Syria Catch-Up: The Road Back to Geneva III

Published: March 14, 2016

Pausing Geneva III 03 FEB

On Wednesday February 3, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura announced that the UN-sponsored Syria peace talks in Geneva would be put on hold until the end of the month. This announcement came after a meeting with the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in which they reiterated demands for humanitarian access and a ceasefire as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which laid out the framework for the current negotiation attempt. De Mistura had declared the official start of talks just two days earlier on February 1, although neither the Syrian government delegation nor the HNC had agreed to begin the negotiations.

De Mistura appeared to agree with the need for progress on the ground before talks could commence. In his statement to the press announcing the pause, he chastised UN Security Council (UNSC) and International Syria Support Group (ISSG) members for pushing the parties to the talks without having made any progress on the humanitarian and ceasefire components.

ISSG’s Munich Statement – 11 FEB

ISSG members, led by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, met in Munich on the sidelines of the 52nd Annual Munich Security Conference. On February 11, 2016 they released a statement regarding the implementation of a “nationwide cessation of hostilities” and humanitarian access. The statement listed a handful of besieged areas that would be reached initially with humanitarian aid, and promised that ISSG members would use their influence “to ensure that all parties allow immediate and sustained humanitarian access to reach all people in need,” creating a humanitarian task force to oversee these efforts. A similar taskforce was created to oversee the cessation of hostilities, which they scheduled to begin one week out.

“Terms for a Cessation of Hostilities” Announced – 22 FEB

After the initial “cessation of hostilities” deadline passed without results, on February 22, the U.S. and Russia announced the adoption of the “Terms for a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria,” which proposed the cessation begin at 00:00 (Damascus time) on February 27. The cessation would not apply to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other UNSC-designated terrorist organizations, but all other parties who agreed to its terms would be included. Parties were given until 12:00 (Damascus time) on February 26 – just 12 hours before the cessation was scheduled to begin – to indicate their acceptance of the agreement.

That same day the HNC announced that it would agree to a temporary truce, conditional on the implementation of relevant paragraphs of UNSC Resolution 2254. A second statement reconfirming their commitment to a temporary truce was released on Friday, February 26, noting that 97 armed Syrian factions had signed on.

On February 23, the Syrian government indicated that it too would agree to the cessation but continue the fight against “’The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and other Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations,” which many in the opposition read as a sign that all attacks would continue.

UNSC Resolution 2268 Endorsing the Cessation – 26 FEB

One hour before the “cessation of hostilities” was set to begin, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2268, unanimously endorsing the cessation and confirming its support for the efforts of the ISSG and Special Envoy De Mistura’s office.

Progress on the Ground – 26 FEB

Following the February 11 Munich Statement, limited progress was made on access to besieged areas, with some aid convoys reaching the areas initially listed in the Munich statement – Madaya, Zabadani, Moadamiya, Kafr Batna, Kefraya and Fouah, and a “test” WFP airdrop to Deir Ezzor – by the end of the month. While these efforts continue to fall far short of the “sustained and uninterrupted distribution of aid” that was called for in Munich (and a plethora of other reports, UNSC Resolutions, and agreements) and many locations have still not been reached, the spurt of aid convoys that were able to access besieged areas of Syria in the wake of the Munich Statement is notable, particularly when compared to the nearly complete lack of access to most of these areas in the preceding years.

Efforts to halt the violence in Syria proved more difficult to initiate. Since the Geneva talks were paused by De Mistura on February 3, the Russian air campaign intensified as it backed an offensive by the Syrian military and its allies against the city of Aleppo which pushed a new wave of refugees towards the border and raised fears of an impending siege. As noted, the initial Munich deadline of February 19 for a cessation passed by unheeded. In the run up to the new February 27 deadline announced by Russia and the U.S., Syria saw an even more intense escalation of aerial attacks from Russia and Syria across the country, presumably to make as many gains as possible before the cessation came into effect.

Cessation of Hostilities Comes into Effect – 27 FEB

The start of the cessation of hostilities in Syria surprised many by bringing a swift halt to much of the country’s violence, with an eerie silence falling over contested parts of the country where residents had become used to the sound of bombing and shooting. The notable drop in violence was not countrywide, however. After the first 24 hours, Russian and Syrian forces continued their attacks against a number of Syrian opposition groups and populated areas in the northwestern parts of the country, leading the HNC to issue multiple statements warning that that these violations were undermining the possibilities for political negotiations in Geneva. These continuing attacks have taken place in the context of continuing disagreement over which areas are and are not included in the ceasefire. A map from the Russian Ministry of Defense suggests that they only consider a tiny portion of the country (indicated in blue) as eligible for the ceasefire.

Syria_Ceasefire_Areas_February_24_Russian_View

The monitoring of the ceasefire violations has proved similarly difficult to reach agreement on. The Russian monitoring center has primarily recorded alleged opposition violations, leading to a much lower violation count than pro-opposition monitors. For example, for the 14th day of the ceasefire on March 11, Russia reported only 10 ceasefire violations while the Syrian Network for Human Rights recorded 39, primarily by Russian and Syrian forces. Though it is a co-Chair of the Ceasefire Monitoring Taskforce, the U.S. has had little to say of the alleged violations.

As a result of these ongoing violations, there have been some changes in control on the ground in areas presumably under the ceasefire since it came into effect, with the Syrian government and its allies making major advances in Latakia and Aleppo provinces.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 4.44.35 PM

In perhaps an unforeseen effect of the reduction in airstrikes, Syrians across the country re-emerged in numbers not seen for years to resume peaceful Friday protests against the Syrian government using the theme “The Revolution Continues.” The March 4 protests drew crowds in reportedly over 100 locations, and a similarly strong showing was repeated on March 11.

Anti-regime Protests in Aleppo, May 4

Anti-regime Protests in Aleppo, May 4

Reconvening Geneva III MARCH

Although ceasefire violation allegations continue to mount, the “cessation of hostilities” has brought an undeniable decrease in the level of violence in the country, allowing De Mistura to move forward with his efforts to get the parties back to Geneva for talks. The date for reconvening the Geneva III talks was pushed back several times from the initial target of February 25 set by De Mistura when he initially paused the talks in early February. Eventually, the official start date was set at March 9, but further complications led De Mistura to push back the “substantive” start of talks further to Monday, March 14.

On March 11, the HNC issued a statement confirming that it would attend the talks rescheduled to start on March 14 in Geneva. The statement noted their serious skepticism and Riad Hijab, head of the HNC, stated that “the chances of reaching an agreement are slim.”

On March 12, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem held a press conference to announce that the Syrian government delegation would also attend the Geneva talks on the 14th. During the same press conference, Moallem rejected parts of De Mistura’s plan for the talks, including his agenda for the talks, and several key items on it such as presidential elections, calling any discussion of Assad’s position “a red line.”

Visit the TSI blog for ongoing coverage and analysis as we continue to follow developments at the Geneva III talks.