Syria: Consultations on the Sixth Round of the Geneva Talks
On Monday (22 May), Council members are expected to be briefed by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura via video-teleconference on the sixth round of the intra-Syrian talks held 16-19 May in Geneva.
Council members will be interested in hearing de Mistura’s assessment of the proximity talks, and of progress made in the four baskets in the agenda (governance; constitutional issues; elections; and counter-terrorism, security and confidence-building measures). Of particular interest to Council members will be de Mistura’s initiative to establish a technical process of expert meetings to address constitutional and legal issues in the context of the intra-Syrian talks and the parties’ engagement in this process that began on 18 May. Additionally, Council members might ask about de Mistura’s efforts to get the delegations of the Cairo and Moscow platforms to join the opposition delegation announced on 11 February for these expert meetings, and the challenges he and his team encountered.
Council members are expected to ask de Mistura about dynamics on the ground, particularly government offensives on strategic locations adjacent to eastern Ghouta near Damascus that have resulted in the besiegement and forced displacement of thousands of civilians in Barzeh, Qaboun and Tishrin towns this month.
De Mistura has stressed the division of labour between talks in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan, and some Council members may ask him how this works in practice. Council members will probably want to hear his assessment of the preparations for the establishment of four de-escalation areas and security zones in Syria as defined by the ceasefire guarantors (Iran, Russia and Turkey) in a memorandum agreed to in Astana on 4 May. The memorandum established four such areas with the stated aim of ending violence, improving the humanitarian situation and creating favourable conditions to advance a political settlement. According to the memorandum, security zones are to be established along the lines of the de-escalation areas in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the parties.
Russia circulated a draft resolution on 5 May that would welcome this memorandum and call on all member states to contribute in good faith to its implementation. Several member states said they needed time to consult with capitals and required further information in order to make a decision on the draft. So far there has been no discussion of the draft resolution. Japan and Sweden proposed holding an informal interactive dialogue with the guarantors, but have not received a positive response from them so far.
As this will be the first opportunity for Council members to discuss the implementation of the memorandum, Council members may ask Russia about the efforts of the guarantor countries to ensure the parties’ respect for the de-escalation areas. Council members are expected to have a number of questions regarding the monitoring of these areas, particularly the role of the guarantors in the security zones protecting the de-escalation areas. In a 4 May statement, the US State Department expressed its concern regarding the role of Iran as a guarantor. Particularly critical for the US is Iran’s potential presence in the areas bordering the territories of the Golan Heights (Al-Quneitra province) disputed by Israel and Syria, as well as on the border with Jordan. On 18 May, the US conducted an airstrike on an Iranian-backed military convoy that had ignored warning signals and was nearing a base close to the Jordanian border where the US trains Syrian opposition groups.
Council members are also expected to ask for more clarity on the process by which the de-escalation areas will be delineated by a Joint Working Group of guarantor representatives. The memorandum states that third parties could be deployed, if there is consensus among the guarantors, but Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem of Syria has already rejected a role for the UN or other international forces in monitoring the agreement.
As with the nationwide ceasefire brokered in December 2016, groups affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Al-Nusra Front (namely Tahrir al-Sham) are not covered by the terms of the ceasefire. Council members may be interested in how the guarantors are planning to separate Tahrir al-Sham (which has a presence in all four areas) from opposition armed groups protected under the memorandum.