcomes the cessation of hostilities as a first step toward a lasting ceasefire and a parallel political process; calls for sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access via the most direct routes, and specifically names a number of besieged and hard-to-reach areas; calls on member states with influence to advance the peace process and confidence-building measures, including the early release of arbitrarily detained persons; and requests the resumption of UN-facilitated negotiations. In addition, the draft resolution annexes in full the 22 February joint statement by Russia and the US that details the terms of the cessation of hostilities.
Regarding the cessation of hostilities agreement, some Council members have observed that the government will be able to argue that their military operations are targeting terrorists, whereas opposition groups will not be able to make similar claims. A few Council members have reservations about whether the delineation of territory will sufficiently restrain how counter-terrorism airstrikes will be conducted. 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, will be subject to attack, placing the cessation of hostilities agreement on an uncertain foundation. It seems the delineation of territory will be further discussed at today’s meeting of the ISSG ceasefire task force in Geneva, which de Mistura will attend. Many Council members had questions about the delineation during yesterday’s read-through of the text and would like de Mistura to elaborate on the highly sensitive issue when he briefs Council members this afternoon, since details were not made explicit in the draft resolution.
It seems there were also many questions among Council members yesterday regarding the mechanism to supervise the cessation of hostilities. It is another issue Council members will want de Mistura to discuss, as there is little detail beyond what is already set out in the 22 February joint statement. The terms say that any party to the cessation of hostilities will be able to bring a violation to the attention of the ISSG ceasefire task force—either through the Office of the Special Envoy or directly to Russia or the US as co-chairs.
Another issue Council members may want de Mistura to address is whether other groups, in particular the Kurdish YPG, will abide by the terms of the cessation of hostilities and participate in resumed talks in Geneva. The situation along the Syrian-Turkish border has become increasingly fragile as Turkey has shelled Kurdish positions in Syria along the border to check advances being made by Kurdish forces who were taking territory lost by Syrian opposition groups. Turkey has welcomed the cessation of hostilities. It has also asserted that it is only binding within Syria and not in Turkey, insinuating it may continue to shell Kurdish forces if Turkey feels its security is threatened. Some Council members are concerned that the escalating military tension between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces has the potential to seriously test the feasibility of the cessation of hostilities.
There is unanimity in the Council on the importance of lowering overall levels of violence, improving the humanitarian situation and putting a political process in place. However, it is unclear to many Council members whether the cessation of hostilities agreement and today’s adoption of a resolution is a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. Some members are concerned that the momentum will falter in light of the many remaining uncertainties and in the context of today’s ongoing military operations as parties try to consolidate their hold on the ground before the cessation goes into effect.
Looking ahead, the draft resolution requests the Secretary-General to update the Council on implementation of this draft resolution, as well as resolution 2254, within 15 days of adoption, and then every month thereafter.
Post-script: On 26 February, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2268 endorsing the cessation of hostilities as set forth in the 22 February joint statement by Russia and the US. The adoption was slightly delayed over an elected Council members’ insistence that any reference to the Riyadh-based opposition grouping known as the High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, be removed from the text. In the end the reference to the HNC was removed, along with references to other opposition groupings that had met Cairo and Moscow.)