A consensus has formed among the great powers about the desired next steps in Syria — a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and political negotiations for a government transition, all led by Kofi Annan as the Envoy of the UN and Arab League.
Perhaps because of continuing ambivalence from Russia and China, the UN Security Council adopted its new position in a “Presidential Statement” agreed unanimously by the UNSC members but simply read as a statement by the UNSC president. It is weaker than a regular, numbered resolution, partly because it is not binding the way resolutions are. However, it does still show the parameters on which the great powers agree. As such, it is an overdue step in the right direction (and indeed just what I called for last week, although a regular resolution would have been better). Today UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon emphasized the Security Council’s unity and strong backing of the Annan plan.
Russia came around to supporting this position, watered down from earlier proposals that would have explicitly called for Syrian president Assad to step down, after the head of the international Red Cross went to Moscow to ask for help with the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria. Russia came out first in support of a daily two-hour cease-fire to allow for provision of humanitarian aid in areas of fighting. Later Russia expanded its support to include a cease-fire initiated by the government and followed by the opposition, instead of insisting on all sides’ ceasing simultaneously. The Security Council statement also calls for a transition to a more democratic government in Syria, which Russia also agreed to after it was made clear that military intervention or forced regime change were not on the international community’s agenda.
However, the actual path forward to such a transition is extremely challenging. It is widely assumed that a relaxation of violent repression by the Assad government would lead to an upsurge in opposition protests, and probably violent opposition as well. The situation also became more complex as three recent bombings (two in Damascus) appear to have been the work of al-Qaeda type Islamic militants, perhaps from next-door Iraq.
Notwithstanding all the problems, the UNSC statement represents a significant step forward. It “fully supports” a six-point Annan plan:
“1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;
“2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country.
To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.
As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.
Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;
“3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level.
“4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organising access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;
‘5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;
‘6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.
“The Security Council calls upon the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal.
“The Security Council requests the Envoy to update the Council regularly and in a timely manner on the progress of his mission. In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate.”
One further step that the Council should consider is to pass a regular numbered resolution along the same lines. But the important point for now is that the great powers are on the same side in terms of the next steps. That’s a glimmer of hope among the dark clouds of continuing violence.