UN eyes Syria peace talks towards end of next month
December 22 2015 11:56 PM

The United Nations has said the talks aim to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” in Syria and to draft a new constitution


The United Nations envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, plans to convene peace talks in Geneva in about a month’s time, a senior UN official said yesterday.
On Friday the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing an international road map for a Syria peace process.
“The intention is that (de Mistura) starts some time towards the end of January,” Michael Moller, head of the UN’s Geneva office, told a news conference, adding that he hoped there would be more clarity in the first half of next month.
“Mr De Mistura is, as you know, basically living on a plane these days. Every day, evolutions in how things are being planned and being perceived by the different parties make it very hard to give you some idea of how this is going to evolve.”
The United Nations has said the talks aim to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” in Syria and to draft a new constitution in the country now in its fifth year of civil war.
Friday’s resolution gives a UN blessing to a plan negotiated earlier in Vienna that calls for a ceasefire, talks between the Syrian government and opposition, and a roughly two-year timeline to create a unity government and hold elections.
The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries meeting in Vienna asked De Mistura to set up the Syria talks in Geneva, while promising they would try to engineer a nationwide ceasefire into force as soon as the talks begin.
But the obstacles to ending the war remain daunting, with no side in the conflict able to secure a clear military victory. Despite their agreement at the United Nations, the major powers are bitterly divided on who may represent the opposition as well as on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia and Iran have been Assad’s main allies in the conflict, while Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states and Western powers have supported rebels fighting to overthrow him.
The Security Council also called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to draw up options within a month for monitoring a ceasefire in Syria. It is the second time since Syria’s conflict broke out with mass street protests in March 2011 that the council backed a plan for peace talks and a truce.    
Diplomatic sources said the UN is mulling “light touch” options for monitoring a ceasefire that would keep its risks to a minimum by relying largely on Syrians already on the ground.
UN planning for truce monitoring will seek to avoid repeating the “disaster” of a mission sent to Syria in 2012, diplomats said. That operation failed because the warring parties showed no interest in halting the fighting, they said.
Under the light-touch mechanism under consideration, the UN would rely on Syrian actors - “proxies” - on the ground to report violations. This could possibly involve a small group of non-uniformed UN officials in Syria to carry out investigations of ceasefire violations, diplomats said.
“There’s the idea of proxy-ism, where they were going to look at who would be credible on the ground to get information and to create a reporting mechanism from them to the UN,” a diplomatic source said.
To make the proxy approach work, major powers would need to agree on who is considered a credible Syrian actor.
“Who is it who’s responsible for the credibility of the information?” one diplomatic source asked. “The Syrians on the ground or the UN, which receives the information?”
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations will likely present an option to put UN peacekeepers on the ground. But that approach likely will be ruled out immediately.
Diplomats say they want to avoid a heavy UN footprint in Syria. A large number of UN officials on the ground would require a large security detail to protect them.
“If we have a big security contingent, all of a sudden it looks like a full-scale mission,” one diplomatic source said. “And any UN presence will be targeted in Syria.”
Another tool for aiding verification work, another diplomatic source said, could be the use of unmanned surveillance drones, a technology the UN has begun using in peacekeeping missions in Africa.
The UN had to suspend operations once before in Syria. After deploying some 300 unarmed “blue beret” monitors in April 2012, it was forced by August of that year to end the mission after the moderators became the target of angry crowds and gunfire.
The Security Council had sent in monitors after it endorsed then-UN-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan for Syria calling for talks and a truce.
Another UN peacekeeping force called UNDOF, which still monitors the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights, has repeatedly seen its blue helmets under fire and even kidnapped by militants fighting Assad’s forces.

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