posted on Mon 30 Jan 2017 5:28 PM
Syria: Consultations on the Upcoming Geneva Talks

Tomorrow (31 January), Council members will be briefed by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in consultations on the UN’s next steps towards the goal of reaching a political settlement on Syria. The intra-Syrian Geneva talks had originally been scheduled for 8 February but it seems likely that they may be postponed to later in the month. At press time, Russia had circulated a draft press statement welcoming the international meeting on Syria held in Astana on 23-24 January, but it was unclear if all Council members were ready to agree on it.

At the conclusion of the Astana meeting, Turkey and Russia, joined by Iran, signed a joint communiqué deciding to establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, to prevent any provocations and to determine all modalities of the ceasefire. Council members might want additional information from de Mistura about the work that these three countries have been carrying out to ensure respect of the ceasefire, and whether the UN would be willing to contribute to their work to ensure the operationalisation and independence of the mechanism.

Ahead of the Astana meeting, it was apparent that the government and opposition had differing objectives. The opposition’s platform was to consolidate the ceasefire, to get humanitarian aid flowing to besieged areas and to seek the release of detainees from government prisons. The government viewed the talks as an opportunity to consolidate the ceasefire by seeking the separation of rebel groups from cooperation with Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is excluded from the terms of the ceasefire as it is a Security Council-designated terrorist group. It further wanted to lay the groundwork for more “local reconciliation” deals with armed groups, which are generally seen by the opposition as surrender agreements after years of government bombardment and siege of rebel-held areas. For example, the most recent “local reconciliation” deal was concluded on 28 January when the government established control over Wadi Barada north of Damascus and opposition fighters and their families were evacuated to Idlib, the same governorate where most armed opposition fighters from previous deals have been forced to relocate.

Council members will be interested in de Mistura’s assessment of whether ceasefire violations, such as government offensives against the remaining rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, have had any negative consequences on the preparations for the Geneva talks. Similarly, Council members will be curious about the impact of increased infighting among armed groups in Idlib, as shown recently by attacks against Ahrar al-Sham by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, on the sustainability of the ceasefire and the next round of talks in Geneva.

Given the fact that the joint communiqué presents the Astana format as “an effective platform for a direct dialogue between the government and the opposition” and that the signatories resolved to actively cooperate within this framework, Council members may ask de Mistura about the impact of the Astana format on the UN-facilitated intra-Syrian talks which are guided by the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Ahead of the Astana meeting, several Council members had expressed concerns about the risk of having a parallel political process if there was not adequate coordination with the UN’s mediation efforts. These fears have not subsided following Russia’s attempt to use the Astana platform to discuss a draft constitution for Syria, especially since such a discussion at this juncture would bypass the call in both the Geneva Communiqué and resolution 2254 for transitional political arrangements to be in place prior to drafting a new constitution. Some Council members may want to ensure that this sequence is respected before supporting the draft press statement proposed by Russia.

Council members may be interested in discussing the linkages between the mostly military opposition actors who participated at the meeting in Astana and the largely political actors who may be invited to the Geneva talks. The joint communiqué supported the request by armed opposition groups wishing to participate in the upcoming Geneva talks. Although Russia opposed direct participation by armed opposition groups in earlier rounds of Geneva talks, some of these groups ended up attending on the sidelines and their participation in February may not be particularly contentious.