What's In Blue

Posted Wed 25 May 2016

Briefing by Special Envoy for Syria

Tomorrow morning (26 May), Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief Council members, via video-teleconference, as the intra-Syrian political process is facing serious challenges due to the unravelling cessation of hostilities and the ongoing lack of humanitarian access.

Council members were last briefed on Syria on 4 May when Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien reported to the Council on the escalation of hostilities around Aleppo. Government forces, supported by Russian air power and the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah, were targeting armed rebel groups ostensibly fighting in coordination with Al Nusra Front, which is not a party to the cessation of hostilities.

There is broad recognition among Council members that if fighting in Syria cannot be controlled then it will be difficult for UN mediation between the government and the opposition to resume. Tomorrow, Council members will want to hear de Mistura’s assessment of whether there is any scope to continue talks in June given that: (1) the Syrian government seems to be attempting to encircle Aleppo and break rebel control of areas around Damascus; (2) the rebel Free Syrian Army has announced, on behalf of 40 armed opposition groups, that it would no longer abide by the cessation of hostilities unless such attacks ceased; and (3) the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee, has specified the need for a full cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid before it would return to talks.

Council members expect that de Mistura will report that the situation in Syria remains grim, and that without substantially less violence and substantially more humanitarian access, the credibility of any future talks would be in jeopardy. On a positive note, de Mistura will probably reiterate that at the end of the last round of intra-Syrian talks in late April, the parties had agreed on the need for a “transition”, although they remained far apart on how to achieve it. The government proposed a national unity government; however, it explicitly rejected the opposition’s position that a transitional governing body should be formed with full executive powers (in line with the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué), and insisted that Assad’s presidency was not subject to negotiation.

Though no political talks were held in May, Council members expect de Mistura to highlight the 17 May ministerial-level meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Some Council members have become dubious about the usefulness of ISSG statements, which seem to have little impact on the parties to the Syrian conflict. However, de Mistura is likely to convey the importance of the ISSG having welcomed his 27 April Mediator’s Summary. By doing so the ISSG signaled agreement that the agenda for the next round of UN-facilitated talks would include issues such as powers of the presidency, security sector reform, constitutional issues, justice sector reform, women’s roles in decision making processes, and issues related to UN supervised elections.

In line with resolution 2254, the 17 May ISSG statement also reiterated the 1 August deadline for the parties to reach an agreement on a framework for a genuine political transition. Council members may want de Mistura to comment on the feasibility of such a deadline in the context of escalating hostilities and discouraging levels of humanitarian access over the months of April and May.

While many Council members concede that Russia and the US have invested a great deal of political capital attempting to achieve a political solution for Syria, there is a corresponding view that this cooperation may have reached its limits. Some Council members are concerned that the contours of any deal that the parties might be pressured to accept by 1 August will be so far removed from the spirit and intent of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué that it will be destined to fail. Separately, members may be interested in de Mistura impression of Russia’s recent announcement that its military would hold off on strikes for a limited period of time to allow rebel groups to withdraw from Al-Nusra positions, presumably in reference to its operations in the north near Aleppo.

While OCHA head O’Brien will brief the Council on Friday (27 May), Council members will still probably want de Mistura’s views on what kind of progress is needed on the humanitarian track to create conditions conducive enough for talks to resume in Geneva. In particular, Council members will want to hear de Mistura’s opinion of the ISSG’s call for the World Food Programme to deliver humanitarian aid via air drops and air bridges if the UN continues to be denied access to besieged areas after 1 June. The World Food Programme already carries out air-drops in ISIS-controlled Deir ez-Zor and is now studying the logistics of doing so in other besieged areas.

Council members are likely to want an update on the situation in government-besieged Darraya, a suburb of Damascus. On 12 May, a UN aid convoy was denied access to Darraya by the 4th Division of the Syrian Army, controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, because it included medical and nutritional supplies. The government argued it had only approved vaccines, school supplies and baby formula. After the convoy turned back, government forces launched a mortar attack on the area where civilians had gathered to receive the aid, reportedly killing a father and his son and injuring five others.

Following a failed government offensive on Darraya over the weekend of 21-22 May and after discussions between the US and Russia early this week, there were calls for a short local truce to be extended to Darraya and to Eastern Ghouta, another government-besieged Damascus suburb where there was an escalation of fighting in May. Members may be interested in whether this local truce has held.

Some Council members are of the view that the government’s recent offensives, particularly around Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus, confirm the regime’s preference for prolonged armed conflict over a negotiated settlement. Council members will want to know more about how de Mistura is factoring in the deteriorating security situation, including the recent ISIS attacks against the government-controlled towns of Jableh and Tartous, in his planning for a new round of talks.

There is a palpable sense of frustration among some Council members that the day-to-day oversight of forging a political solution to the Syrian crisis has been outsourced to the ISSG broadly, and to P5 members Russia and the US specifically. In particular, these members sense that this has left very little space for the Council to bring new thinking or energy to help resolve the crisis. Other Council members seem resigned to the facts at hand.

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