UNITED NATIONS— The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a resolution endorsing a peace process designed to end Syria’s civil war and allow the international community to focus its attention more fully on defeating the Islamic State.
“This council is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and to lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said of the initiative.
But although the resolution approved an 18-month process for establishing a transitional government, imposing a cease-fire, writing a constitution and holding elections, it provided only guidance and not specific rules for designating Syrian participants in that process. It made no mention of the future of President Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, it turns those key decisions over to the United Nations, which is mandated to assist the Syrians in carrying out its terms. It sets a target of early January for the start of “urgent” negotiations between Assad’s government and the opposition trying to oust him. The shift to a transition governing body is to take place within six months.
Kerry, who chaired the meeting in which member states were represented by foreign ministers, called adoption of the resolution a “milestone” but noted that differences remain in the international community, “especially about the future of President Assad.” He said that the majority of members, including the United States, believe Assad “has lost the ability, the credibility, to be able to unite the country . . . not as a matter of ideology, not as a matter of choice, but purely as a matter of reality,” given that the opposition will not stop fighting until he is gone.
Evidence of that disagreement was quickly apparent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the resolution as a “clear response to efforts to impose” a solution “from the outside on any aspect” of the Syrian crisis, “including its president.”
The vote came after more than five hours of talks Friday by a group of more than a dozen global powers, meeting outside the United Nations, to agree on the terms of the resolution.
In a series of meetings over the past two months, members of the International Syrian Support Group have failed to agree on which Syrians could participate in a transitional government and what powers it will have. The opposition insists that Assad cannot be part of the process. Russia and Iran say the same of certain opposition groups.
Those differences must be resolved, or at least papered over, before the transition and a cease-fire, including an end to Russian and Syrian bombing of opposition forces, can begin.
Foreign ministers convened early Friday in an ornate ballroom at New York’s Palace Hotel to approve a draft of the resolution. Kerry, who started the process at an October gathering in Vienna, sat at the head of a U-shape table with his co-host, Lavrov.
Kerry’s strategy has been to use the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, refugee flows to Europe and shared anxiety over the strength of the Islamic State — including recent terrorist attacks it has sponsored or inspired in Europe, the United States and elsewhere — to propel momentum that has long eluded efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict.
To keep the process going and bring Russia and Iran into the tent, the United States has diluted its rhetoric on Assad and emphasized shared concerns about terrorism. To convince Saudi Arabia and others that it recognizes the broad opposition to Assad inside Syria, the United States has indirectly dropped its refusal to recognize Islamist groups backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, which are some of the strongest anti-Assad fighting forces, as legitimate actors in a negotiated solution.
Those positions have required significant juggling on Kerry’s part. After meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, the secretary of state said: “While we don’t see eye to eye on every single aspect of Syria, we certainly agreed . . . that we see Syria fundamentally very similarly. We want the same outcomes. We see the same dangers. We understand the same challenges.”
While not seeking “regime change,” Kerry said, the United States and its partners “don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria.” Some regional allies — and U.S. critics of the administration’s Syria policy — saw his statement as caving in to Russian demands by stepping back from insistence that Assad must leave office.
Administration officials insisted that was not the case, saying that Kerry is only willing to set aside the question of Assad until later in negotiations among Syrians, which Kerry said he hopes could begin as early as next month.
Putin, in a news conference Thursday in Moscow, said that his plan for Syria coincided in “key aspects” with U.S. goals: “working on the constitution, preparing elections in Syria and the recognition of their results.” For now, he said, Russian airstrikes, most of which have focused on what Moscow says are opposition “terrorists” rather than the Islamic State, would continue.
The plan being debated outlines a process in which an agreed transitional governing body inside Syria would have still-unspecified governing powers until a new constitution is written and elections are held, all within 18 months.
While it remains unclear whether the group deliberating in New York can impose an agreement on Syrian actors, it has substantial leverage as the main suppliers of arms to the various forces battling on the ground. The hope is that if the countries can decide the parameters for a negotiated solution and agree to use their leverage to support it, fighters on the ground will have little choice but to comply.
In addition to the United States and Russia, participants included the foreign ministers of China, Egypt, France, Britain, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the U.N. secretary general and representatives from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the European Union.
In formulating the resolution, which would codify the transition process and put it under U.N. auspices, the group is drawing from three documents on Syria negotiated in the past: the Geneva II communique, agreed upon in the summer of 2012; an agreement reached at the first Vienna meeting in October; and the Vienna II communique agreed upon last month.
The problem is that the documents, none of which specifically names participants in the transition or directly refers to Assad, vary significantly in language about an interim government. Geneva II, for example, gives the transition body “full executive powers” and says its members must be chosen “by mutual consent” of all parties — words that were interpreted at the time as ensuring an end to the Assad regime.
Vienna I, which was the first time Iran was included in an international gathering over Syria, dropped that language and made only vague references to the Geneva agreement.
Any resolution that does not include strong powers for the transition and sideline Assad, one international diplomat said, “is not going to fly. You’re not going to get the Saudis or the opposition to be more flexible; you can’t water down the conditions so much just to assure that one side gets to the table.”
“You may be able, ultimately, to use power and muscle to get the opposition to come and sit,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “But it’s going to undermine the entire process and, very soon, it’s going to collapse.”
In the Vienna meeting last month, negotiators set up two committees to determine who could participate and which Syrian groups would be barred as “terrorists.”
The Assad government has submitted a list of more than three dozen representatives to participate in transition negotiations. In a meeting last week in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, representatives from a wide variety of opposition groups appointed a committee to choose negotiators.
Included in the Riyadh group were Islamist fighting groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which the United States had previously indicated it considered extreme and would not support as part of the process. In a change in policy, administration officials said that eligible groups would be judged by their willingness to participate in a cease-fire.
But the opposition also said that it would not sit down at the table with government representatives until the fact and timing of Assad’s departure was decided.
Russia has objected to that provision. In addition, Moscow, presumably speaking for Assad, does not want Islamist groups to participate at all and has called for them to be deemed ineligible by including them on the list of agreed “terrorist” organizations. That would allow Russia to continue bombing the groups, along with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, under terms of a cease-fire.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who attending the meeting, charged “outside actors” with trying to impose “preconditions” on the Syrian people. In an opinion column in the British newspaper the Guardian on Friday, he said these actors were trying to differentiate between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.”