Special Envoy to Brief on Intra-Syrian Talks
On Monday (14 March), Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief Council members, via video link from Geneva, presumably on the results of the first day of the intra-Syrian proximity talks, expected to begin that day. These will be the first talks since they were abruptly suspended in early February due to the government’s Aleppo offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes. Subsequently, intense diplomatic activity between Russia and the US culminated in the agreement on a cessation of hostilities that went into effect on 27 February. Monday’s briefing coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Syrian crisis and is the first of what will now be monthly updates on the implementation of resolution 2268, which endorsed the cessation of hostilities.
At the beginning of March, Council members thought they would have a more substantial update from de Mistura on how the talks, originally scheduled to begin on 7 March, had been proceeding. However, due to the delay, most Council members expect that de Mistura will reiterate that the talks will focus on governance issues such as drafting a new constitution, agreement on a transitional process, and presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months that would include the Syrian refugee population. De Mistura has announced that the first round of talks would last ten days, followed by a short recess. Council members will want to hear more on what de Mistura thinks can be achieved in the first round of talks and when subsequent rounds might take place.
Council members will be interested to hear from de Mistura about the delegations to the proximity talks. At press time, the government had not publicly confirmed its attendance, but Russia reported that the government’s delegation would participate. Meanwhile, the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said it would attend. However, the HNC also signaled its skepticism, reporting that despite the recent decrease in violence, the government was planning an escalation by air and ground. Some Council members will also be curious to know whether any Kurdish groups have been invited to participate in the talks in more than an observer status, in particular the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Council members will want more information on how further confidence building measures, such as the release of arbitrarily detained persons, will be addressed in the talks.
There is interest in whether de Mistura will be able to provide a preliminary assessment of reactions to a Russian suggestion that the peace talks could lead to a federal structure as an option to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. Media reports indicate that the government, which with Russian military support has consolidated its control of territory from Damascus north through Homs to the Latakia coastal plain, and Kurdish groups, which control significant territory along the northern border with Turkey, have not ruled out the idea. The opposition, which controls much less territory, has signaled the need for de-centralised governance, but would not agree to a federal structure.
When resolution 2268 was adopted a little more than an hour before the cessation of hostilities went into effect, it was unclear to many Council members whether it was a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the Syrian conflict, or whether the momentum would falter. Two weeks later, Council members are cautiously optimistic, observing that the cessation of hostilities has lowered overall levels of violence, allowed increasing flows of humanitarian aid, and created a more conducive environment for a political process.
Looking ahead, on 30 March OCHA will brief on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Many Council members will be interested to know whether sufficient humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, is getting to those most in need—particularly in besieged and hard to reach areas. It will also be an opportunity to learn whether humanitarian access is sustained and unfettered, or whether it remains subject to onerous approval processes imposed by the government.