Syria: Briefing on Aleppo and a Draft Resolution in Blue
At the request of France and the UK, the Council will be briefed by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, OCHA head Stephen O’Brien and a representative from UNICEF on the situation in Aleppo tomorrow (30 November) morning. This meeting comes as the Syrian government continues its offensive to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which has led to ever more devastating consequences for civilians trapped in the city.
Meanwhile, Egypt, New Zealand and Spain, the penholders on humanitarian issues in Syria, put a draft resolution in blue today calling for a 10-day truce in Aleppo and for the cessation of hostilities to be resumed across the rest of the country in line with resolution 2268. While most Council members expect that this draft resolution will be referred to during tomorrow’s meeting, the timing of a possible vote has yet to be determined. Russia circulated proposed amendments to the draft text shortly after it had been put in blue. It seems China encouraged further consultations and efforts to achieve consensus following Russia’s proposals.
Separately, the P3 announced in today’s Syria chemical weapons consultations that they would soon circulate a draft resolution seeking to impose sanctions on Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own population. The timing for circulation of the draft and a possible vote remained unclear at press time.
A unilateral pause in hostilities in eastern Aleppo, announced by Russia on 18 October, was largely observed until 15 November, when the Syrian government and its allies renewed their offensive. Over the past several days the government has captured about a third of rebel-held territory with heavy fighting expected to continue in the most densely populated areas. Throughout the most recent offensive, the government has dropped leaflets warning civilians that they would be annihilated if they stay.
Today (29 November), OCHA reported that the assault has resulted in further displacement of 16,000 people from rebel-held Aleppo, with thousands more expected to flee. The area is without functioning hospitals and has almost exhausted its food stocks. No humanitarian aid has reached eastern Aleppo since July, when the government and Russia cut off the last supply routes into the city. There are currently 275,000 civilians besieged in eastern Aleppo, including 100,000 children, subject to incessant bombing by government forces in an assault backed by Russia and Shi’a militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. De Mistura has warned that the fall of eastern Aleppo could trigger an unprecedented humanitarian crisis if more than 200,000 people are forced to flee toward Turkey.
Council members expect that both O’Brien and de Mistura will update them on their efforts to get the government to agree to end attacks on eastern Aleppo and allow humanitarian aid to enter. O’Brien will most likely reiterate that the government has not agreed to the UN’s four-point plan for Aleppo, presented in mid-November. This plan would require an immediate end to all attacks to allow for critical medical evacuations, delivery of medical supplies, provision of food and other essential relief items, and the rotation of doctors to provide assistance to those in need.
Similarly, de Mistura is unlikely to report any significant gains as a result of his discussions with the government. De Mistura last met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on 21 November. In comments to the press, de Mistura reported that Mouallem denied any bombing of hospitals in eastern Aleppo, and that the government had yet to agree to a basic humanitarian plan for Aleppo. De Mistura’s “Aleppo initiative” will also probably be discussed tomorrow. The initiative would require an immediate and total halt to the bombing of eastern Aleppo followed by the evacuation of Al Nusra fighters. Furthermore, de Mistura has underscored the need to keep the local administration in eastern Aleppo intact, i.e. under opposition control. However, the government has flatly rejected this condition.
Some Council members, such as Russia and Venezuela, may ask de Mistura whether there has been any progress in his mediation efforts, given that the government has reportedly signaled that it is ready to resume political talks. Most Council members believe that de Mistura is unlikely to report any concrete options regarding a resumption of talks in light of the highly militarised environment. Several Council members are of the view that the government’s offensive in eastern Aleppo, which has continued almost uninterrupted since April, confirms the regime’s preference for prolonged armed conflict over a negotiated settlement. There is also broad recognition that if fighting in Syria cannot be controlled, particularly in Aleppo, it will be impossible for UN mediation between the government and the opposition to resume.
The draft resolution calling for a 10-day truce in Aleppo and for the cessation of hostilities to be resumed across the rest of the country is the humanitarian penholders’ attempt at a Council response to the situation in Aleppo. It also aims at establishing the minimum requirements to lower overall levels of violence and resume talks on a political transition.
This particular draft follows several attempts in October to address the military escalation in Aleppo: the veto cast by Russia on 8 October of a draft resolution demanding an end to military flights over Aleppo; the non-adoption on the same day of a competing Russian draft resolution on Aleppo, which only garnered four positive votes; and New Zealand’s attempt to have Council members agree to a resolution that sought to stop aerial bombardment, to get humanitarian aid flowing and to address the need to separate terrorist fighters from other armed opposition groups.
The key difference in this resolution from previous attempts is its provision that all attacks in Aleppo cease for a period of 10 days, including attacks against Security Council-designated terrorist groups Al Nusra and ISIL. It allows for the cessation of hostilities in the rest of the country to be implemented in line with resolution 2268, i.e. counter-terrorism operations could continue.
This draft resolution has been subject to two rounds of negotiations on 4 and 8 November and was further discussed under “any other business” following the Council’s humanitarian briefing on 21 November. An overwhelming number of Council members support this draft resolution. Russia, however, does not. It has repeatedly argued against a blanket prohibition on all attacks in Aleppo, citing concerns about the need to combat terrorists there. The draft in blue maintains the blanket prohibition on all attacks in Aleppo for a period of ten days, as the humanitarian penholders, the P3 and others have maintained that “counterterrorism” is used as an alibi by Russian and Syrian forces to justify targeting all opposition groups and civilians in eastern Aleppo. Nevertheless, since the first version of the draft was circulated the penholders have taken into account the need for armed opposition fighters to disassociate themselves from Al-Nusra and ISIL. The draft in blue includes a demand that armed opposition groups separate from Council-designated terrorist groups, but this demand does not supersede the call for an end to all attacks in Aleppo for 10 days. Russia’s proposed changes focus on the UN’s four-point plan for Aleppo, the same plan to which the Syrian government has yet to agree and places a condition on the plan by requiring the completion of armed groups disassociating themselves from Al Nusra prior to the plan’s implementation. In addition, the Russian changes would specifically allow counter-terrorism operations to continue in Aleppo.
The UNICEF representative is expected to stress the need to lift sieges and allow humanitarian access, given that the number of children living under siege has doubled in less than one year to 500,000, with 100,000 in eastern Aleppo alone. The effect of the bombing of schools and hospitals in Aleppo is also likely to be highlighted.
At press time, it was unclear to what extent the penholders of the humanitarian draft and the yet to be circulated sanctions draft are coordinating the timing of the possible votes, as a date for them has yet to be determined. While support is likely to be broad for both texts, most Council members are aware that that if the drafts are tabled for a vote then Russia might cast its sixth, and possibly seventh, veto(es) on Syria.
Russia and the US remain deadlocked over a diplomatic approach to resolve the crisis in Syria. Other Council members believe that this deadlock has become even more untenable and the situation has become even more urgent amidst signs that the conflict is escalating further. Adding to the uncertain climate are the results of the US presidential election and how that may modify America’s role in Syria in early 2017. Many Council members are in a “wait-and-see mode” about whether US foreign policy under the new administration will continue to support the Syrian opposition or whether it will pivot toward closer counter-terrorism cooperation with Russia. A senior Syrian military official recently stated to the media that its goal remained to retake Aleppo before the new US administration takes office on 20 January.
Post-script (8 December):The vote on the draft resolution tabled by Egypt, New Zealand, and Spain (S/2016/1026) was 11-3-1. Russia cast its sixth veto on a Syria draft resolution and China cast its fifth. Elected members Angola abstained and Venezuela voted against.