Syria: Briefings by the head of OCHA and the Special Envoy
Tomorrow morning (24 February), OCHA head Stephen O’Brien will brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The next day (25 February), Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief Council members in consultations on the progress towards a cessation of hostilities and the prospects for the resumption of political talks. Both O’Brien and de Mistura are likely to refer to the statement made by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich on 11 February and the 22 February agreement on the terms for a nationwide cessation of hostilities.
In the 11 February statement, the ISSG committed to use their influence with parties on the ground to press for the end of any indiscriminate use of weapons, support and accelerate agreement on implementing a nationwide ceasefire, facilitate immediate humanitarian access, urge the release of arbitrarily detained persons, and fight terrorism. The ISSG also announced the creation of two follow-up task forces under UN auspices, one on humanitarian access and another on a nationwide ceasefire, starting with a cessation of hostilities.
The cessation of hostilities, envisioned to commence on 27 February, includes 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.
It seems likely that the findings of the most recent report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria will be raised by O’Brien and de Mistura in their briefings, as well as by many Council members in consultations (A/HRC/31/68). Among these findings are that Syria is on the brink of collapse, humanitarian space is shrinking, denial of humanitarian access and other forms of deprivation are being used as instruments of war to force surrender or to extract political concessions, and an inadequate international protection response has meant that civilians pay the price of “the horrors of war”.
Many Council members will want an update on how the military escalation is affecting the humanitarian situation in Syria. Earlier this month, on 10 February, Council members New Zealand and Spain called for consultations after O’Brien announced that the Aleppo offensive had displaced 30,000 people. The report that O’Brien will present tomorrow notes that humanitarian operations are ongoing, but have been disrupted as a result of ground fighting and heavy bombardment near major towns and along transport corridors from Turkey towards Aleppo (S/2016/156).
Council members will be interested in O’Brien’s assessment of the humanitarian situation along the Syrian-Turkish border, which has been increasingly fragile this month as almost 70,000 civilians fled the Aleppo offensive and amassed near Turkey’s border. Meanwhile, Turkey has shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria to check advances by Kurdish forces gaining territory along the Turkish border. Russia called for two meetings in February under “any other business” to discuss the military escalation between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces, and introduced a draft resolution on the issue. There was not significant support among Council members for the draft text, and several Council members stressed the need to de-escalate the situation and stay focused on a political solution to the Syrian crisis through the implementation of resolution 2254.
Council members will be interested in whether the humanitarian situation has improved since the ISSG announced its humanitarian commitments in the Munich statement. Following a meeting of the humanitarian access task force on 18 February, OCHA announced that aid had reached 100,000 people in need of assistance in five besieged towns (rebel-held Madaya, Zabadani and Mouadamiya besieged by government forces, and government-held Foua and Kefraya—the only two villages under siege by opposition fighters). While Council members will welcome that development, they will want to know if the government has provided clearance for sustained and unimpeded access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, or if access remains sporadic and subject to ad-hoc approvals.
On Thursday, de Mistura will present the Secretary-General’s 60-day report on the implementation of resolution 2254 (S/2016/152). He will update Council members on the progress towards achieving a cessation of hostilities between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, and address the prospects for the resumption of the political talks. In his last briefing on 5 February, shortly after talks were postponed, de Mistura reported that the environment for negotiations was undermined by the ongoing lack of humanitarian access coupled with the sudden increase in aerial bombings and military activities, a reference to the government’s Aleppo offensive backed by Russian airstrikes.
Most Council members expect that de Mistura will welcome the ISSG’s agreement on the terms for a nationwide cessation of hostilities as an opportunity, albeit a fragile one, to create a more conducive negotiating environment. However, some Council members have noted that in the time it has taken to reach that agreement, the Syrian government, backed by Russian airstrikes, has significantly consolidated its territorial gains and the security situation along the Turkish/Syrian border has further deteriorated. Both developments have the potential to undermine progress toward a political solution. Council members will be interested in de Mistura’s views on when the political process may resume. Some members are speculating that talks are unlikely to start until after the cessation of hostilities goes into effect and a sufficient period has passed without significant violations.
The Syrian government, which had previously said it planned to fight until it re-established control over all of Syria, and the Riyadh-based opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) have both publicly agreed in principle to the terms for a cessation of hostilities agreed by Russia and the US. Council members will be curious about any caveats the government and the armed opposition might include in their formal confirmations that are to be submitted by 26 February. The government signaled its agreement to cease combat operations except those against ISIS, Al Nusra Front and “other terrorist organizations”. Opposition groups have flagged significant concerns about the selective nature of the agreement which allows counter-terrorism operations to continue.
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 expressed concern over how counter-terrorism airstrikes will be conducted, particularly since the Syrian government and Russia have a broader definition of which groups are terrorists. Besides the groups designated by the Security Council, such as ISIS and Al Nusra Front, Russia and the Syrian government consider groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as terrorist groups. Council members may want clarity from de Mistura, or directly from Russia and the US, about whether opposition groups which are not designated terrorist groups, but may cooperate tactically with Al-Nusra or are located near Al-Nusra positions, will be subject to attack under the cessation of hostilities. Some Council members may suggest that ongoing counter-terrorism operations should stay strictly focused on ISIS to ensure compliance.
Council members will also want to know how a cessation of hostilities will be monitored after parties on the ground agree to the terms set by the ISSG. In the report de Mistura will present tomorrow, the Secretary-General said that under current conditions it would be difficult to envisage any deployment of UN monitors. It seems that in the near term, any party to the cessation of hostilities will be able to bring a violation to the attention of the ISSG task force—either through de Mistura’s office or directly to Russia or the US as co-chairs.
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 this is a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the Syrian conflict, or whether the momentum will falter in the face of ongoing military escalation and continuing divisions in the Council. Russian and US positions during negotiations on a Russian-drafted press statement condemning the 21 February ISIS attacks in Damascus and Homs, which was issued today, raised questions for some members about the strength of the cessation of hostilities agreement. It seems the US had wanted a call for the urgent implementation of the cessation of hostilities in the text, but in the end this was not included, in spite of it being an issue that had been agreed to by Russia and US outside of the Council in the ISSG.