UN pushing for ceasefire in Syria 'outside IS-held areas'

UN pushing for ceasefire in Syria 'outside IS-held areas'
Analysis: The UN's Syria envoy has stressed a nationwide ceasefire is achievable, as opposition factions plan to meet in Riyadh to agree a joint delegation for negotiations with the regime.
5 min read
20 November, 2015
De Mistura (left) briefed the UN press corps about ongoing Syria ceasefire negotiations [Getty]

World powers will attempt to broker a ceasefire in Syria but it will exclude areas held by the Islamic State group,  UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday.

The veteran diplomat has been tasked with trying to bring Syria's warring parties together. He is in New York this week to update the secretary-general, the Security Council and members of the international community on two rounds of talks the United States and Russia organised in Vienna on the conflict.

De Mistura told reporters that previous efforts at localised truces had failed because they lacked the backing of regional and international players who have influence over the warring parties.

"There are indications," he said, that those countries "have an interest in seeing a ceasefire take place."

The veteran diplomat pointed to successes in the town of Zabadani on Syria's border with Lebanon and in the northwestern villages of Kefraya and Fuua in achieving truces that have held since late September.

But he said there must be a political process to get truces to hold.

The key "deliverables" reached by the so-called International Syria Support Group - which has held two rounds of talks in the Austrian capital - include a future political roadmap on a political process in Syria, de Mistura said.

The group is also working on a nationwide ceasefire as part of the political dialogue due to take place in Geneva.

The second round of Vienna talks this past Saturday yielded an agreement among the participants to bring government and opposition parties together in direct talks "as soon as possible". The target date for the talks is 1 January, 2016.

One of the goals of the most recent meeting was to decide who would represent the two sides at the negotiating table. De Mistura said on Thursday that the Syrian government list had been decided and it includes "more than 40 people".

"It is extremely important now to have a cohesive, comprehensive, well-inclusive Syrian opposition," he said. "I think we can get there."

The UN envoy dismissed recent comments made by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who said that no political process would be followed unless Syria was "liberated from terrorists".

"Every time there is a political process starting and the possibility of a ceasefire there are going to be a lot of statements which are in fact preparing, prepositioning [and] positioning the sides," said de Mistura. "What matters is what happens in the Vienna meetings and the negotiations."

Opposition representation

The UN seems to have entrusted the task of coordinating the selection of opposition representatives to Saudi Arabia ahead of the next round of international Syria talks, according to a high-level Arab source who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed Arabic.

The source also said the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) would be a key component of the opposition's delegation, and added that the European Union had proposed holding a small preparatory meeting for the Syrian opposition in the coming few days.

Saudi Arabia will reportedly host a conference in mid-December aimed at unifying the Syrian opposition.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to gather the entire Syrian opposition and help them to [present] one voice and one unified position," Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, told al-Arabiya.

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He said the conference would include "all shades of the opposition", including figures based inside Syria.

However it has been agreed that neither IS nor the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front can take part in talks, as they are on the UN list of banned terrorist organisations.

That list could grow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week flatly said that his country was going after "all who one way or another practice and preach terrorist ideology".

Jordan is expected to host a meeting of military and intelligence experts to thrash out a complete list. Whether it will include Islamist groups supported by powerful Gulf states is certain to be a point of great contention.

'Countering terrorism'

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris on Friday, France has asked the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution urging member states to "take all necessary measures" within international law to combat IS in Syria and Iraq.

"It is not an option; it is a necessity," France's UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters.

The draft was circulated to all 15 members of the council on Thursday afternoon and diplomats said a vote could come as early as Friday.

Russia has re-introduced a broader draft resolution it proposed in late September on forming an international coalition to fight terrorism in Syria.

The draft had not mustered enough support in the council to come to a vote previously and some diplomats said the text has not been changed sufficiently to erase their concerns.

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British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the Russian resolution "seeks to legitimise the authority of Assad".

Rycroft said he did not see it "having much prospect" of adoption in its current form.

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin indicated Moscow would not block adoption of the French proposal, saying "I don't see anything particularly offensive [in it]," but urged council members to continue working on the text to "improve a thing or two".

He said the council could adopt both resolutions - the French text now and the Russian one later - noting after the 11 September, 2001, attacks on the United States, the council quickly adopted a short resolution and a couple of weeks later adopted a more comprehensive one.

"So it may well be we are going to go down that route here," Churkin said.

Human rights violations

Meanwhile, a General Assembly committee has strongly condemned human rights violations in Syria's nearly five-year war and said perpetrators of war crimes should face trial.

A resolution presented by Saudi Arabia was adopted by a vote of 115 to 15, with 51 abstentions. China, Iran and Russia were among the countries that voted against the measure, which now goes to the full UN General Assembly.

The resolution expresses "outrage" at the worsening violence that has left at least 250,000 dead and displaced more than 12 million people.

It stressed the need for accountability and encouraged the UN Security Council to take action, noting that the International Criminal Court could play a role.

An attempt last year to refer Syria to the ICC for war crimes was blocked by Russia, Syria's ally, and China at the Security Council.

The resolution condemned attacks committed by the IS group, but it deplored the "continued, widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights" by the Syrian authorities and its associated militias.

Last year, the resolution was adopted by a stronger margin, with 125 countries voting in favour, 13 against and 47 abstentions.