Syria: Special Envoy and OCHA to Brief
Tomorrow (5 February), at the request of Venezuela, Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will brief Security Council members in consultations, via video teleconference, on the postponement of political talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. John Ging, Operations Director for OCHA, will then update Council members under “any other business” on the humanitarian situation following de Mistura’s briefing.
UN-facilitated talks in Geneva began on 29 January with the intent to continue for six months. However, in under a week de Mistura decided to postpone the talks until 25 February. On the first day, only the regime’s delegation attended and de Mistura discussed with them the need for the government to release detainees and lift sieges.
There remained a degree of uncertainty about whether and when the delegation of the opposition bloc’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) based in Riyadh would attend. The opposition had been vocal about its demands to participate in talks—in particular for the government to lift sieges, release detainees and stop indiscriminate attacks specifically aerial bombardments. By 1 February, the HNC agreed to participate after announcing it had received assurances from international backers on these humanitarian issues.
However, during the same time frame, there was a significant military escalation by the government and its allies, including heavy Russian airstrikes, against opposition-held areas around Aleppo. On 2 February, the opposition protested what they described as an “unprecedented” escalation of the Russian air campaign. There were also reports of a fresh wave of displacement from Aleppo toward Turkey as Syrians fled the offensive. By 3 February, the regime had severed the opposition’s primary supply route from Turkey and government forces were poised to completely encircle Aleppo. On the same day, de Mistura announced the postponement of the talks.
Tomorrow Council members will be interested in hearing a frank assessment from de Mistura about why the talks faltered and what steps the Council can take to support him in getting the parties back to the table later this month. Many Council members believe that de Mistura was reassured that implementation of the humanitarian aspects of resolution 2254 would happen during the talks. It was this same reassurance that got the HNC to the table. However, the government claimed there were “procedural issues” in delivering on the humanitarian track. In comments to the press, de Mistura said the UN cannot allow procedural matters to become more important than the humanitarian situation of the Syrian people who are waiting for concrete results.
Some Council members also expect de Mistura to put the onus back on Russia and the US to address the unresolved issues that have undermined the UN-facilitated talks at the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), currently slated for 11 February in Munich. On 3 February, the US called on the regime and its supporters to halt their bombardment of opposition-held areas, especially in Aleppo, and to lift their besiegement of civilians, adding that it was past time for the regime to meet existing obligations and restore the international community’s confidence in its intentions of supporting a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. On 4 February, Russia said it hoped that the ISSG would not create “obstacles” to the intra-Syrian negotiations.
Council members continue to have mixed views about how demands on humanitarian issues impact the political track. Some Council members are cautious about treating obligations under international law as bargaining chips in a political process; these members further argue that negotiations are destined to fail against the backdrop of escalating military offensives. Other members are sympathetic to that view, but they also believe that if obligations under international law are met as part of a larger political process, it would ameliorate the dire humanitarian situation and enhance the protection environment creating a positive momentum for negotiations. A smaller set of Council members view these demands on humanitarian issues as unacceptable pre-conditions to talks, and believe that there is no way to improve the humanitarian situation as long as the political track remains frozen.
Council members have differing views about which party is to blame for the postponement of the peace talks. These differences were evident when trying to agree on the format and briefers for tomorrow’s meetings. After Venezuela requested the briefing by de Mistura, the US requested that OCHA also brief. It argued that the Aleppo offensive had further eroded the humanitarian situation and was a key factor in the suspension of the talks. It seems that Russia did not want tomorrow’s meeting to divert attention from the political track, reiterating that the primary goal was negotiations without pre-conditions. Meanwhile, Egypt suggested separate briefings that would not directly link the humanitarian and political aspects of the Syrian conflict. Finally, New Zealand proposed that OCHA update under “any other business” after de Mistura’s briefing, a proposal that was supported by several other Council members. Venezuela then requested a briefing from the Department of Political Affairs under “any other business” on Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes. At press time, it was unclear what other Council members’ reactions were to that suggestion.