Syria: Briefing on Aleppo
This afternoon (4 May) Council members expect to be briefed on the political and humanitarian situations in Aleppo by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and OCHA head Stephen O’Brien. Syria has asked to participate under Rule 37. It seems that a press statement in response to the situation in Aleppo might be proposed, but Council members are aware that getting agreement on a draft text could be difficult. At press time, the format of the briefing was still being discussed.
At yesterday’s briefing on health care in armed conflict, the UK called for a briefing on the situation in Aleppo where fighting has escalated over the last two weeks, including attacks on medical facilities, medical staff and first responders. The Ukraine and the US expressed support for this request at the meeting. While yesterday’s briefing was not specific to country situations, a number of members underscored that attacks on health care have been pervasive in the Syrian conflict, among other country-specific situations. Recent attacks in Syria include a 27 April airstrike targeting a hospital in rebel-held Aleppo where 55 people were killed and the shelling of a maternity ward in government-held Aleppo which killed 19 people yesterday. Overall, at press time, almost 300 people had been killed as a result of the recent escalation in Aleppo. Following a period in late March, when Council members were more optimistic following the cessation of hostilities, there is now a sense that the government’s recent offensives, particularly around Aleppo, could again shift the trajectory of the conflict away from negotiations back towards prolonged armed conflict.
Disagreement among Council members about both the need for and format of today’s meeting began yesterday evening. The UK, Ukraine and the US argued that the alarming situation in Aleppo required urgent and public attention by the Council. Russia countered that it did not see the need for the meeting, but that if it were to be held, it should be a public briefing followed by closed consultations where Council members could deliver their interventions. Egypt, as president of the Council in May, suggested a briefing followed by consultations, but noted that there was no rule prohibiting Council members from requesting the floor in the Council chamber. This would allow those who wanted to speak publicly to do so, while others could make their statements in closed consultations.
However, the dispute over the format continued today with Russia, supported by Angola, China and Venezuela, expressing preference for a briefing in consultations, presumably to avoid public statements by other Council members. It seems that at least nine Council members were in favour of a public briefing, and there was a possibility that a procedural vote might be called on the format to determine whether the briefing and interventions would be public. (In the case of Council decisions of a procedural nature as specified in Article 27(2) of the UN Charter, just nine affirmative votes are needed for the adoption and the veto does not apply.) At press time, it was unclear whether this would be the case, or whether the format would be sorted out among Council members prior to the briefing.
Council members will want to hear Feltman’s assessment of the near collapse of the UN-mediated political talks in April, subsequent to an unravelling of the cessation of hostilities. In Aleppo, government forces, supported by Russian air power and the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah, resumed targeting armed rebel groups fighting in coordination with Al Nusra Front, which is not a party to the cessation of hostilities. In other areas, such as government-controlled Latakia and rebel-held Eastern Ghouta outside of Damascus, Russia and the US have declared a so-called “regime of calm” to try and shore up the failing cessation of hostilities. Council members will be interested in more clarity about what a “regime of calm” involves. It appears to be even more tenuous than the cessation of hostilities, being limited to short time periods and specific locations within larger identified areas.
Even with the limited nature of a “regime of calm”, reaching such an arrangement for Aleppo has proven challenging despite a flurry of diplomatic activity between Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Yesterday, Moscow said a “regime of calm” for Aleppo could be announced within hours and that there was agreement to set up a joint centre in Geneva to monitor violations and coordinate responses. However, Russia’s pronouncements seemed markedly more positive that those made by the US. Kerry said there would be repercussions for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad if the cessation of hostilities is not restored, and that the US would take a different tack in its approach to Syria if a political transition has not begun by August, in line with resolution 2254. At press time, the US announced agreement had been reached with Russia on extending the truce to Aleppo, despite ongoing clashes there. Council members will want to know more about the details of this agreement, in particular what it might mean for any rebel groups that operate near Al Nusra Front.
Some Council members will be interested in whether there are any preliminary plans for another round of political talks in May, though there is broad recognition that if fighting in Aleppo cannot be controlled it will be difficult for UN mediation between the government and the opposition to resume. When de Mistura briefed Council members on 27 April, he was clear that the situation was grim and the cessation of hostilities was on the cusp of falling apart. On a political solution, he said that the parties agreed on the need for a “transition” but remained far apart on how to achieve it. The government proposed a national unity government, but explicitly rejected the opposition’s position to form a transitional governing body with full executive powers (in line with the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué) and insisted that Assad’s presidency was not subject to negotiation. De Mistura was slated to brief Council members again this week, but with the political process in limbo, the briefing has been postponed.
Regarding the humanitarian situation, many Council members are of the view that ongoing indiscriminate attacks, the slow-down in aid delivery, the continued removal of medical supplies from convoys by government forces and the lack of access to besieged suburbs of Damascus, particularly government-besieged Darraya, undermined political efforts in Geneva. Regarding Aleppo, Council members expect that O’Brien will convey that the fighting there has placed it on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe and has led to new waves of displacement. He is expected to reiterate the warnings from his 28 April briefing to the Council that the situation will only spiral further out of control if the international community is unable to maintain political momentum, if it can’t compel the parties to comply with the cessation of hostilities, and if it fails to press for full humanitarian access.
It is unclear whether the lack of consensus between Russia and the US in Council-related activity 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. However, tensions have flared over Russia’s recent uptick of air operations and redeployments of artillery units near Aleppo, and provisional planning by the US to provide anti-aircraft weaponry to the opposition and the rhetoric about “repercussions” in the event that the cessation of hostilities collapses.
The disagreement among Council members over the format of today’s meeting reflects divisions about how members view the Council’s role in addressing the Syrian crisis and the formulation of political messaging from the Council. There is a palpable sense of frustration among many elected members over spending time and energy deciding questions of format versus grappling with the substantial issues at hand. The day-to-day oversight of forging a political solution to the Syrian crisis has been outsourced to the International Syria Support Group broadly, and P5 members Russia and the US specifically, and has intentionally left very little space for the Council to bring new thinking or energy to help resolve the situation.