Why you should not be impressed with the Security Council’s latest effort
by Marie Baleo
Five years have passed since the Syrian war began. Five years and several other numbers so high they sound almost abstract: 250,000 dead, 1 million wounded, 11 million displaced. These five years of a protracted conflict are the closest thing to a global war the 21st century has seen. Iran, Iraq, and most prominently now Russia, have long supported Bashar al Assad’s immoveable regime, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, also supported by Iran, has been fighting alongside the Syrian Army. The United States started bombing Daesh positions in 2014, as did France in the fall of 2015. Ultimately, though technically a Civil war, the Syrian conflict now involves, thanks to complex regional and political alliances and religious affiliations, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and many more.
As involved parties step further and further into the Syrian quagmire, and the situation grows more dire by the day for Syrian civilians, prospects of a political solution remain, thus far, quite elusive. In 2014, a United Nations report verified what eyewitness accounts had suggested for a while: that chemical weapons, including Sarin and mustard gas, had been used at least twice since the beginning of the conflict against opposition-controlled areas.
Still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Europe faced the full breadth of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, while Russia’s military intervention in Syria captured the public’s attention. In November 2015, the Paris attacks finished proving just how far beyond its borders the Syrian conflict could spill. While the deaths and displacement of thousands of Syrians failed to spark the necessary will to put an end to the conflict, this combination of events definitely did. The product of the Vienna process, a United Nations Security Council Resolution was adopted on 18 December 2015. What is Resolution 2554, and what are its chances of leading to a successful peace process?
Firstly, Resolution 2254 calls for the Syrian government and the opposition to begin negotiating a political transition process later this month. Secondly, it calls for to the establishment, within the next six months, of “inclusive and non-sectarian governance”, which will be involved in drafting a new constitution. Eager to downplay foreign meddling, the Resolution stresses that all this should, of course, be a “Syrian-led political process”. Most importantly, 2254 provides for UN-supervised free and fair elections within the next 18 months. With 4.4 million displaced Syrians currently abroad, the UN stresses the necessity for members of the diaspora to be able to vote.
But most importantly, 2254 provides for a nationwide ceasefire, “to come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards a political transition under UN auspices”. Expectations are high for a ceasefire that may eventually help put an end to the bloodbath that has forced so many desperate Syrian families to board shoddy dinghies to Europe.
Speaking at the United Nations Security Council Meeting on Syria on 18 December 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the resolution “is a milestone because it sets out specific concepts with specific timeframes”. And indeed, with its clear, determined wording and its precise, ambitious timeline, what’s not to like about 2254?
A faulty, timid resolution
2254 is filled with gaping holes where clear, determined statements should be. Those who have bothered reading the resolution immediately pointed at at the elephant in the room: the absence of any mention of Bashar al Assad’s fate. The Resolution remains completely silent on the role, if any, the infamous leader should play in the upcoming political transition process.
The question of Assad’s future is perhaps the deepest of several fault lines running between all concerned parties, especially between the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. While Russia and Iran favor shared power in a transitional government and elections that could very well include Assad, the US and Saudi Arabia have made it abundantly clear they want to see the Syrian president go. At the Security Council Meeting of 18 December, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that “President Assad, in our judgment – and not everybody shares this – but the majority of the people in the ISSG believe that President Assad has lost the ability, the credibility, to be able to unite the country and to provide the moral credibility to be able to govern it into the future.” Apparently, Assad’s future is so contentious that the issue had to be set aside for negotiations to even be considered, an omission which fundamentally weakens the Resolution.
Further, 2254 calls for Member States to “prevent and suppress” terrorist acts committed by Daesh and Al Nusra as well as “other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the ISSG and determined by the Security Council”. The ceasefire provided for by the resolution will consequently exclude the terrorist groups mentioned in the list. But the content of this list, which Jordan was tasked with compiling, remains highly disputed. While the presence of Daesh and al Nusra on the list is accepted by all parties, the same is not true of the myriad rebel groups that have sprouted since the onset of the Syrian war. In The Guardian, Julian Borger writes:
“Any ceasefire and any eventual peace agreement will at best apply to those areas of western and northern Syria currently controlled by the regime or non-Daesh rebels. It is unclear what will happen in regions under the sway of a mix of rebel groups, including “acceptable” forces in alliance with al-Nusrah. The UN monitoring of a ceasefire and any eventual elections in such a fragile environment would be very hazardous affair.
And then there is perhaps an even larger issue – what the New York Times referred to as Russia’s “impunity” in Syria. It is an ill-kept secret that Russia has been dropping bombs on rebel groups which the United States and Europe officially support.
There is a substantial possibility that by carrying out controversial bombing of civilians throughout Syria, Russia has already violated item 13 of the Resolution, which demands the end of all attacks on civilians, including medical facilities and personnel. Russian media, however, are adamant in their assertion that Russian warplanes never “hit civilian targets during (their) terrorism campaign in Syria”,and laud the liberation of Daesh-controlled areas throughout the country, including in symbolic IS-stronghold Raqqa. But the BBC reports the death of dozens of civilians as Russian planes dropped bombs on residential and commercial areas and official buildings in the city of Idlib. How could Resolution 2254 ever hope to be successful when it is so blatantly disrespected?
Overall, the wording of the resolution might seem satisfactory, but by choosing realism over courage, the text jeopardizes its very own chances at success. Enforcement of the resolution also raises some serious practical concerns: it’s hard to imagine how exactly the Security Council intends on ensuring the enforcement of a ceasefire or the holding of free and fair elections in the large areas controlled by Daesh or al Nusra-affiliated groups. It’s also hard to imagine that the Security Council wouldn’t be aware of this. It is therefore only natural to question the actual will behind the resolution. 2254 shows a semblance of action and resolve on behalf of the West. But how could it do more, when the powers that produced it still have an interest in fueling the conflict?