Last Friday, December 18, was not the first time the Security Council has adopted a resolution on the Syrian Civil War. In fact there have been seven resolutions since the outbreak of the war in the spring of 2011, but these have dealt mainly with the humanitarian situation and the question of chemical weapons.
The reason the Council has not been able to act decisively before stems primarily from the deep divisions between the West and Russia, although it should be noted that China, another permanent member of the Security Council, consistently backs Russia. Those differences remain but Friday’s resolution breaks new ground not only in calling for a political settlement of the conflict with a transitional government, but also in recognising “ensuring continuity of government institutions”, namely those presently controlled by President Assad.
While the British and French Foreign Ministers in their speeches continued to call for the departure of President Assad, the resolution itself makes no mention of the Syrian President or his government. To do so would have forfeited Russian cooperation.
In a clear adjustment of US policy, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke instead of the need for a political settlement that gave the Syrian people “a real choice – not a choice between Assad and Daesh”. Mr Kerry acknowledged the sharp differences within the international community, “especially about the future of President Assad” but said this had to be decided by a Syrian-owned process.
Indeed, paragraph two of the resolution makes it clear that the negotiations are to be between “the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition”. That government remains led by Bashar al Assad, at least for the foreseeable future. The timetable set out in the resolution calls on the Secretary General to convene talks between the Syrian government and the opposition as early as the first few weeks of January.
This will not be easy. It is probable that the Russian government will be able to deliver President Assad’s representatives to Geneva for the talks. The opposition Syrian National Council and their backers in the Gulf States may prove more difficult, although the fact that Jordan, the one Arab state on the Security Council, voted for the resolution gives some hope in that regard.
Nevertheless, there will be some in the Arab world who will be sceptical with regard to Friday’s outcome. They will note that nothing in the new resolution, which stipulates elections under UN auspices in eighteen months, excludes President Assad from running. And even if pressure were to mount for his departure, the ruling Baathist party is highly unlikely to depart the scene, supported as it is by Russia and Iran, both determined to retain their influence in the region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a joint press conference with Secretary of State Kerry, pointedly referred to the ‘chaos’ following the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 and of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and underlined the imperative to avoid such an outcome in the case of Syria.
Despite all the caveats about the difficulties of the road ahead, there has been progress. Security Council resolution 2254 was adopted unanimously, indicating a new-found understanding between Washington and Moscow on Syria’s future. It is in the interest of both countries to see a successful outcome to the talks scheduled for the New Year.
For President Obama, with only twelve months left in office, Friday’s resolution represents the only hope of making real progress on a conflict that has long overshadowed his second term in the White House.