Labour’s Syria Policy: Now you see it, now you don’t

The policy of Labour’s front bench with regard to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria is a strange thing – most of the time it’s an echoing silence but occasionally it’s punctured by strange statements that those of us who follow the Syrian situation closely, and solidarise with the victims of the Assad dictatorship, struggle to make sense of.

We found ourselves in the latter situation once again last Monday (11 December) when Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, shocked Syria-watchers when she concluded a wide-ranging Parliamentary question to the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, with the following query:

Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria? If they will not accept that deal, will the Foreign Secretary tell us when it comes to the future of Syria, as on everything else that we have discussed today, what is his plan now?

Following Parliamentary convention, this is framed as a question rather than a statement, but an examination of the rest of Thornberry’s intervention shows that all her “questions” were vehicles for advancing positive policy proposals and implicitly criticising the Foreign Secretary. For example,

Turning to Yemen … While we welcome the talks, we are bound yet again to ask the question: what is the plan now? What is the plan to get the blockades fully lifted and enable full access for humanitarian relief? What is the plan to secure a ceasefire agreement and make progress towards long-term political solutions? And where is the plan for a new United Nations Security Council resolution, 14 months since the UK first circulated its draft?

Comparing  the structure of this passage and Thornberry’s Syria “question”, it is hardly surprising that most readers of the Syria statement would interpret it as advocacy of the “deal” she described; just as they would read the Yemen “question” as advocating a lifting of the blockade, and the other measures she referenced in that passage. (Thornberry herself assimilates her Syria question to the Yemen one when she says “as on everything else”).

However when she was challenged about her views in a letter sent to her jointly by Syria Solidarity UK and the Labour Campaign for International  Development she issued an aggressive denial insisting that she was only asking a question about Iranian intentions, and attacking one of the organisations (and why that one, we might ask), accusing them  of “wilful misrepresentation of the Parliamentary record”.

Well obviously the person best placed to know Thornberry’s intentions is Thornberry herself, and it’s good to have clarification that she does not endorse the policy she took the trouble to outline in the House of Commons. But some nagging questions remain.

First Syria UK and LCID were not the first people to “misrepresent” Thornberry’s question as advocacy. Moments after she posed the question Boris Johnson responded to it, interpreting it in exactly the same way:

… the right hon. Lady asked about the Astana process and whether it would be acceptable. Our view is that if there is to be a lasting peace in Syria that commands the support of all the people of that country, it is vital that we get the talks back to Geneva. I believe that that is the Labour party’s position. Indeed, I believe it was also the Labour party’s position that there could be no long-term future for Syria with President Assad. If that position has changed, I would be interested to hear about that.

Now I can see why Johnson might have been motivated to “wilfully misrepresent” Thornberry’s views (the motivation of SyriaUK and LCID are far less evident). But what I have difficulty understanding is why Thornberry allowed this “misrepresentation” to stand on the Parliamentary record not only at the time but for the subsequent four days without making any attempt to correct it.

For me, however, all this is a secondary problem. What I am puzzled by is where Thornberry’s unique knowledge of the Astana process has come from. She suggests that it has produced a formula for the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah from Syria – but no one else seems to have heard of this. I have scoured the published record of the Astana proceedings, and consulted academic specialists on Syria, but nowhere can I find any sign of this “deal”.

Astana – the Facts
The Astana process has involved eight different meetings, all them concerned with the details of crafting ceasefires and “de-confliction zones” (mostly observed in the breach). None of them has been overtly concerned with negotiating a political solution to the Syrian conflict.  And from the first to the last the Astana “guarantors” (Russia, Iran, Turkey) have always insisted thatthe Syrian conflict … can only be solved through a political process based on the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 2254 in its entirety.”. The statement of the Astana partners, made three weeks ago after a joint meeting in Sochi, confirmed this commitment to UNSC 2254 and:

underscored the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and emphasized the need for the Syrian parties to take confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees/abductees … to create better condition for political process and lasting ceasefire.

If we turn to UNSC 2254 we can see the process that it envisages as the road to a Syrian settlement:

… a Syrian-led political process that is facilitated by the United Nations and … establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate (UNSC 2254, para 4)

Perhaps Emily Thornberry’s advocacy skills would be better employed supporting this approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict (after all, supporting UN Security Council resolutions should be in the DNA of a left-led Labour Party).

Second time around
But let me note that we have been here before with Emily Thornberry. In October 2016, during the emergency House of Commons debate on the situation in Aleppo, Thornberry started out well with a robust denunciation of “the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime.” But she then moved on to advocate a plan to provide safe conduct out of the city for the alleged 900 Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham fighters, in order to “remove from the Russians and the Syrian forces their current pretext for the bombardment of east Aleppo”. Thornberry added “There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria”. In a Briefing document for the Parliamentary Labour Party, Thornberry clarified “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.”
However this account was completely erroneous. Neither of the two evacuations from Homs that Thornberry referred to involved Jabhat al Nusra, and the first (May 2014) did not involve combatants at all – it was an evacuation purely of civilians (who had been deprived of food and medicine for almost a year and were on the verge of starvation).It was in fact the first of a series of politico-ethnic cleansings that have been carried out by the Syrian regime, involving the forcible displacement of populations, illegal under international law, and in this context almost certainly a “Crime against Humanity”.

…And a third
To these two incidents I can add a third, personal, one. In October this year, after attending a meeting hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the House of Commons, I bumped in to Thornberry and had a brief conversation about Syria. She mentioned the importance of providing reconstruction aid once a political settlement was secured; I responded by suggesting that aid for reconstruction needed to be linked to demands that the Asad regime observe human rights norms, in particular the release of the large number of political detainees. Thornberry dissented strongly from this suggestion stating, as I recall, that it would be difficult to do and that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”.
I have no doubt that Thornberry is a compassionate person, so this remark can only have been born from a lack of knowledge and understanding: ignorance of the fact that political detainees in Syria number in the tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, imprisoned in terrible conditions and subject to torture and arbitrary executions; and ignorance of the fact that the “starving children” in the country are those forced to live under mediaeval sieges imposed by the regime.

Setting Labour Straight on Syria
These episodes indicate that the Labour front bench not only has a poor grasp of what is taking place in Syria, but that it appears to be dependent on very unreliable sources. They will continue to make these sorts of gaffes if they do not consult more widely on Syria. Again, this is not difficult to do: we have a wealth of expert knowledge on Syria in our Universities; we have active solidarity organisations of the sort who are listened to by Labour when they are linked to causes like Palestine; and we have a network of organisations based in the Syrian community involved in advocacy and humanitarian relief work which gives them a rich insight into the situation on the ground in Syria. To my knowledge the Labour front bench has never spoken to any of these organisations. Why?

Sources like this would be able to point out to Emily Thornberry that aid provided to Assad is far more likely to end up in the hands of his kleptocratic familial clique than benefitting “starving children” and be harnessed to their project of shoring up the regime through further ethno-political cleansing.

They would also be able to point out to her that while she was dictating the letter castigating her critics, while Jeremy Corbyn was voicing indignation about a miniscule leakage of aid funds to reactionary groups in Syria, 400,000 people in East Ghouta were facing starvation and systematic bombardment, and, according to the UN’s Jan Egeland, “495 people were on the priority lists for medical evacuations. That number is going down. Not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying.”

All of this in defiance of Astana, Geneva and the UN Security Council.


The Astana Conference – a step on the road to peace or another turn of the carousel?

In my last post I suggested that Russia was almost certainly looking for an exit strategy from the Syrian conflict, and that we might see moves in that direction once the situation in Aleppo had been resolved. This has been an element in Russia’s thinking for some time, but two recent events will have reinforced their sense of urgency in this respect.

Chaos in East Aleppo

The first was the embarrassing shambles that overtook Russia’s efforts to project a statesman-like management of the final surrender of East Aleppo. Russia took charge of this process through its Ministry of Defence’s Centre for Reconciliation and reached an agreement with the remaining armed opposition groups in East Aleppo that should have allowed an evacuation of both civilians and fighters to start on 14 December. However that agreement was disrupted when forces associated the Iranians suddenly imposed new conditions before they would allow the evacuation to begin. That resulted in Russia’s orderly conclusion becoming a chaotic and agonising waiting game, with sick and injured East Aleppo residents who had packed their belongings and left their homes, forced to sleep in the streets for days while this dispute being resolved.

Collapse in Palmyra

Concurrently with this embarrassing event came an even more traumatic one. While Russia and the regime’s attention was focused on Aleppo, ISIS mounted a major assault on the city of Palmyra, which Russia had liberated from ISIS control to great fanfare the previous year, and succeeded in capturing both the city and the adjoining airport in just 3 days.

Regime publicists tried to put a brave face on this defeat by claiming that the city had only a modest garrison of 1000 Syrian soldiers to defend it, and heavily outnumbered they had been forced to make tactical withdrawal. However it seems that the real story of Palmyra is rather different.

A Syrian army soldier serving with the Tiger Forces in Palmyra has provided a lengthy account of the battle, which in turn was picked up by French journalist, Stéphane Mantoux. According to this account the Syrian regime actually had a force of over 3000 stationed at Palmyra, which, Mantoux concludes, means that the defenders almost certainly outnumbered the attacking force.

The weakness of the regime garrison lay not in its numbers but in its fragmentation and low morale. It was composed of two regular army units (including one from the elite 11th Division), five separate militia groups (two attached to different regime intelligence services, including the famed “Tiger force” linked to Airforce Security), a contingent of Afghan Shia militia, and a substantial Russian ground force. At crucial points in the battle this unstable combination seems to have come apart: After ISIS exploded a large vehicle bomb the Afghans fled in disarray; then half the main Tiger Force group abandoned their position, complaining that they had not been paid for the five weeks.; and then the Russians decided to withdraw, blowing up the main ammunition dump before they left.

This messy debacle provided Russia with a clear object lesson in the vulnerability of the Syrian military, compounded by the involvement of their own troops.

c2qyrjtxcaabj8c-jpg-largeAn insiders view of the Palmyra debacle on Twitter

The Astana initiative

On 16 December Russia launched a new initiative in partnership with Turkey, which involved a ceasefire to begin on 30 December and a call to the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups to participate in a conference in the Kazakh capital, Astana. This initiative was communicated to the United Nations and endorsed in Security Council resolution 2336 on 31 December, and seven “moderate opposition” groups (the term used by the Russian Ministry of Defence) signed up to the ceasefire, which laid down the following obligations for both sides:

To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles, and to cease using combat air forces;

To refrain from seizing or seeking to seize territory occupied by other parties to the ceasefire; To use proportionate retaliatory force (only to the extent necessary for protection against an immediate threat) for self-defence purposes

Excluded from the ceasefire are ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) – the latter providing a loophole which the regime would exploit to circumvent the agreement.

Significantly, for the first time in any Russian move relating to Syria, the ceasefire regime actually contained an enforcement mechanism: Russia and Turkey were to act as “joint guarantors” of the ceasefire and a Commission established to oversee its implementation, including on the ground monitoring with “sanctions” in the event of violations.

On this basis, the Assad regime and 13 armed groups agreed to attend the Astana Conference, which took place on 23-24 January. (Ahrar al-Sham, the largest of the armed opposition groups, declined to participate, but indicated that it would consider anything agreed at Astana.).

fsa-at-astanaArmed opposition groups participating in the Astana Conference

Astana’s results

Despite inflated claims from Russia, it was never likely that anything of significance could be achieved over two days. Indeed, as Astana unfolded, its scope seemed to shrink: in the initial statements the conference was described as “negotiations on a political settlement, aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means”; but by the time the meeting took place on 23 January everyone was insisting that it had the more limited objective of “consolidating the ceasefire, a formula that was mutually convenient for both the regime and the opposition – for the regime because it has no interest in finding a “political solution”; for the opposition because, as a delegation of armed groups, they insisted that wider political matters were the concern of the High Negotiations committee established for the Geneva process. (Blocking the rather transparent Russian attempt to drive a wedge between the military and political wings of the Syrian opposition.)

As the talks began, it was announced that Iran would also take part in the policing of the ceasefire as part of a “trilateral mechanism”, although the document submitted to the UN which provided the basis the Conference had listed only Russia and Turkey in this role. The opposition delegation objected to this on the grounds that Iran was one of the principle combatants, but to no effect.

So what did Astana actually accomplish? The sponsors hailed it as a great success, with the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also enthusiastic at the outcome. But its only tangible product was a declaration issued by the three sponsors which reconfirmed what had already been agreed at the start, but with the addition of Iran to create a “tripartite” enforcement mechanism. There was nothing agreed to by either of the Syrian parties.

Astana in practice – breaches in Wadi Barada

The Astana ceasefire was actually being breached while it was  it was being declared. The regime had launched an offensive against the villages of the Wadi Barrada, which included the Ain al-Fijah spring that supplies water to several nearby towns and to Damascus city. Bashar al-Jaafari was questioned about this at his press conference in Astana and he made it clear that the regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire in this area, justifying it in terms of the strategic importance of the spring and the false allegation that Jabhat al-Nusra was present in the area. In the event the regime completed its military operation in Wadi Barada, capturing Ain al-Fijah and displacing 2000 local residents, all in clear violation of the conditions of the ceasefire. (Russia appears to have tried to mediate in this situation, but to no avail.)

However, the ceasefire seems to have been better observed elsewhere in the country. According to the Violations Documentation Center, in the five weeks since the commencement of the ceasefire 501 civilians were killed across Syria. by regime forces. That figure shows that the ceasefire was being seriously violated – but it is less than half the number of deaths in the equivalent period last year. Much of this was due to the fact that Russian bombing seems to have ceased over most of the county.

The Road ahead: The Ceasefire

So where does the ceasefire go from here? The monitoring regime has thus far been handled by Russia and Turkey, with Turkey reporting dozens of ceasefire violations, but no sign that anything has been done to redress them. The three sponsors of the ceasefire met again in Astana on 6 February to set up more formal mechanisms for its enforcement, but while de Mistura was invited to provide “advice” based on UN experience, they showed no sign of being prepared to accept UN monitoring.

The Road ahead: Political talks

The Syrian negotiations ball now moves back into the Geneva court. Talks were due to resume there on 8 February, but have been postponed until the 20th. Strangely the postponement was first announced by Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov and only later confirmed by de Mistura.

Russia has long sought to divide the Syrian political opposition and create an “opposition” that would follow its lead. As a result it now finds itself in a tangled situation in which it faces no fewer than six different “opposition” groupings  vying for a place at the Geneva table: three of these are its own creations ­ the “Astana opposition” (linked to Donald Trump’s son), the “Moscow opposition”, and the “Hmeimin opposition” (formed at a Russian airbase); two are groups it has flirted with at one time or another – the Cairo opposition and the Kurdish PYD; and, finally, there is the  High Negotiations Committee which Russia still wants  to undermine but which provided the key advisors to the armed opposition’s delegation at Astana.

Unable to sort all this out, the Russians have kicked it over to de Mistura, who in turn has passed it to the Syrians, with the threat that he will choose the opposition delegation for Geneva himself if they don’t sort it out by 8 February.

This does not bode well for Geneva III. But far more serious is the fact that there has been absolutely no movement towards the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Syria freely nor on the issue of the release of the tens of thousands of detainees held in Assad’s prisons

The Syrian opposition raised these issues at the Geneva II conference in 2014 and met a stone wall. It raised them again at Astana – providing a list of 30, 000 women and children held in regime prisons, with no result (although humanitarian aid is reported to be on the agenda of Astana II this week).These are the most elementary of “confidence building measures” without which no serious negotiations on peace in Syria can begin (they were  actually incorporated into UN Security Council Resolution 2254 over a year ago) ; yet no one – not the UN and de Mistura; not John Kerry back in the day; and not Russia now has been prepared to press the regime to move on these issues.

Russia’s plan for Syria

Russia’s core political strategy for Syria has been clear for some time – it wants to engineer a “national unity” government in which the opposition (or at least some opposition) will join the current government with Assad as President. For a long time it has sought to do this by using the stick of a military onslaught on opposition areas; it is now moving to dangle a carrot in front of the opposition. At Astana it unveiled a long-rumoured project- a Constitution that it has drafted as the basis for a settlement in Syria. The full text of this has not been published (and civil opposition groups have rightly rejected the idea of a Constitution orchestrated by an external power) but there have been some leaks of its content. What Russia seems to be proposing is a one-term limit for the President (which would allow Assad to remain in office until at least 2021), scaling down of some Presidential powers in favour of a new, bi-cameral legislature, some degree of decentralisation, and recognition of the cultural rights of the Kurds (but falling well short of the federalism sought by the PYD.)

These reforms seem little more than cosmetic. In Syria power isn’t rooted in institutional forms and doesn’t flow through constitutional channels, it is based on clan, clique and patronage networks built around the person of a President with dynastic legitimacy. Tinkering with constitutional forms does not change the structure of power in a “Mukhabarat state“in which the dominant political apparatus is the all-pervasive security services, unconstrained by democratic political structures or the “rule of law”.

But the immediate acid test here is the twin questions of ending the sieges and freeing the detainees. If Russia’s “tripartite” alliance (quadripartite if you include the UN) can’t deliver on those issues then it can’t deliver anything, and the whole Astana-Geneva process will turn out to be yet another turn of the carousel that has been spinning for the last five years at the expense of the people of Syria.

Syria: From bombardment to ceasefire and back

Personal circumstances have kept me away from this blog for almost two months and a lot has gone on while I’ve been away.

First, we saw a dramatic acceleration of Russian military activity in Syria, followed by a significant deceleration as a “cessation of hostilities” was proclaimed, starting on 27 February. To top it off we saw Putin announce the (partial) withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on 14 March.

Let’s examine each of these event in turn.

Russian intervention

The month between my previous post on 25 January and the “cessation of hostilities” saw almost 1000 civilian deaths (all figures here taken from the Violations Documentation Centre database). If we look at the Russian intervention overall (30 September 2015 to the start of the ceasefire) then what we see is a period of intense bombardment of civilian population centres (well documented in reports of attacks on hospitals and schools) accompanied by more effective targeting of opposition military forces. So the rate of killing of civilians edged up only slightly in the period, but the killing of armed opponents of the regime almost doubled. The role of air power in attacking civilian communities also grew sharply:(in the period prior to Russian intervention bombs accounted for 48% of civilian deaths, once the Russians arrived the figure rose to 65%; with Russian operations accounting for 60% of all bombing.)

The Ceasefire

Most commentaries on the ceasefire from the United Nations, western governments, and the western media, have hailed it as a major success. While it has resulted in a major reduction in the number of civilian casualties, and allowed civil groups in a whole series of towns and villages to return to the streets to call for the downfall of the regime, an inspection of the statistics tell a less uniformly optimistic picture. While civilian deaths have fallen by 60% since the ceasefire began (and deaths as a result of bombing have declined even more sharply) there are still are still running at almost 100 civilian deaths each week. Details of continuing regime attacks can be found here.

Russian Withdrawal

The announcement by Putin on 14 March that Russia was to begin a major withdrawal of its forces took the rest of the world by surprise.

While Putin accompanied the announcement with “mission accomplished” fanfare, few independent commentators took this seriously. As was widely pointed out, the Russians had managed to shore up Asad for the immediate future and strengthen his hand for the Geneva negotiations, but Russia’s prime objective for its intervention – the elimination of ISIS ­was still far from complete. Of course, in typical Putin fashion, after the announcement had been allowed to resound, the qualifications began – Russia was maintaining its airbase and core personnel in Latakia, and could resume operations on short notice; the Russian air defence system would remain in place; and Russian air support for Syrian operations against ISIS would-continue.

The question remains – why did Russia pull out so demonstratively? Was it some sort of a warning shot to the regime that if they did not fall in line with Russia’s diplomatic line, Russia could be less supportive? Perhaps, but if so it was a hollow gesture – Assad knows perfectly well that his allies cannot afford to have the regime fall militarily to anyone. Indeed, recent news has suggested that Russia may be increasing its flow of material support to the regime.

Russia’s Diplomacy

Something that has not been widely noted by Syria-watchers is the fact that Russia has been badly wrong-footed on the diplomatic front at almost every turn. As I’ve suggested previously, what Russia would like to see is a resolution (or at least winding down) of the Syrian conflict with the minimum of political change at the centre. Their strategic objective is the creation of a power-sharing government that would continue to be headed by Asad, but which would include some opposition representatives. This would have to receive some concessions to make it credible, but it would leave the basic structure of power intact. The current ceasefire is a “demonstration project” for this plan – designed to show opposition communities what life could be like if they dropped demands for Asad’s departure and went along with this sort of compromise. It seems that John Kerry, despite occasional bursts of anti-Asad rhetoric, has signed up to this approach as well.

But to implement this scheme Russia needs two things – an opposition that would be prepared to respond to these limited incentives, and a regime that would prepared to make some cosmetic (and perhaps a bit more than cosmetic) changes. Russia has failed to achieve either.

On the opposition issue, Russia had hoped to split the anti-Asad political opposition and assemble a pliable, credible opposition current that would sign up to their package. In fact, their manoeuvres had the opposite effect producing an unprecedented unification of the Syrian opposition – with the High Negotiating Committee including both the Syrian National Coalition and the bulk of the National Coordinating Committee (plus, for the first time, sections of the armed opposition). Russia has had to make do with a rump of fringe opposition groups headed by their glove puppet Qadri Jamil.

Similarly, their attempt to widen the list of “terrorist” organisations beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has drawn a blank (although that hasn’t prevented the regime form making up its own list.)

As far as the regime is concerned, they have refused to play ball, maintaining an intransigent position that is beginning to frustrate even Stefan de Mistura. In effect what we are seeing is a replay of the Geneva II negotiations – exactly what Russia and the US wanted to avoid.

The Negotiations thus far

These have been pretty much Geneva II déjà vu – the opposition puts forward wide- ranging and detailed plans; the regime simply offers a statement of abstract principles and ignores the opposition’s proposals. In an attempt to move beyond this deadlock de Mistura has published a list of what he diplomatically describes as “commonalities” – but beyond a couple of abstract points – they are nothing of the sort: they are basically opposition positions that he hopes he can get the regime to at least respond to. But I really can’t see the regime buying into this, for example:

  1. Syrians are committed to rebuilding a strong and unified national army, also through the disarmament and integration of members of armed groups supporting the transition and the new constitution. That professional army shall protect the borders and population of the State from external threats in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war. There shall be no intervention by foreign fighters on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile the regime continues to drag its feet over the “confidence building” measures that are meant to accompany the ceasefire. It has allowed limited relief supplies into many of the besieged areas (although it continues to refuse surgical materials to enter) – but denies the UN access to Douma and Darayya –two towns in the strongly oppositional belt close to Damascus that it is intent on crushing, ceasefire or no. And repeated demands for release of detainees – which the opposition has backed up by providing detailed lists, and which de Mistura has endorsed – have been met with a stony silence.

Russia’s consolation prize

Russia has however come away from the political and diplomatic process with one consolation prize – the PYD/YPG who exercise effective control over the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG has shifted its de facto alliance from the United States to Russia, coordinating its operations with the Russian air force to seize territory, in some cases from FSA forces. (For a good account of this see Michael Karadjis’s blog post– which I agree with in the essentials (but see my comment on the post at his site). The PYD has now established a Moscow office.

As a quid pro quo for this Russia made a few positive noises using the Syrian “F” word – Federalism, although these were promptly withdrawn once the PYD started to act on these assurances. I’m inclined to speculate that Russia is here using the PYD as a stick to wave at a recalcitrant Asad – while it can’t seriously threaten to withdraw support from the regime, it can suggest that if Asad is not more cooperative, Russia would consider backing a PYD-linked “federalism” for the north of the country. However, for the time being Russia’s Syrian protégés have adopted a position indistinguishable from that of the Syrian opposition.

The Geneva process is due to resume on 11 April – but the hopes for it are no brighter than when it opened. The best that we can expect is that the ceasefire can be spun out for as long as possible to give the Syrian people some respite from the terror that they have been subjected to by the regime and that when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the Russians may not be quite as enthusiastic in their military operations as previously.

Russia’s Double Game in Syria

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At the Conference Table: Russia’s Double Game

During the last two months we have witnessed two apparently contradictory sets of events – on the one hand the conclusion of the preparatory rounds of the Vienna peace process with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 on 18 December, incorporating what had been agreed in Vienna, and subsequent moves by the UN to implement it. On the other hand we have seen an accelerating series of Russian airstrikes against civilian populations in opposition controlled areas: in the period since the adoption of the UN resolution Russian bombs have killed over 500 civilians, 100 of them children (VDC database). That’s a larger number than those killed by Assad’s airforce in that period.

However if we look at these events in the lightof  Russia’s objectives and strategy in Syria they can be seen not as contradictory but as complementary.

In a previous post I outlined Russia’s strategy for the Vienna process, which I described as seeking “a deal …that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest.”

Events since then have clarified how Russia hopes to bring this about. First they managed to secure the assent of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the initial steps in this process: at a joint press conference held by Kerry and Lavrov on 15 December Kerry responded with an extraordinary outburst when he was asked “ can you just respond to the decision by the opposition last week that he [Assad] should go right at the start of a political transition process?”

Kerry replied,

With respect to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh, that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communique [sic]; it is not the basis of the UN resolution.…that is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously. So for those people who are going to participate, they understand we are participating under the Geneva communique.

So we now have Russo-American agreement that the regime under Assad is not only a legitimate interlocutor for the first round of negotiations (accepted by the opposition) but also a potential participant in the “governance” that will follow – in other words this would be a “power sharing” arrangement between regime and opposition. The US may have not (yet) bought into the rest of the Russian scenario which goes as follows: the power sharing administration takes the form of a Government operating under Assad’s presidency; this administration agrees a new Constitution which retains the Presidential system; Assad stands in the 2018 Presidential election, and given the continuing influence of regime patronage, the lack of a high-visibility opposition candidate, and the continuing oversight of the Syrian security services, manages to engineer a victory. It may be difficult to pass the test of UN “supervision” of these elections, but the question then becomes (to paraphrase Mussolini’s famous comment about the Pope) “how many divisions has Staffan de Mistura got”

The attraction of this scenario seems to have caused a shift in the position of the Syrian regime, which started out by rejecting the idea that there could be any agreement with “terrorists”. They now, however, seem to have discovered the potential in the Russian version of this process, which they see leading to the formation of a “national unity government”, without a whiff of “transition” around.

There are however certain essential preconditions which must be met if this plan is to be realised. The first is that the Syrian regime must be able to appear to have some power worth sharing (a far from self-evident proposition giving their military dependence on a rag-tag of foreign and domestic militias; and their economic dependence on Iranian financial support and UN aid programmes.)

A closely related second objective is that it must re-establish its authority over the main population centres in order to be confident of engineering a credible victory in a future election. (Two recent opinion polls in Syria suggests this is going to be very much an uphill struggle)

In practical terms, this means eliminating any challenge to the regime’s control over the Alawite heartland of Latakia and Tartous; eradicating or marginalising the irritating presence of opposition forces in the Rif Damasq that surrounds the capital; completing the establishment of regime authority over the city and district of Homs; and securing the arterial transport links between the Capital, and the cities of Homs and Hama.

It would have been nice from this perspective to reassert regime control over all of Aleppo, but that is something that can probably wait.

It is also important to prevent any form of credible alternative governance emerging in opposition areas that might suggest Assad is not the only game in town.

We can see how these objectives have been reflected in current strategy of Russia and the regime.  Several analysts have suggested that Syria is being prepared for partition by moves like the proposed population exchange between Zabadani and Fua and Kefraya. But in my view that is a misreading: there is no possibility that Assad will preside over the overt break-up of the “Syrian Arab Republic” with which his dynastic legitimacy is so intrinsically bound up (nor would Iran find much virtue in the costly dependency of a rump state.)

No – what is going on here is an exercise, not in Partition but in Consolidation and Containment.

The biggest fly in the ointment from this perspective is Idlib, where opposition forces have control of the provincial capital, almost all the province, and several important centres in adjoining south Aleppo, like Maarat al-Numan. It is no coincidence that the Russian bombing offensive has been heavily focused on this area, with more than half the death toll due to Russian bombing operations located here.

Elsewhere the strategy takes different forms: in Zabadani, Madaya, and several towns of the Damascus countryside it is pursued though ruthless sieges that aim to bring opposition communities to their knees. In al-Waer – the main obstacle to regime Consolidation in Homs – it assumes a softly-softly approach in which concessions are granted in exchange for an incremental extension of regime authority.

Despite all this, there remain several problem areas for Russia and the regime. The first as I noted in my previous post is Russia’s inability to round up a credible alternative opposition that would sing from their hymn sheet. This shortcoming was underlined in when the two main wings of the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordinating Body came together for the first time since 2011 in Riyadh and agreed to the formation of a united delegation for peace negotiations with a common programme. The presence of several major armed groups– the first time the armed opposition has been committed to a negotiation process – further underlined the credibility of the Riyadh meeting.

Russia has responded with a petulant rejection of the “Riyadh opposition”. But unable to compose a viable alternative they have simply put forward a list of 15 names who they demand are included in the opposition side of the talks. The “Moscow”15 includes only one serious political force –  the Kurdish PYD, taking advantage of an opposition “own goal” in which  they refused to include the PYD in the Riyadh Conference. The remaining names are of people linked to small opposition groups with no significant following, and Russia’s perennial protégé Qadri Jamil, whose “opposition” credentials are tarnished by his having served as a Deputy Prime Minister under Assad. This is nothing more than a spoiling operation by Russia, which put the Vienna process into slow motion for several days.

Of course this is merely a side show to the real burning issue –  how can a serious peace process develop when the regime and its allies continue with their campaign of mass homicide and starvation? The opposition grouping that emerged from Riyadh has quite rightfully highlighted this but have received no support from either Kerry nor de Mistura, both of whom continue to insist that the talks must begin “without preconditions”.

Nevertheless, de Mistura, did, for the first time, display a certain amount of mettle at his most recent (25 January) Press Conference. He reminded the press corps (and through them the Russians) that the Security Council had given him sole authority to determine the list of opposition invitees and announced that he would be sending out invitations “tomorrow”, for a round of meetings  that would begin on 29 January. He batted away a question about the lack of an expanded list of “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from the peace process saying that he was working on the basis of the Security Council decision which had scheduled only ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby rebuffing Russia’s other big spoiling manoeuvre. He also stated that in determining who to invite he was adopting the criteria of “inclusiveness and substantial weight” If he does draw on the latter consideration that will eliminate a very large part of the “Moscow” opposition.

We will see when de Mistura’s list is revealed just how much independence he is really asserting. The first test will be whether Jaish al-Islam is included: they are part of the Riyadh opposition and an important component of the armed opposition but a force that Russia has been determined to add to the terrorist list (an effort they backed up by assassinating the Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush.) The second test will be how many of the Moscow list are included: Saleh Muslim of the PYD seems a virtual certainty; British-Syrian academic Rim Turkmani could be included (if she is willing) to strengthen the representation of women; but the inclusion of Qadri Jamil would reflect a failure of nerve by Da Mistura.

De Mistura indicated that the next round of the Vienna process will be “proximity talks” i.e. the participants will gather in separate spaces and De Mistura and his aides will shuttle between them trying to establish areas of agreement. This would make it possible for him to manage a dialogue with several participants – the Syrian regime and Riyadh opposition, and others.

But if de Mistura does not deliver what the Russians want they undoubtedly have a Plan B, based on the behaviour of the Syrian government during the 2013 Geneva conference – step up the killing in Syria to try and force the legitimate opposition into pulling out.

In any event, the counter enumerating the Syrian deaths sustained in order to keep Assad and his clique in power is likely to continue ticking up in the coming weeks and months.

Syria: Peace in our time?

In two meetings held in Vienna over the past two weeks representatives from a group of 20 states and international organisations (the “International Syria Support Group”), have drawn up a plan which purports to offer the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. This is being widely hailed, especially by western governments, as some sort of breakthrough that will lead to a rapid resolution of the Syrian situation in the interests of the Syrian people.

The Vienna Process

These meetings were “talks about talks” designed to reconcile the conflicting views of supporters of the opposing sides in Syria: The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand; and Russia and Iran on the other. The expectation is that on the basis of this agreement, a “Syrian-led” process can follow, with negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition.

So far this seems rather deja-vu – it is exactly the same procedure that gave rise to the Geneva communique and the abortive Geneva II negotiations. The latter foundered when the Syrian government delegation refused to discuss anything that hinted of a shift in power away from Asad and the regime signalled its attitude towards “peace” by stepping up military operations during the talks – over the 24 days of Geneva negotiations the Syrian military killed almost 2200 civilians. End of Geneva.

So what will make it different this time? Ostensibly the fact that the Vienna plan has been underwritten by the contending external powers involved in Syria. The assumption is that they will each be able to rein in their protégés and ensure engagement in the process. But Geneva was underwritten by Russia, yet that did not prevent the Syrian delegation tearing up the provisions of the Geneva Communique. Policy makers assume that Assad’s patrons have effective control over the regime – an assumption contradicted by experience. If you doubt that try asking Qadri Jamil – leader of a “licensed opposition” group in the Syrian parliament (a faction of the former Syrian Communist Party), a deputy Prime Minister responsible for Syria’s economic policy, and Russia’s “man in Damascus”, you would think he had a job for life; but in October 2013 he was summarily dismissed from his position for stepping out of line a and has not dared set foot in the country since. Assad clearly believes that his relationship with Russia is one of co-dependency – and he has yet to be proved wrong.

Devil in the Details

Let’s turn to the specifics of the Vienna agreement. The broad principles were outlined in a statement published on 30 October and a more detailed plan and timetable issued on 14 November 2015. In summary this provides as follows:

  1. Immediate “confidence building measures that would contribute to the viability of the political process and pave the way for a national ceasefire”– specifically the provision of access to all parts of Syria for UN humanitarian aid (i.e. the end of regime sieges).
  2. By 1 January 2016, negotiations will begin between a Syrian government delegation and a delegation representing “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition chosen by Syrians” (This gives the opposition some six weeks to establish an agreed, unified delegation; it represents a shift from Geneva when the Syrian National Coalition was recognised as the representative of the Syrian opposition, and is clearly a victory for Russia’s strategy)
  3. Coincident with the beginning of the negotiations there will be a “nationwide ceasefire” monitored by the UN (excluding “terrorist” organisations – ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to start with, but others may be added).
  4. Within 6 months (July 2016) the negotiating parties will agree on a framework for “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”.( i.e. a transitional governing structure)
  5. This structure will then launch a process for drafting a new constitution culminating in the holding of free, UN supervised elections based on this constitution within 18 months (January 2018 ) ­ and Syria’s democratic future will begin (if all goes according to plan).

There are two codicils to this document:

First, all those taking part in this process: must adhere to a set of “fundamental principles”:

  • Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character;
  • Ensuring that State institutions remain intact
  • Protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination

Second, The ISSG “reaffirmed the devastating effects of the use of indiscriminate weapons on the civilian population and humanitarian access, as stated in UNSCR 2139. The ISSG agreed to press the parties to end immediately any use of such indiscriminate weapons” (my emphasis).

The principle sponsors of this statement – the US and Russia – make no bones about the fact that the position of Asad in all this has not been resolved, with the West putting out reassuring statements to its constituencies that this means the end of Assad’s rule, while Russia is doing exactly the opposite.

Opposing Scenarios

Let’s look at the opposing scenarios that each believes (or hopes) will unfold.

The United States: The US (or at least Secretary of State Kerry who led the negotiations for the US) believes that the original Geneva provision that a “transitional governing body” must be based on “mutual consent” will exclude Asad from playing any role in Syria’s future, as the opposition delegation will not accept his continued presence. But of course “mutual agreement” cuts both ways, and it allows the regime to block any agreement until they get a formula that suits them.

Russia: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is counting on the provision for a “broad spectrum” opposition to include sufficient middle-of-the-road oppositionists to allow a deal to be eventually struck that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest. (Russia and the regime are assuming that the new Constitution will be Presidential in structure – something that is not a foregone conclusion.)

But whatever the scenario, Asad and the regime will remain in place at least for the next seven months – longer if their backers allow them to continue blocking an agreement.

Vienna’s Fault lines

Let’s look more closely at some of the absences and fault lines in the Vienna process.

  1. Confidence building”: There are three areas in which the Syrian opposition has sought some degree of relief though participation in negotiations: an end to the slaughter of civilians by the regime; an end to regime sieges; and the release of detainees held in regime prisons. The Vienna process promises to deliver on only one and a bit of them: it has a clear demand on humanitarian access; nothing at all on detainees, despite the fact that this should be a visible and easy to implement “confidence building” gesture; while Vienna references UN Security Council Resolution 2139, which Demanded “that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment…”, its text  contains only a feeble phrase “pressing” for an end to the use of “indiscriminate weapons” Why not a clear call for an end to all attacks on civilian populations, as Fred Hof argues?
  2. The “broad spectrum” opposition. Despite the insistence that this would be “chosen by Syrians”, the parties to the Vienna agreement are rushing to produce their own lists of preferred Syrian oppositionists. Russia tried back in January to construct its own version of a Syrian “opposition” that would sing from its hymn sheet, but with little success. Its effort for Vienna is more modest, relying on fragmenting the opposition by including all sorts of minor groups; its one entirely predictable sleight of hand is to include Qadri Jamil and his group among the “opposition”. (I’ve not been able to verify the authenticity of this reported Russian list – but it looks plausible.) It’s unclear how the final opposition delegation will be determined – oversight of it is in the hands of the UN’s Steffan de Mistura ­ but it’s hard to see how it can be done seriously without some meeting of the principal opposition currents, which may disrupt the timetable.

 While expanding the opposition has been a key strategic objective for Russia, it’s not clear that this will play out as they hope. The most recent gathering of “moderate” oppositionists in Cairo (also in January) declared:

At the beginning of the political process, immediate actions by all of its supporters will be necessary in order to allow it to succeed. This should include the release of all detained, imprisoned, and kidnapped men and women; the ceasing of all war crimes; stopping attacks on civilians and allowing them to live under normal conditions; allowing food and medical relief to reach all of the besieged areas;  … and creating conditions conducive to the return of refugees and the displaced.

The main opposition groups have been divided more by factional and personality conflicts than political differences: if the Vienna process pushes them to some form of reconciliation it could be a significant advance and their common position may not be one which is amenable to compromise with the regime. What is missing, however, is any provision for the representation of civil society voices in the negotiation process or for the presence of the armed opposition (although the Saudis are  said to be pursuing that).

  1. The formula for transitional governance. The Geneva Communique had a clear formula “The establishment of a transitional governing body which would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” This would have meant an immediate end to Assad’s formal powers as President (although not informal channels power), as these would be transferred to the transitional authority. Vienna has very different and strikingly vague formula “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”. This appears designed to admit as a possibility Russia’s preferred outcome , which would be the creation of some form of “power sharing” government with Assad still occupying the Presidency. While it remains unlikely that many opposition forces could accept this. , this retreat from Geneva must nevertheless be chalked up as another win for Russian diplomacy.
  2. Ensuring that State institutions remain intact” This is a carry-over from the Geneva Communique and in fact represents a slight improvement on that document which referred to the “continuity of governmental institutions … this includes the military forces and security services”. Here the question of which state institutions seems to be left open. This provision reflects the conclusions drawn by the US from their experience in Iraq where a sweeping dismissal of state personnel who had belonged to the Baath party encouraged resistance to the occupation in Sunni areas. Going to the other extreme, US policy makers now naively think that it’s possible to separate the Asad regime from the state it has built up over four decades and maintain one without the other. The Russians know better, and realise that this formula provides Asad with immense leverage, whatever may happen on the constitutional front. But the quote from the Cairo declaration above suggests that the opposition is also aware of this reality, and may well insist on security sector reform being high on any “transitional” agenda.
  3. Foreign presence in Syria: Despite all the talk in the Vienna statement about safeguarding Syria’s independence, there is no provision for the withdrawal of foreign ground forces from the country. That is the price that has had to be paid for securing Russian and Iranian support – and it makes a mockery of the whole process.
  4. The Casting out of “Terrorist” organisations: The provision for a ceasefire explicitly excludes groups identified as “terrorist” ­ namely Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra. It permits “offensive or defensive actions” against these groups, which it stipulates “must be defeated”. It also provides that this list can be expanded and assigns to Jordanian intelligence the task of drawing up a shortlist of groups that might be so targeted. It nowhere provides a definition of “terrorist” and reports say that at Russian insistence the Jordanians are not allowed to scrutinise Asad-allied groups in this exercise. Lavrov has made it clear that the Russians want to add further organisations to the list – and the threat of being added  provides Russia and the US with a stick to drive recalcitrant armed groups into submission.

It was always to be expected that Jabhat al-Nusra would be the sacrificial lamb in any deal between the USA and Russia – the US views everything from the perspective of its own domestic security, and cannot see beyond the “al-Qaeda” label; Russia of course is only too keen to eliminate a key anti-Asad force.

Without even broaching the issue of how valid it is to amalgamate Nusra with ISIS, one simple, pragmatic fact is glaringly obvious ­ Nusra has been a key opponent of ISIS; to “defeat” Nusra is therefore to strengthen ISIS (dangerously so if this should drive Nusra into a reconciliation with ISIS).

But more importantly, this gives Russia and the regime a license to do whatever they want militarily. If Russia could bomb anti-regime forces under the pretext of attacking ISIS, imagine what they can do when they are not only permitted, but actively encouraged to attack Jabhat al Nusra, which, unlike ISIS, is spread out across opposition areas. Russia can now launch operations wherever it pleases and claim the mandate of the Vienna agreement to do so. This will also apply to the regime. To top it off, they now has a UN mandate with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2449, readily endorsed by Russia. (This was a trap long awaiting those who thought that the demand for a UN resolution was some sort of prophylactic against external intervention ­ it was always obvious that once it had lined up the right set of conditions, Russia would be only too happy to add the UN Security Council to its collection of diplomatic trophies.)

This catalogue of cracks in the foundations of the Vienna agreement is nothing short of disastrous. They will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Vienna process –the only question is how long will it take? Assad  is already back-pedalling on the plan and the regime can be expected to use the cover of Vienna and the UN to press their drive against the opposition. (This is already underway in Idlib). No credible opposition group is going to be able to sit in talks with the regime while this is going on outside the conference hall.

But too many people have investments in the success of the Vienna process – the US State Department, Steffan de Mistura, and the UN, and  the European Union, for this failure to be readily admitted – it is going to be up to solidarity activists and human rights organisations to monitor this process and report its outcomes accurately.

The story of Douma

 Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November photo:
Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November                                   Photo: Abd Doumany Agence France-Presse

Let’s start that task by looking at the recent experience of Douma, in the Damascus countryside, the site of a notorious bombing of the marketplace on 30 October in which 59 people were killed .It seems that the Russians decided to use Douma as a test case for Vienna-style peace making. First they bombarded the city for a week, killing 35 civilians, including 10 children; then on 8 November they suspended their bombing and offered a ceasefire to run for a period of 15 days during which time the siege of the city would be lifted, and humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter. However on the morning of 19 November, when the ceasefire was due to commence, the Syrian airforce launched an attack on the city, killing 15, And the regime “Minister of National Reconciliation”, Ali Haider, declared that there was no ceasefire in effect.

So much for Russia’s leverage over Assad.

Did the West ignore a Russian offer for Assad to step down as President in 2012?

A story published in the Guardian on 16 September entitled “West ‘ignored Russian offer for Assad to step down as President’” has evoked considerable excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story is based on a claim by former Finnish President and UN Diplomat Martti Ahtisaari that the West failed to respond to an overture made in February 2012 by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. According to Ahtisaari, Churkin, in a private conversation suggested a means for resolving the Syrian crisis:

He said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’ “He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

The Guardian seems to have felt the need to “sex up” these comments, turning them into a “3-point plan”. (Of course this plan already existed, in the form of the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, of which more below).

Ahtisaari states that he communicated this conversation to the western missions at the UN but “the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.” Ahtisaari says he is convinced that Churkin was making his suggestion “on behalf of the Kremlin” and describes this incident as “an opportunity lost”.

This latter contention has been latched on to by various commentators to suggest that the West’s failure to respond to this initiative is responsible for the subsequent humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Syria. Even the Guardian’s usually reliable Julian Borger (co-author of the article) seems to gives credence this notion, reciting the terrible events that followed February 2012. Borger at least (somewhat contradictorily) notes that “Officially, Russia has staunchly backed Assad through the four-and-half-year Syrian war, insisting that his removal cannot be part of any peace settlement.” And notes that Kofi Anan’s 2012 peace plan of “soon fell apart over differences on whether Assad should step down.” (i.e. over Russia’s refusal to consider Assad’s removal.)

Other commentators, ranging from the right-wing Daily Mail to American left-wing “policy analyst” Phyllis Bennis, have been more explicit in connecting these events , arguing that the current wave of refugees fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs could have been avoided if the west had listened to Vitaly Churkin in February 2012.

Here is Bennis’s sweeping claim (rather undermined by the welter of conditionals she feels obliged to introduce into her argument)

But what we now see very visibly with these new revelations from Martti Ahtisaari is how in the case of the rise of ISIS … and the war in Syria which is at the root of the rise of ISIS, the refusal of the United States and its allies to take seriously the possibility of negotiating an end to that conflict before it ever reached this horrific level, to negotiate the stepping down, maybe the stepping down, potentially the stepping down, possibly, of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, would have dramatically changed the situation there.

So let’s try and evaluate this story by looking at exactly what was happening on the diplomatic front with respect to Syria at this point in time.

Ahtisaari reports his conversation with Vitaly Churkin as taking place on or about 22 February. In the week leading up to 4 February Churkin was in New York where negotiations were taking place on a draft resolution on Syria. Sponsored by a group of western and Arab governments this condemned the Syrian government’s brutal repression of the democratic opposition and, among other things, called for the implementation of the Arab League’s very “elegant proposal” that Asad should hand over to his Vice-President while negotiations on the formation of a transitional government took place.

We know something about the negotiation process for this resolution, because of a number of leaks. Churkin, on behalf of Russia, insisted on several changes to the initial draft:

  1. The removal of a phrase expressing “ grave concern at the continued transfer of weapons into Syria” (could be seen as criticising Russia for arming the regime)
  2. The removal of the provision that specifically proposed Asad handing over to his Vice President.
  3. Removal of a call for “transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision” (Russia preferred to put faith in Asad’s promises of reform)

Despite these major concessions Russia and China vetoed the resolution (S/2012/77) when it came to the vote on 4 February on the grounds it was “imbalanced”.

Explaining his vote Churkin invoked purely spurious arguments: “ Nor has account been taken of our proposals that along with the withdrawal of the Syrian armed forces from the cities, there should be an end to attacks by armed groups on State institutions and neighbourhoods”. In fact the resolution condemned “all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, and in this regard demands that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately stop all violence or reprisals, including attacks against State institutions”

Churkin went on to underline his opposition to any suggestion that Asad might be edged out of power – despite the fact that the resolution contained none ‑ complaining “some influential members of the international community … have undermined any possibility of a political settlement, calling for regime change”.

In effect Churkin’s role in this episode was to provide cover for the Asad regime (its noteworthy that although the Russians had a resolution of their own they never sought to move it at the Security Council, as members of the UN press corps noted. What Russia really wanted was no UN Resolution.)

Churkin votes against Security Council Resolution on Syria: 4 February 2012

Churkin’s stand was supported 4 days later by a statement from Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev, who endorsed the Russian veto; and at about the same time Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Asad in Damascus (with the Russian security chief in tow) reporting at the conclusion of his visit that everything was going to be fine – Asad would rein in the regime’s violence and launch political reforms. (A thousand civilians were killed by the regime’s security forces in the following 3 weeks)

This scenario was rerun on 16 February when the vetoed Security Council Resolution was put to the General Assembly (where it was not subject to the veto but also had no legal force). There it received wide support and was adopted with 137 states voting for, 17 abstaining and only 12 against – one of which was Russia.

Perhaps we can understand why UN diplomats, who had spent over two weeks wrestling with Churkin, trying unsuccessfully to get him to at least say boo to Asad, were sceptical when a week later they were informed that he had suddenly become a convert to “regime change”.

So how to explain this discrepancy between the historical record and Ahtisaari’s account? I have no idea (although my suspicion is that Churkin was just having a little joke)

An issue of no consequence
One reason for not dwelling any longer on this issue is that it is really a storm in a teapot. (Although in the age of the internet teapot-storms ignored can readily become disinformation cyclones). What’s really important here is not what Vasily may have said to Martti back in 2012, but what practical consequences the incident had – the simple answer is absolutely none.

Claims à la Bennis that failure to seize this alleged “missed opportunity” is responsible for subsequent events in Syria are simply absurd. They are predicated on an assumption that international policy makers ignored Ahtisaari’s chat with Churkin and went to sleep for the next three years. What exactly was this “policy analyst” doing in the period March ‑ June 2012 – one of the most intense periods of international diplomacy of the whole Syrian conflict?

Kofi Annan was appointed joint UN / Arab League Special Envoy almost at the precise moment Churkin was having his chat with Ahtisaari, drawing his authority from the General Assembly Resolution Russia had opposed. A month later Annan launched a 6-point plan to end the conflict. (Annan later  developed  another “elegant formula” for the removal of Asad – “exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation” – but that was blocked by Russia). From April to August UN monitors were stationed in Syria. But the initiative was effectively dead by June, because of Assad’s failure to comply with a single one of the 6-point plan’s requirements.

Western governments tried to provide Annan with some leverage by proposing a Security Council resolution demanding that the Assad regime comply with its obligations under the Plan. On 19 July Russia (along with China) vetoed it. In a thoroughly duplicitous statement Churkin claimed that the resolution would have opened the way to military intervention – but in fact it only raised the possibility of enforcement under Article 41 (“measures not including the use of armed force.”)

Given the lack of backing from the Security Council, Annan then resigned. His parting statement included the message “It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office.” –a message that no Russian diplomat has ever shown the slightest readiness to act on ‑ then or since.

Security Council Resolution 2139 – Will it make a difference in Syria?

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.

The Process

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.

The Resolution

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.