The United Nations has wedged its way into playing a monitoring role in a possible cease-fire in Syria and a convening role in gathering the Syrian government and opposition parties to try to meet for formal talks by Jan. 1. The goal is to begin negotiating an end to the prolonged war there, which has produced a huge flood of refugees into Europe as well as left millions of people dead, wounded or emotionally traumatized.
The UN’s expertise will also be used to supervise a process to install a transitional government within six months, draft a new constitution for Syria and oversee elections for a new government within 18 months — in total, meeting a two-year deadline. The voting will include the Syrian diaspora, an enormous undertaking, given the scale of displaced Syrians worldwide.
Despite the sudden, fatal attacks that ripped through Paris on Nov. 13, the countries and parties active in formal negotiations to accelerate an end to the war in Syria met the next day, as originally planned, in Vienna.
The International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, consists of the Arab League, Britain, China, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Nations and the United States. No Syrian government representative or opposition member has been involved in the talks so far, which began in October in Vienna.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, are leading the support group.
The Nov. 14 meeting continued talks that originated last month to hammer out such steps as arranging a cease-fire among the warring parties. Organizing negotiations with those parties will be handled by the UN’s special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who has held this post since July 2014.
The pause in fighting would not apply to “offensive or defensive actions” against ISIS, or ISIL (also called Daesh), Al Nusra Front (affiliated with Al Qaeda) or other entities that the negotiating group deems a terrorist inside Syria, according to a summary from the UN describing the Vienna meeting.
“After years of division, this is a rare moment of diplomatic opportunity to end the violence and advance the search for a negotiated political solution,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said at a summit meeting of the Group of 20 nations Nov. 15, held in Turkey.
The participants in Vienna began with a moment of silence for the victims of the attack of Nov. 13 in Paris as well as for victims in recent attacks in Beirut, Iraq, Ankara (Turkey’s capital) and the Russian plane explosion in Egypt.
The discussions also focused on steps toward pursuing, once again, a parallel political process based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué “in its entirety.” That phrasing reinforces that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, will most likely not be part of a transitional government, as his name did not appear in the UN summary of the Vienna talks nor is it mentioned in the communiqué. Western nations and others want him out of rule as soon as possible, while Russia is sticking by him, at least in public. The communiqué provided the first formal options for negotiations that occurred in 2012, which went nowhere.
The group in Vienna agreed to support and work toward carrying out a nationwide cease-fire in Syria that would be effective “as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards the transition” under UN auspices. The need to ensure quick humanitarian access throughout Syria was also noted as an imperative for improving conditions there for desperate civilians. About 12 million people have been displaced by the war both inside and outside the country.
As part of the cease-fire, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and US — would draft a binding resolution to support a mission in those parts of Syria where cease-fire monitors “would not come under threat of attacks from terrorists.”
Participants also agreed to take “all possible steps” to stick to the cease-fire within their own groups or nations or through individuals they support, supply or influence in what has become a complicated proxy war.
This level of consent in the past has been impossible to achieve in other proposed — and failed — cease-fires in Syria, yet a palpable sense of stopping the war underlies the current negotiations, induced by Russia’s bombing campaign, a communal hatred of ISIS and a need to thwart refugee influxes.
The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, whose government has pointed the finger at ISIS (or Daesh) for responsibility, has provided an urgent impetus to stabilize Syria and the region.
Earlier this year, de Mistura had proposed setting up working groups that could hold talks among the government, rebels and others inside Syria, but that idea never got far once Russia started dropping bombs in Syria just days after President Vladimir Putin spoke at the annual UN General Assembly meeting in late September, taking other major powers by surprise.
Convening Syrian rebels with the government will involve defining who is and who is not a terrorist. Jordan, which has absorbed about 700,000 Syrian and other refugees within its own borders and is considered a neutral party to the war, will coordinate the daunting job of determining who is a terrorist.
The Vienna group has no problem deciding who are terrorists now and the need to defeat them: ISIS, Al Nusra and other groups designated by the UN Security Council.
The Vienna participants have agreed to meet in December for more talks.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.