The Latest from Vienna

The International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna on May 17, 2016 and issued a statement summing up its work. The language of the statement on civilian protection and humanitarian access is positive and assertive. Russia and Iran have agreed on paper to things of potentially great significance in terms of reducing violence and mitigating suffering. But everything in this statement depends on faithful and accurate implementation, and all of the high cards remain in the hands of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.

The May 17 statement elaborated on a joint American-Russian statement of May 9, which, among other things, said the following: “We demand that parties cease any indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including civilian infrastructure and medical facilities. Where attacks leading to significant civilian casualties are reported to have occurred, the co-chairs are committed to undertaking, within existing channels of interaction in Geneva, the region, and capitals, a joint assessment and to sharing the results with the members of the ISSG Ceasefire Task Force and, through the UN Special Envoy for Syria, to the UN Security Council.”

This Russian-American “demand” appears to reflect agreement of the ISSG co-chairs on one point of irreducible importance: there will be no diplomatic process and no political arrangement as long as Syrian civilians are the principal targets of military weaponry. Moscow wants the process to last long enough for Washington to accept Bashar al-Assad as a partner in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Washington wants the process to last long enough to produce, on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body for Syria. Both sides know that the Geneva negotiating process cannot survive with civilians on the bullseye.

The May 9 statement was “welcomed” by the subsequent ISSG statement, which “expressed its serious concern about growing civilian casualties in recent weeks, making clear that the attacks on civilians, including attacks on medical facilities, by any party, is completely unacceptable.” Indeed, the ISSG “welcomed the Russian Federation’s commitment in the Joint Statement of May 9 to ‘work with the Syrian authorities to minimize aviation operations over areas predominantly inhabited by civilians . . .’” Does this mean that Russia, whose military air assets in Syria have themselves targeted civilian neighborhoods in violation of international law, will now prevent its Syrian client from engaging in barrel bombing and other aerial atrocities? If Moscow wishes to act in a manner consistent with the piece of paper it has signed the answer would be yes.

The May 17 statement sought to reaffirm and strengthen the cessation of hostilities (CoH) agreed to in February 2016 and violated routinely. According the statement, “Where the co-chairs [the United States and Russia] believe that a party to the cessation of hostilities has engaged in a pattern of persistent non-compliance, the Task Force could refer such behavior to the ISSG Ministers or those designated by the Ministers to determine appropriate action, including the exclusion of such parties from the arrangements of the cessation and the protection it affords them.”

The news media quickly associated the foregoing statement with potential kinetic measures to be taken against rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham, already regarded by Russia as terrorists. And yet the one party to the CoH most frequently in violation of it is the so-called Syrian government. Indeed, the ISSG statement went on to say, “The ISSG took note of the March 2016 commitment by the Syrian government not to engage in indiscriminate use of force and urged the fulfillment of that commitment.” Plainly speaking, Russia and Iran put their signatures on a document plainly calling out their client for having violated its commitment. The Assad regime was alone in being singled out by name as a party to CoH operating in violation of its provisions.

On humanitarian assistance matters the statement was similarly direct. For example, “The Syrian government has yet to permit access to many locations including a number of besieged communities in Rural Damascus, in contravention of the Munich Statement.” Indeed, the practice of the Assad regime of blocking some UN relief convoys and stealing from others violates not just the Munich Statement, but multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Will Russia force its murderous client to lift the sieges? According to the statement, “Starting June 1, if the UN is denied humanitarian access to any of the designated besieged areas, the ISSG calls on the World Food Program to immediately carry out a program for air bridges and air drops for all areas in need.”

One hopes Russia will compel the lifting of all of its client’s sieges. Air drops are notoriously inefficient, inaccurate, and dangerous. One also wonders if whatever passes for a World Food Program air force will be able to evade and avoid a vaunted regime air defense system that has repeatedly been cited by at least one great power as one of its many excuses for affording no protection whatsoever to Syrian civilians set upon from the air and ground by Assad’s forces.

The May 9 Russia-United States statement addressed an issue that goes to the heart of Assad regime power, and it did so as follows: “The co-chairs urge all parties to effectively address the issue of detainees and hostages in accordance with UNSCR 2254, 2258, and other relevant resolutions.” Sadly, the May 17 statement did not take up this vital issue. As a recent visitor to the Rafik Hariri Center indicated, “Detention goes to the core of regime interests and power; if the issue is untouched political transition is impossible.” The visitor called for independent prison visits by monitors, political pressure on the Assad regime to stop it from issuing death sentences, and the creation of an ISSG task force to monitor the situation. Once regime prisons and dungeons are penetrated by international monitors, much of the regime’s terror grip on Syrians currently under its control will weaken. The failure of the United States to press hard on this issue is profoundly regrettable.

All the same, Secretary of State John Kerry and his team deserve credit for playing well with a poor hand. If Kerry can help Syria get through the balance of the Obama administration with markedly reduced violence and significantly expanded humanitarian assistance, he will have earned the genuine thanks of many. It may well be that Russian President Putin and his Syrian counterpart are not on the same page when it comes to violence reduction. Moscow may see it as the key to its objective of getting Washington to cozy up to Assad. Assad perhaps sees it as threat; as the suspension of a mass homicide survival strategy that has worked to date. Iran, which is part of the ISSG and therefore a party to the May 17 statement, may be the tie-breaker either for its implementation or frustration.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. September 29, 2015. Attribution: via Wikimedia Commons.