For the first time since the Syrian civil war began, world powers agreed on Dec.18 at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to embrace a plan for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the conflict.
The UNSC approved a resolution that calls for talks between the Syria’s government and opposition groups, as well as a cease-fire in the nation devastated by 5-year-old civil war. The resolution envisions the formation of a unity government and calls for an immediate halt to any attacks on civilian targets. A mechanism to monitor, verify, and report on the truce is to be worked out. The resolution gives Secretary General Ban Ki-moon one month to tell the Council how a cease-fire could work and how it could be monitored. The UN is asked to convene formal talks on a transitional government. The talks between the regime and opposition are targeted for early January.
The document says elections must be held in the next 18 months. It makes no mention of whether incumbent President Assad will be able to run. The only groups excluded from the ceasefire are Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Offensive and defensive actions against such groups (a reference to air strikes by Russia and the US-led coalition) – are to continue.
The two biggest obstacles to a peace deal: the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the classification of armed groups as terrorists were left out of the document’s text. Russian and Iranian diplomats said the question of Mr. Assad wasn’t discussed because neither of the countries would accept a deal that calls for Mr. Assad’s exit, even at the end of a political transition period.
The U.S. and its European allies have maintained that Mr. Assad must leave power, if not at the beginning of the 18-month transitional period spelled out in the road map, then by the end. For the U.S., the resolution continued a softening of the U.S. position on Mr. Assad. President Barack Obama, in a news conference reiterated his view that Mr. Assad had lost any legitimacy and couldn’t run the country, but said the views of pro-Assad powers such as Russia and Iran had to be considered.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Russia earlier in the week, had signaled the U.S. would allow Mr. Assad to remain as part of a transitional political process, a turnaround from his earlier insistence that the Syrian ruler couldn’t be part of a transition.
Al in all, the resolution broadly lays out a framework similar to the one agreed on in the last round of talks in Vienna in November.
Diplomats acknowledged that enforcing a cease-fire in Syria will be extremely challenging given that the Islamic State extremist group controls vast territory and won’t honor a cease-fire. The goal, diplomats say, is for pockets of the cease-fire to hold between the Syrian army, Shiite militia and opposition groups so the focus can shift to fighting Islamic State and moving forward with a political process.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the U.N. meeting, said the resolution sends «a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria».
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that the Vienna format is the only way to bring all foreign players to the table and ensure a fair settlement in Syria through talks. «Today’s unanimous vote in the [UN Security] Council should pave the way for the formation of a broad front against terrorism on the basis of the UN Charter, with the support of all on Earth who are opposed to terrorism, including the army of Syria, the Kurdish militia, and the armed forces of the Syrian patriotic opposition,» Lavrov said. «The air force of the Russian Federation, at the request of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic, is contributing to the completion of this task». «Only Syrian-led inclusive dialogue can put an end to untold suffering in Syria», the Minister added stressing that Syria should remain a secular, unified, and multi-ethnic country.
The accord was hailed as a major step toward bringing peace to Syria, where a civil war has killed millions and sent thousands of refugees fleeing into other nations. «It's going to be uphill», said U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. «It will be complicated. But it will be possible».
Summing it all up – the resolution does three things, which internationalize efforts to seek a political solution in Syria. It endorses the 17-member ISSG (the International Syria Support Group) as the main body dealing with the Syria peace process; validates the peace plan agreed to by the ISSG in Vienna last month, including a ceasefire between the regime and opposition in six months and talks leading to drafting a new constitution; and gives the United Nations a leading role in working with the regime and opposition on negotiating a ceasefire and drafting a constitution, which officials said is aimed at putting an international stamp on the peace process. The US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran were brought together to agree on an international document after a series of meetings in Vienna and elsewhere over the past three months – the diplomatic process that many had believed would never get off the ground.
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It won’t be a bed of roses, but rather a tall order. There remain sharp disagreements to be reconciled between the American and Russian positions, and huge uncertainty about what the plan will mean on the ground. A dizzying array of armed forces have left Syria in ruins, killed 250,000 (some sources say more than 300 000) and driven four million refugees out of the country, threatening to destabilize the nations where they are seeking new homes. A cease-fire in Syria poses its own challenges. It is not expected to apply to all parts of the country — certainly not to the vast areas held by the Islamic State — and the idea of sending United Nations-sanctioned observers to monitor it seems almost unthinkable.
The resolution leaves open the question of whether other rebel groups can be designated as terrorist organizations and excluded from the cease-fire agreement. It embraces an effort led by Jordan to figure out which groups should receive that designation. Mr. Lavrov hinted at the disagreement there, saying it was «inadmissible to divide terrorists between good and bad ones».
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There is a long road to go and success depends of the ability to compromise and act together. The UN has laid down a foundation launching the international effort to tackle the problem that many believe to be intractable. This is challenge the world community can meet having joined together.