posted on Tue 7 Mar 2017 3:33 PM
Syria: Consultations on the Geneva Talks

Tomorrow afternoon, Council members will be briefed by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura on the fourth round of the intra-Syrian talks held between 23 February and 3 March. Council members will be interested in hearing de Mistura’s assessment of the talks, and his plans for the next round, which is scheduled for the end of March.

By the end of this most recent round, it seems that de Mistura had convinced the Syrian government and three opposition delegations to discuss the formation of a transitional government, which would draft a new constitution and hold elections. Ahead of the talks, he had repeatedly stressed that the agenda for the Geneva talks is resolution 2254, which provides for the establishment of credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance in Syria, and sets a timeline and process for drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair elections within 18 months. At the talks, de Mistura proposed discussing these three issues in parallel as part of three “baskets”: governance, constitution, and elections. The Syrian government insisted that counter-terrorism should be included as a fourth “basket”. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), a Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, initially refused the inclusion of a fourth “basket”, fearing that this would be used by the Syrian government to sideline discussions about a political transition, but were able to agree after de Mistura proposed that this “basket” tackle other security-related issues and medium-term confidence-building measures along with counter-terrorism.

Council members might be interested in hearing of de Mistura’s efforts to ensure that tensions over the format of the talks, particularly the absence of one collective opposition delegation, did not derail the talks even before they started. On 11 February, the HNC announced a 21-member unified opposition delegation comprising representatives of political and armed groups, as well as one representative each from the opposition groups based in Cairo and Moscow (which are tolerated by the Syrian government). However, the Cairo and Moscow opposition groups did not attend as part of the HNC delegation, but participated separately in the talks. De Mistura, who met separately with the HNC and the two other opposition groups, conveyed the desire of the Syrian government that there be just one opposition delegation. Council members might want to hear about the steps de Mistura plans to take in the coming weeks to bring the opposition groups closer together. This may be particularly important in the light of Syrian government statements that for the next round to succeed they need a unified opposition.

Council members may be interested in discussing the efforts to establish a mechanism to monitor the nationwide ceasefire, brokered by Russia and Turkey, which started on 30 December 2016. Following 23-24 January talks in Astana, 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. The three countries held a technical meeting in Astana on 6 February to establish the mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, with the participation of the US and Jordan, as well as the UN in an advisory role. A second meeting on 16 February also included representatives of the Syrian government and opposition groups. Now with a meeting planned for 14-15 March in Astana, Council members may want to inquire about the working methods of this joint group, and whether there are provisions to ensure accountability for ceasefire violations, They may also ask what influence the guarantor countries have over the parties, particularly given the persistence of government airstrikes against rebel-held areas, including in the vicinity of Damascus, despite a formal request by Russia to the government of Syria to “silence the skies” in the areas covered by the ceasefire during the Geneva talks.

In a press conference following the adjournment of the Geneva talks, de Mistura expressed UN support for the Astana efforts and the expectation that the talks will address issues related to the maintenance of the ceasefire, immediate confidence-building measures and operational counter-terrorism issues.

Finally, Council members might inquire about de Mistura’s efforts to get the parties to agree to a 12-point memorandum, building on a similar proposal discussed in 2016, in order to establish common ground ahead of the next round of the Geneva talks.