Lost in this week’s debate about who would attend Syria peace talks was the question of who would enforce a Syrian peace.
In a confidential strategy paper exclusively obtained by Foreign Policy, the office of the United Nations’ top envoy to Syria warns that the U.N. would be unable to monitor or enforce any peace deal that might emerge from landmark political talks underway in Geneva.
The paper raised concerns the world might harbor unrealistic expectations about the U.N.’s ability to oversee and verify a cease-fire in a civil war beset by a dizzying array of armed factions and terrorist groups.
“The current international and national political context and the current operational environment strongly suggest that a U.N. peacekeeping response relying on international troops or military observers would be an unsuitable modality for ceasefire monitoring,” according to the “Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper” by U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s team. In plain English, that means Syria will be far too dangerous for some time for traditional U.N. peacekeepers to handle.
There are also few signs that major powers are either willing or impartial enough to step in to do the job effectively. And there is the risk that extremist militants and other armed elements who will be excluded from the political talks will upend the peace process with force.
The maddening complexity of establishing a cease-fire comes on top of the challenge of just getting the warring parties to the negotiating table.
On Friday, U.N.-sponsored peace talks began without the main Syrian opposition group, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). The group had vowed to boycott the talks because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its allies did not acquiesce to the HNC’s main precondition: halting airstrikes and seizures of rebel-held towns.
However, HNC member Farah Atassi said a delegation will meet with de Mistura on Sunday “not to negotiate,” but to discuss U.N. efforts to ensure that Syria halts its military attacks on civilians, according to the Associated Press.
Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, told Foreign Policythat the Syrian opposition would be represented by a three-member delegation, including HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat, and would focus on easing Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The other two delegation members are Riyadh Naasan Agha, a former Syrian culture minister, and Monzer Makhous, the Syrian National Council’s ambassador to France. More members of the delegation may arrive later, according to U.N. based diplomats.
But a nationwide cease-fire isn’t expected anytime soon.
Assad’s government, backed by Russian air power, continues to press ahead with attacks on rebel forces. And none of the three members of the opposition’s delegation have power over Syria’s armed rebel groups.
In the short term, de Mistura believes Damascus’s forces and the armed rebellion would themselves have to monitor any cease-fire agreement. If ground security improves, the U.N. envoy’s office could widen its role in Syria, provide training and resources to locals, and act as a go-between between the key Syrian combatants and international players.
But the heavy lifting would be left to the fighters and their foreign backers, known as the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG).
“There must be a clear shift from the ISSG role of sponsor [of the political process] to guarantor of agreements,” the U.N. paper states. “The ISSG will need to coordinate the efforts of key member states, and provide operational liaison with government and armed opposition counterparts, in order to drive the brokering and sustaining of a national ceasefire, and the achievement and maintenance of local agreements.”
De Mistura appears to have few illusions that any agreement to come out of the Geneva talks would lead to Syria’s immediate peace. Instead, the paper notes, all sides will have to painstakingly negotiate a series of cease-fires, town by town, to relieve the suffering of besieged Syrians. That, in turn, would hopefully lead to a nationwide cease-fire and, ultimately, peace.
His paper also seeks to lower expectations for what the U.N. or other international monitors could accomplish in Syria. It would not include, for example, documenting human rights abuses, building legal cases against war criminals, or monitoring the release or well-being of detainees.
“There is … a risk of mission creep,” the U.N. paper states. “As such, it is imperative to clearly articulate those roles which a monitoring mission would not be capable of doing.”
A December cease-fire agreement in Zabadani, a rebel-controlled town near the border with Lebanon in southwest Syria, may serve as a model for a way forward, the U.N. paper found.
In December, exhausted and wounded rebel fighters and civilians trapped by pro-government forces in Zabadani were evacuated. In exchange, injured pro-regime fighters were allowed to leave the government-controlled towns of Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province as they were besieged by rebel fighters. The pause also permitted the U.N. and the Red Cross to truck in some supplies to the towns, though the U.N. maintains that the supplies were insufficient to meet the needs of the populations.
“With respect to the physical monitoring of ceasefire initiatives, it is anticipated that this will at the outset be undertaken by national counterparts, building on examples already in place (such as in Zabadani),” the paper notes.
It says increased efforts by the ISSG and de Mistura’s office will be needed to reinforce the monitoring, but warns: “There will be a direct tradeoff between a desire for the highest level of credibility in a ceasefire monitoring process … and tolerance for physical risk.”
The U.N.’s strategy has come under sharp criticism from analysts and opposition forces who believe earlier cease-fire agreements have rewarded the Assad regime’s policy of starving out civilians in rebel-held towns into submission. Some 18 towns through Syria are under siege, subjecting nearly a half-million people to harsh deprivations and in some cases starvation.
The Syrian government has laid siege to the majority of those civilians — an estimated 274,200, according to the U.N.’s relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien. Another 200,000 are trapped by the Islamic State, O’Brien said. Additionally, extremist Syrian rebels, including al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, are laying siege to 12,500 civilians in pro-government enclaves, according to O’Brien.
“It’s problematic to refer to any cease-fires we have seen thus far as a model; they reward collective punishment, the bombarding or starving of communities into submission,” said Noah Bonsey, an expert on Syria with the International Crisis Group.
Even the Zabadani cease-fire is problematic, Bonsey said, as it shows how each side uses collective punishment to force the other to give in. “Each agreement has encouraged more sieges and collective punishment tactics,” Bonsey said. “The central question is, can we move the U.N. and the Syrian parties to move beyond this model to something that is more stable and built on something other than collective punishment? Are there deals to be had that would not incentivize the use of these collective punishment tactics?”
Syria's government will likely focus its diplomacy on the local cease-fire strategy. In recent days, key Assad backers, including ruling Baath Party senior leader Hilal al-Hilal, said Damascus’s negotiators will go to Geneva to listen — but not to offer any concessions. “We are not going to give today what we did not give over the past five years,” he told Syrian soldiers, according to the Associated Press. “This year will be the year of victory for Syria.”
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, predicted that government forces will negotiate directly with the fighters on the battlefield. But in Geneva, he added, it’s likely Damascus will denounce the opposition as terrorists.
“They will do the Trump thing and tell you how bad you are,” he said.
Estimates by U.S. spy chief James Clapper show that Syria’s rebellion is made up of some 1,500 groups, all with various political leanings, Landis said, and “each one of those groups are going to have to be dealt with, either killed or negotiated with, town by town.”
Landis said policymakers must accept the likelihood that Assad’s forces are likely to parlay any countrywide cease-fire agreement into a military campaign against al-Nusra Front, which controls the strategic town of Idlib. Groups that have been fighting alongside the al Qaeda affiliate, including Ahrar al-Sham, will be pressured to abandon their ally.
Damascus will signal to armed rebels that “if you shoot at me, you will be breaking the cease-fire,” Landis said, noting that this scenario helps Assad: “If you think through this, it’s a lose-lose situation for the opposition.”
The U.N.’s peacekeeping and political offices, meanwhile, have already begun contingency planning for a beefed-up U.N. presence in Syria if security conditions allow it. The U.N. could expand de Mistura’s office into a full-fledged political mission with fully staffed missions in Damascus and New York to supplement current operations in Geneva.
De Mistura’s paper outlines three options for monitoring a cease-fire: deploying a “fully independent international” monitoring operation, relying on local monitors with technical support from the international community, and deploying a more traditional team of local and international monitors. That last option would provide the “highest levels of credibility,” but it “entails high physical risk,” requiring security assurances from armed groups and their international backers to shield the process from being threatened by violent “spoilers.” Given de Mistura’s concerns about security, it seems unlikely he favors this approach.
In a closed-door meeting with the U.N. Security Council this month, de Mistura said, according to speaking notes obtained by Foreign Policy, that while he has “been looking at options for monitoring, verification, and reporting in the event of a cease-fire,” any final arrangement would have to be approved by the warring parties. As a fallback, de Mistura said he would also begin talking to combatants about confidence-building measures — like pledges to spare hospitals and schools from attacks and let humanitarian aid into besieged towns — to ease the suffering of civilians.
But he acknowledged that Syria will “remain highly fragmented, volatile, and militarized” for the foreseeable future. “In such a situation, it would be extremely challenging to deploy international monitors to conduct observation tasks on the ground,” he said.
Over time, the international community must work toward deepening its role in supporting peace efforts on the ground, de Mistura warned. “This means we must collectively understand and accept the risks involved,” he said. “We are on standby to develop a realistic approach.”
FP senior staff writer John Hudson contributed to this report.
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