What's In Blue

Posted Tue 26 Apr 2016

Special Envoy to Brief on Intra-Syrian Talks

Tomorrow afternoon (27 April), Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief Council members under “any other business”, via video-teleconference from Geneva, at the close of the second round of intra-Syrian proximity talks. The US requested the briefing to get de Mistura’s assessment of how intensified fighting, particularly in northern Syria, has affected the cessation of hostilities and the sustainability of ongoing political talks.

In late March, the general perception among Council members was that the cessation of hostilities had lowered overall levels of violence, allowed increasing flows of humanitarian aid, and created a more conducive political environment. That optimistic outlook has now shifted towards caution. There is a sense that the government’s recent offensives, backed by Russian airpower, particularly around Aleppo, could again move the trajectory of the conflict away from negotiations back towards prolonged armed conflict.

De Mistura had announced that the April talks would focus on “political transition, governance, and constitutional principles”. This appears to be in line with resolution 2254 that called for UN-mediated political talks, agreement on a parallel ceasefire and political process leading to credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance within six months, followed by the drafting of a constitution and elections within 18 months.

The second round, which got underway on 13 April, began amidst several warning signs that none of the issues identified by de Mistura would be substantively addressed. The opposition HNC signalled its concern over the lack of meaningful concessions as the government: (1) proposed a national unity government, but explicitly rejected a transitional governing body with full executive powers and insisted that Bashar al Assad’s presidency was not subject to negotiation; (2) held parliamentary elections in government-controlled areas on the same day that the second round of talks began; and (3) announced that a revised constitution could be ready “within weeks” for a referendum, implying that a constitution would not be drafted and agreed within the Geneva process.

As in 2012 and 2014, UN mediation has hit an impasse over the issue of political transition and the future of Assad. At the end of the first round of talks, de Mistura provided a “Paper on Points of Commonality” to the government and the HNC that reflected this tension by citing the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué without a specific reference to the Communiqué’s call for a transitional governing body with full executive powers. On 26 April, the Syrian government submitted its amendments to the 24 March paper. Council members will be looking for a better understanding of what those amendments are, and whether they display a further entrenchment by the government away from negotiating a political transition.

Many Council members are of the view that, aside from the expected maximalist political positions expressed in Geneva, the near collapse of the talks is due to a noticeable slow-down in the delivery of humanitarian aid in tandem with an unravelling cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, Idlib, and around Damascus. In Aleppo, government forces have resumed targeting armed rebel groups fighting in coordination with Al Nusra Front, which is not a party to the cessation of hostilities.

Some Council members will want to know how this recent uptick in aerial bombardment can be reconciled with de Mistura’s report in his 14 March briefing that the Syrian minister of defence had assured his Russian counterpart that the government would not “arbitrarily” use weapons, presumably in reference to strikes against civilian targets. On 31 March, government airstrikes hit civilian infrastructure in the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir, killing approximately 30 people, before the second round of talks had even begun. Aerial bombardment continued, and on 20 April, the opposition postponed their participation in the Geneva talks following government airstrikes that hit two markets in Idlib province, killing 44 people. Some members of the delegation stayed behind, cognisant that completely abandoning the talks would allow the government to blame the opposition for the failure. Meanwhile, over 60 people have been killed in Aleppo over the last three days.

The increasing violations of the cessation of hostilities and the challenges they pose to successful political talks were a key concern when de Mistura briefed Council members on 12 April and are expected to be so again during tomorrow’s briefing. Council members may be interested in any concrete plans that have been made to hold a ministerial-level meeting of the ISSG to try and shore up the cessation of hostilities and regain political momentum.

Some Council members will want to know if de Mistura is making plans to resume talks in May, but are also aware that it will be difficult to get the opposition to return to negotiations without serious and sustained progress in reducing overall levels of violence and increasing humanitarian aid, particularly to besieged areas.

The government’s continued denial of access to besieged suburbs of Damascus, particularly Darraya, negatively impacted the Geneva talks. During a 5 April briefing from OCHA on these besieged areas, Russia argued that Darraya was controlled by Al-Nusra and ISIS. The US and OCHA said that there was no such evidence. Meanwhile, the Syrian government claimed there were no civilians there. Subsequently, a fact-finding mission by de Mistura’s office visited Darraya in April and confirmed the presence of civilians in need of food and medicine, but at press time no humanitarian convoys had been allowed in. It seems that making a breakthrough on this issue is a major goal of de Mistura’s office and the ISSG humanitarian task force. But at press time, Council members were unaware of any progress in this regard, though they will want to hear from de Mistura if there is any credible path towards such a breakthrough.

Many Council members expect that tomorrow de Mistura will reiterate some of the points he made at a 21 April press conference following a meeting of the ISSG Humanitarian Access Task Force. He reported that over half of those living in besieged areas had received some level of aid, including by air-drops in ISIS-besieged Deir ez-Zor. He also reported on the medical evacuation of 515 people; however, getting medical supplies to those in need, even if other aid was permitted, remained difficult. Looking ahead, on Thursday the Council will have its monthly briefing on the humanitarian situation and Council members expect that many of de Mistura’s observations will be echoed by OCHA.

It is unclear to many Council members whether the near collapse of the Geneva talks reflects larger disagreements between Moscow and Washington DC about the way forward on the Syrian political track. Russia and the US have invested a great deal of political capital in the Geneva talks, and seem to still be on the path of engagement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed their support for the talks in a phone call on 25 April. However, tensions have flared over Russia’s increase in air operations (though they remain well below February levels) and redeployments of artillery units near Aleppo, and provisional planning by the US to provide anti-aircraft weaponry to the opposition if the cessation of hostilities collapses.

Tensions have also re-emerged on the chemical weapons track after China and Russia circulated a draft resolution that would expand the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to monitor and investigate the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors. While all Council members agree this is a serious issue, the P3 and many other members believe it is a broad threat that should not be tied to the JIM’s mandate, which is specific to Syria. They are in favour of anchoring the issue in the Chemical Weapons Convention and the work of the OPCW. At press time, no agreement had been reached though ongoing negotiations were reportedly constructive.

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