On 22 February, after almost 3 years after the start of the Syrian revolution and 66 000 civilian deaths, the United Nations Security Council managed to adopt a resolution on the conflict – Resolution 2139.
This did not come as a total surprise, since the preceding week had seen two resolutions put forward – one proposed by Australia, Luxemburg, and Jordan; and a second by Russia. The Russian resolution was a mixed bag – in several respects it was tougher than might have been expected, taking over much of the Australian text, despite Russian bluster to the contrary. It called for an end to “the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law irrespective of where they come from”, an end to torture and the release of detainees, stressed the need to “end impunity” for violations of international humanitarian law” (while leaving open who exactly deserved to be punished), and called for a political solution through the implementation of the Geneva Communique.. It consistently refused to clearly identify the Syrian regime as responsible for any of these wrongdoings, but in many cases it was impossible to interpret the text as anything but a sharp critique of the Asad regime’s conduct. The place where Russia’s historic sympathies came to the fore was in the provisions for implementation – there simply weren’t any.
The similarities between the two drafts opened up the possibility of an agreed text – which is what eventually happened.
So what was given and what was taken in the process? A number of minor concessions were made to the Russian position in order to achieve consensus –however the only major one was in the provision for enforcement of the resolution (see below).
In the event most of the Australian text survives and the resolution is quite strong in its assertions and demands. Thus the preamble,
“Strongly condemns the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities, as well as the human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by armed groups”
And expresses “grave alarm at the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, in particular the dire situation of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in besieged areas, most of whom are besieged by the Syrian armed forces and some by opposition groups.”
Its operative paragraphs go on to demand
An end to all forms of violence and all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law
An end to all attacks against civilians “including shelling and bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs”
all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas,[listing by name five areas under siege by the regime and two allegedly by opposition forces]
That all parties in particular the Syrian authorities allow unhindered humanitarian access across conflict lines and across borders
An immediate end to the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians in prisons and detention facilities along with an end to kidnappings and abductions, along with the “immediate release of all detainees , starting with women and children”
(I have italicised phrases above that explicitly target the regime.)
The resolution’s treatment of two other areas– terrorism and the provisions for enforcement- are also noteworthy.
The Regime’s Geneva II strategy: death and burial
Terrorism was the centrepiece of the Syrian government’s strategy for Geneva II, where they tried to sidestep the political issues by insisting that “terrorism” had to be addressed before all else. That approach is rejected in Resolution 2139: it is the humanitarian issues that feature most prominently, with “ terrorism” well down the agenda. Moreover the condemnation of terrorism is focused on “organizations and individuals associated with Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist groups,” thus disrupting the regime contention that all its armed opponents are “terrorists”. In addition, the text retains a crucial phrase from the Australian draft, urging “the opposition groups to maintain their rejection of these organizations and individuals which are responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law in opposition held areas,” This more or less destroys the regime narrative, which tries to portray itself as a unique barrier between terrorist forces and the civilized world.
As far as enforcement is concerned, gone is the Australian resolution’s threat of automatic sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter (“measures not involving the use of armed force”) in the event of non-compliance, and the time frame is looser, but the resolution is time bound – the Secretary General is to report back to the Security Council every 30 days on its implementation – and in the event of non-compliance the Resolution “expresses its intent to take further steps”.
What difference will it make?
One effect of the Resolution, informal but important, will be to shift the relationship between the Syrian government and the UN agencies. The latter have shown increasing signs of frustration with the regime’s obstructive behaviour but have been forced by UN protocols to keep their concerns under wraps and go along with a façade of “cooperation” with the Syrian authorities. Resolution 1239 now not only provides the agencies with a channel for expressing their grievances but places them under an obligation to do so, as part of the Secretary General’s monitoring process. So regime abuses are going to become much more transparent, and the agencies are going to acquire increased leverage.
Thus, when the Syrian situation comes back to the security council on 24 March, it seems certain that there will be a substantial catalogue of non-compliance by the regime for it to consider. True, the regime agreed to lift the siege on the Palestinian Yarmouk district and admit UNWRA relief supplies, but it seems now to have reimposed its blockade. Moreover it is in the midst of a major offensive against the city of Yabroud with the support of a large force of Hezbollah fighters, which hardly seems in the spirit of Resolution 2139, even in the best of circumstances. And we have a reported massacre of civilians trying to flee the town of Otayba. Altogether, since the adoption of Resolution 2139 over 400 civilians have died at the hands of the regime, more than half of them in aerial bombardments.
But the impact of Resoluton 2139 will not be determined by events at the UN, or even in Syria, but by the overarching crisis in the Ukraine.
The Ukrainian crisis has certainly diverted the Russian government’s attention away from Syria, but its impact is very uncertain. It could drive Russia to focus on its “near abroad” concerns, and cut its losses in Syria; or it could prompt Putin to seek revenge for what he sees as a western treachery in the Ukraine by withdrawing cooperation over Syria. My guess that it will do both – in the short run the Russians will probably harden their relations with the west and adopt an uncooperative stance at the next Security Council but in the longer run – either as part of an implicit bargain or as a more general effort to restore Russia’s international image – they could well move in the opposite direction. Only time will tell – unfortunately in Syria time is measured in barrel bombs and children’s bodies.