- Early January deadline set for both sides to start peace talks
- Defining terrorists also remains a hurdle to a Syria agreement
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a political transition to end Syria’s bloody civil war, while sidestepping a list of divisive issues topped by the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
Foreign ministers from 17 countries, gathered in New York on Friday before the council’s session, also failed to bridge differences including which opposition factions should be branded “terrorists.”
That designation would exclude a group from the political process while implicitly endorsing it as a target for the separate campaigns of airstrikes by Russia and a U.S.-led coalition. Instead, the world powers settled for a resolution calling on warring sides to start peace talks “in early January.”
Still, the resolution -- the first adopted by the 15-member Security Council that focused on a political track for Syria -- may give momentum to the talks. Russia previously vetoed four attempts by Western powers to censure the Syrian regime while agreeing on measures to destroy chemical weapons and convene peace talks in Geneva.
“It is very good that the U.S. and Russia are trying to work together even if they have very different outcomes in mind,” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said in an e-mail. “Up until now, both sides have believed that an escalation in fighting could help turn the balance of power in their favor and bring their opponents to their knees.”
The Security Council “is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the Security Council.
Kerry told reporters later that U.S.-Russian cooperation in preparing for the peace talks may open the way for more military coordination between the two countries over Syria. But he added that Russia must focus its airstrikes on Islamic State terrorists rather than some anti-Assad groups that the U.S. and its allies back as moderates.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Security Council that “only the Syrians can decide their own fate” and “we all agree that terrorists have no place at the negotiating table.” He said the resolution “should open the way to a broad anti-terrorist front,” including the Syrian government and Kurdish militias.
Russia, the U.S. and the other main UN players met Friday morning before a broader gathering including regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. The goal was to clinch a blueprint for Syria’s path to peace that skirted points of contention, including the future of Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran but who the Saudis, Europe and the U.S. want removed.
The resolution urges UN member states to support cease-fire efforts and end attacks on civilians and for all parties to allow access for humanitarian aid. It also calls for a transitional government within six months and elections within 18 months.
Left unclear was whether the early January deadline for the start of talks between the opposition and government can be met. Kerry told reporters it may slip until mid- or late-January.
“We have an unambiguous mandate with this UN resolution, including a time frame that envisions initial talks toward a cease-fire and the formation of a transitional government," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Saturday in Berlin after meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, calling the UN discussions “difficult,” said the officials had determined that “the destiny and future of Syria is something that must be decided and carried out by the Syrian people."
The resolution also asks UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report back within a month on options for cease-fire monitoring, verification and reporting. In remarks to the Security Council, Ban urged members “to show vision and leadership in overcoming your differences.”
Lavrov said the UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will work on forming an opposition delegation that could start talks with the Assad government early next month. The delegation will be based on a series of meetings of Assad opponents, most recently in Riyadh this month, Lavrov said.
Russia had criticized the Saudi-sponsored opposition gathering for including groups that it considers close to terrorists.
“It is inadmissable to divide terrorists into good ones and bad ones,” Lavrov told the Security Council.
The Assad Divide
Publicly at least, the divide on Assad persists.
Russia reiterated its rejection of calls for Assad’s ouster. Lavrov said that any "preconditions" for the fight against terrorism are unacceptable.
"How could somebody bring together a people when he has massacred so many?" French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked, referring to Assad.
The U.S., U.K. and France have increasingly indicated that Assad’s departure may not have to be immediate and that the Syrian military and government institutions should remain intact. Kerry told reporters Friday that the debate about Assad “is not being kicked down the road” and is becoming part of “a more urgent and necessary transition process.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama reasserted the U.S. position that Assad ultimately must go.
“I think Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the powers involved to move forward in a nonsectarian way,” Obama said Friday at a White House news conference. He added that it’s important to construct “a bridge” that allows Russians and Iranians to be sure “that their equities are respected” and that Assad’s minority Alawites “are not crushed.”