What's In Blue

Posted Tue 20 Sep 2016

High-Level Meeting on Syria

Tomorrow (21 September), Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief the Security Council on Syria at a high-level meeting. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, will preside over the meeting with several heads of government in attendance, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Syria has also asked to participate.

As recently as last week, tomorrow’s meeting was viewed as an opportunity for the Council to endorse the 9 September agreement between Russia and the US for a cessation of hostilities in Syria and to create momentum towards the resumption of political talks. However, reports of an airstrike by the US-led coalition that killed Syrian government forces in Deir ez-Zor on 17 September; Syria’s 19 September announcement that the cessation of hostilities had ended, immediately followed by renewed regime airstrikes against Aleppo, Deraa and Idlib; and yesterday’s airstrikes against a UN/Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) humanitarian convoy and a SARC warehouse have left Council members with the view that the cessation of hostilities is seriously compromised with ever-diminishing chances for a near-term political solution.

As their agreement frays, there has been palpable tension between Russia and the US in the Council over the past several days.

Last Friday (16 September)—when the cessation of hostilities was largely holding and Council members anticipated adopting a resolution to endorse the agreement—Russia and the US scheduled consultations to provide further details to Council members. Council members were aware via open sources that the agreement sought to create the conditions necessary for the resumption of political talks through a cessation of hostilities, the grounding of Syrian air assets, and humanitarian access, in exchange for greater counter-terrorism cooperation. Several Council members had indicated to Russia and the US that they needed a better understanding of the agreement if they were to adopt a resolution endorsing it. However, it seems Russia and the US disagreed about how much information to share, with the US wanting to keep the text secret and Russia wanting to make it public. As a result the consultations were cancelled at the last minute. At press time, no draft resolution had been circulated, nor were Council members expecting any immediate outcome after tomorrow’s meeting.

On Saturday evening (17 September), Russia requested emergency consultations regarding the US air strike in Deir ez-Zor. In comments to the media, Russia suggested that the US might have intentionally attacked Syrian government targets. The US stated that the strike had been meant for ISIL targets, and that it had ceased attacks once informed by Russia that the targets were thought to be Syrian military. The US had conveyed regrets to the Syrian government via Russia. It also said it was investigating the incident. The US dismissed Russia’s call for consultations as a stunt to draw attention away from the Syrian regime’s actions.

Earlier today, US President Barack Obama said in his General Assembly address that “the hard work of diplomacy” had to be pursued in Syria. In addition, some Council members have assessed that this morning’s meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in New York, co-chaired by Russia and the US, where there was agreement that it was imperative to continue to pursue a nationwide cessation of hostilities, has set the tone for tomorrow’s high-level event. While the Syrian government has declared the cessation of hostilities over, Russia and the US have yet to do so, and Council members will be interested in what further details Kerry and Lavrov will be able to provide on whether the cessation of hostilities can be re-established. It seems Kerry has requested to reconvene the ISSG later this week, which Council members view as indication that Russia and the US are attempting to salvage the agreement.

At press time, media reports indicated that the US had reached the preliminary conclusion that Russian jets carried out the attack against the UN/SARC humanitarian convoy and SARC warehouse. Russia has said neither it nor Syria carried out these airstrikes. Council members are uncertain about how these assertions would affect the briefing tomorrow and the next steps regarding the Syrian political negotiations.

It seems several member states expressed interest in widening the scope of tomorrow’s meeting to an open debate format so that more member states could publicly register their position on the Syrian crisis. However, in the end, a decision was taken to keep the participation limited to the briefers, Council members, and Syria under rule 37, which allows participation of a member state in Council meetings when the interest of that member is “specially affected”. However, it seems that if non-Security Council member states are directly criticised during Syria’s intervention then those member states may be permitted the right of reply under rule 37.

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