Special Envoy to Brief on Intra-Syrian Talks
Tomorrow (12 April), Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief Council members in consultations, via video-teleconference, ahead of the resumption of the intra-Syrian proximity talks on 13 April in Geneva.
The first round of talks ended on 24 March. As in 2012 and 2014, the UN mediator hit an impasse over the issue of political transition and the future of President Bashar al Assad. De Mistura has billed the second round of talks as the session to focus on “political transition, governance, and constitutional principles.”
In late March, the general observation among Council members was that the cessation of hostilities that was agreed by Russia and the US and had gone into effect on 27 February, had lowered overall levels of violence, allowed increasing flows of humanitarian aid to reach those in need, and created a more conducive environment for a political process. However, by early April that optimistic outlook had shifted towards caution. Fighting around Aleppo and Damascus has cast doubt on whether the cessation of hostilities will hold. In recent weeks there has been a noticeable slow-down in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the Riyadh-based umbrella Syrian opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has signaled its concern over the government’s unwillingness to make meaningful concessions as it: (1) has continued to insist that Assad’s role is not subject to negotiation; (2) has scheduled parliamentary elections for the same day that the second round of talks is set to begin; and (3) has announced a new constitution could be ready “within weeks”, implying that a constitution would not be drafted and agreed within the Geneva process.
Council members expect that during tomorrow’s briefing de Mistura will elaborate on the results of his recent visits to Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, and his meetings with Saudi and Turkish representatives in Europe. Council members may want more information about the reactions from these international and regional actors to de Mistura’s 24 March “Paper on Points of Commonality” that was provided to the government and the opposition following the first round of talks. It is probable that there will be many questions regarding this paper, as many Council members are interested in moving from briefings on broad principles to briefings on the specific plans for forming a transitional government, drafting a constitution and holding elections.
Regarding a transitional government, while the 24 March paper cites the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, it makes no specific reference to the Communiqué’s call for a transitional governing body with full executive powers. This has particular relevance in relation to security sector reform addressed in any agreement between the opposition and the government. The Geneva Communiqué is clear that security services will be under the control of a transitional governing body that inspires public confidence, but the 24 March paper offers no such clarity. Some Council members are concerned that, irrespective of the Assad question, a power-sharing arrangement could never be agreed if it left security services under the sole control of current regime members, fundamentally undermining a political solution to the current crisis.
Council members will also probably have questions for de Mistura about elections and the drafting of a new constitution in light of developments on both fronts outside of a negotiated political solution. Council members will want to hear more about the impact of the parliamentary elections planned for 13 April on the Geneva process. (These elections were announced by the regime on 22 February, hours after Russia and the US agreed on the cessation of hostilities.) Council members will also be seeking more details about how de Mistura plans to overcome the government’s resistance to discussing a transitional government, presidential elections or the drafting of a new constitution.
Regarding the constitution-drafting process, Council members will most likely want clarity about the regime’s reported position that any transition period must take place under the current constitution and that any new constitution would be subject to a referendum. (The current constitution was revised in 2012 and contains a number of clauses which could make it difficult for many opposition members to be part of a transition government.) Some Council members are also curious about recent media reports indicating that Russia and the US are reviewing a draft constitution that closely resembles the current Syrian constitution. The HNC has publicly said it opposes a constitution-drafting process driven by Russia and the US outside of an intra-Syrian negotiated framework.
A key concern of many Council members is the increased fighting around Damascus and Aleppo, despite the cessation of hostilities. The last time de Mistura briefed on 14 March, he said that the Syrian minister of defence had assured his Russian counterpart that the government would not “arbitrarily” use weapons, presumably in reference to aerial bombardment of civilian targets. Nevertheless, on 31 March, government air strikes hit a school and hospital in the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir, reportedly killing approximately 30 people. The US produced a draft press statement condemning the attack, but it was blocked by Russia, which cited the lack of convincing information on the attack and argued that the International Syria Support Group’s ceasefire task-force had agreed to investigate the incident. Council members will also probably want de Mistura’s assessment of whether increased fighting around Aleppo threatens the cessation of hostilities and the political process; government forces, supported by the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah and Russian air power, are battling armed rebel groups fighting in coordination with Al Nusra Front, which is not a party to the cessation of hostilities.
Council members will be curious about whether de Mistura has made progress on how to move forward on other confidence-building measures, such as the release of detainees.
Finally, Council members will want to know how the slow-down in humanitarian aid, the removal of medical supplies from humanitarian convoys, and the lack of access to besieged suburbs of Damascus by government forces has affected the overall political climate. On 5 April, the US called for a briefing from OCHA head Stephen O’Brien on these besieged areas under “any other business.”
The UK proposed a press statement at this meeting, but consensus could not be reached. This has become a recurring trend on Syria. Recently, Council members could not reach consensus on a press statement attempting to address the question of participation of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in the Geneva talks or another on victories against ISIS in Syria. It is unclear to many Council members whether the lack of consensus on a spate of recent draft press statements on the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian issues, the Kurdish question, and anti-ISIS activities reflects larger disagreements at capital-level about the way forward on the Syrian political track.
Looking forward, there will be consultations among Council members on the Syrian chemical weapons track on 13 April and a briefing on humanitarian issues on 28 April.