What's In Blue

Syria: Meetings Focused on Aleppo

On Monday (8 August), France, New Zealand, the US, the UK and Ukraine have organised an open Arria-formula meeting on the siege of Aleppo. This public meeting will be followed the next day by private consultations on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria, with briefings by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and OCHA head Stephen O’Brien. Most Council members anticipate that the consultations will also focus on Aleppo.

Political Briefing
The last time de Mistura briefed Council members on 29 June, he reported that the chances of resuming political talks were remote in the absence of a common vision shared by Russia and the US. He said that his office would work on bridging proposals, to bring the parties closer together on the issue of political transition. It seems that these bridging proposals may attempt to address some of the obstacles that have stymied intra-Syrian talks to date: how to devolve power from the presidency to a new government, in particular control over the security and intelligence apparatuses, and whether a political transition is more feasible through the formation of a new transitional governing body or a unity government. On 26 July, following a meeting with Russian and US officials, de Mistura announced the possible resumption of intra-Syrian talks in late August. He added that agreement between Russia and the US on military cooperation was not a pre-condition for resuming talks, but that such agreement would create a “positive environment surrounding the talks.”

However, Council members are unsure whether de Mistura will have much to report on Tuesday in terms of positive developments towards the resumption of talks, in light of the fight for Aleppo and the difficulties between Russia and the US over the issue of military cooperation. De Mistura’s deputy, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, reported on 4 August that not much had been accomplished in July to get the talks back on track, largely due to the intensification of the military activities.

After months of intensified air strikes against rebel-held Aleppo, government forces and allied militias—backed by Russian air strikes—took control of Castello Road on 17 July, severing the opposition’s final supply route into eastern Aleppo. OCHA announced that this development left an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 civilians “closer to the line of fire and at risk of besiegement”.

Shelling and attacks against government-held areas of Aleppo, including a tunnel bomb under government installations, have also increased. A major counter-offensive was launched by opposition forces on 31 July to break the siege and open a route to eastern Aleppo by fighting through densely populated southern areas of the city. Against this grim backdrop, Council members believe the prospects of resuming the intra-Syrian political process in late August are dim. The fight for Aleppo seems to have affected progress in the bi-lateral negotiations between Russia and the US on military cooperation in Syria against Security Council designated terrorist group Al-Nusra Front (now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front after severing its organisational ties with Al Qaeda on 29 July). The US had proposed military cooperation with Russia in exchange for a renewed nationwide cessation of hostilities and a formula for a political transition—the chances of which now seem remote.

Humanitarian Briefing

Most Council members expect that O’Brien will report that the encirclement of eastern rebel-held Aleppo puts it at risk of becoming another besieged area, and by far the largest in Syria. On 25 July, when briefing the Council, he called for a weekly 48-hour pause in fighting to allow humanitarian aid to reach eastern Aleppo. In press comments following the 25 July humanitarian briefing, Japan, as president of the Council, said that there was overwhelming support among Council members for O’Brien’s call for a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting in eastern Aleppo. However, Council members were unable to agree on a statement to this effect, given the direct role Russia plays in supporting the government offensive.

On Tuesday, Council members will want an update from O’Brien on the status of the discussions between Russia and the UN on Russia’s unilateral 28 July proposal to open “humanitarian corridors” for civilians and rebels to leave Aleppo. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, said the government’s advance on Aleppo jeopardised political talks, and condemned Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors, characterising it as a euphemism for forced displacement. The same day that Russia announced its initiative for humanitarian corridors, O’Brien released a statement noting he was aware of the proposal and the critical need for the security of any such corridors to be guaranteed by all parties. The statement added that people should be able to use such corridors voluntarily, and that no one should be forced to flee by any specific route or to any particular location. It reiterated that international humanitarian law required humanitarian access for people to leave and for aid to come in. He reiterated his call for weekly 48-hour humanitarian pauses.

On 29 July, Russia wrote to the Secretary-General on this issue. On 3 August, the Secretary-General responded with a letter outlining conditions that needed to be met for UN humanitarian agencies to possibly be involved with “humanitarian corridors” in Aleppo. It seems the letter included many of the points that OCHA had already publicly announced regarding the need to ensure the humanitarian nature of such corridors, as well as detailing operational and protection considerations that need to be present for the UN to be willing to engage—in particular concerns regarding detention. It seems that the discussions over possible humanitarian corridors are also very much dependent upon agreement on implementing a 48-hour pause in fighting – something that most Council members are skeptical will happen with any immediacy, though some members maintain that it is possible that ongoing negotiations between Russia, the US and the UN on these issues may lead to a breakthrough.

Unlike previous months, when the situation in Aleppo received a great deal of attention from Council members, the government’s retaking of Castello Road in July did not garner any significant Council attention. Most Council members believe this silence was in deference to the ongoing bilateral negotiations between Russia and the US. Now, three weeks after rebel-held Aleppo was encircled by the government and its allies, Council members will finally discuss the situation. However, any outcome from the Council regarding Aleppo seems unlikely in the absence of Russian and US agreement outside of the Council.

Arria-Formula Meeting

At the open Arria-Formula meeting on Monday, Council members will hear from three civil society speakers with intimate, on-the-ground knowledge of the situation in Aleppo. White Helmet representative Khaled Harah will brief via Skype from Aleppo—his organisation rescues civilians trapped or injured by the conflict. Dr. Zaher Sahloul and Dr. Samer Attar, who work with the Syrian American Medical Society and have recently returned from Aleppo, will speak about the deteriorating medical crisis the city is facing. CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward has also recently returned from Aleppo, and will provide her analysis of the fight for Aleppo and what it could mean for the trajectory of the Syrian civil war.

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