What was the deal on Syria at New York?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Source: Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Source: Russian Foreign Ministry

Members of the International Syria Support Group met in New York on December 18 and agreed on principles of reaching a political settlement to the crisis in Syria. After five hours of discussions, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the decisions taken on Syria, but issues remain unresolved.

The United States initiated a draft UN Security Council resolution on Syria, intended to confirm decisions adopted earlier at meetings in Vienna, where a roadmap to resolve the Syrian crisis had been agreed upon. The draft resolution was discussed during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow on December 15, when Kerry unexpectedly stated that the U.S. and its partners were no longer openly seeking to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. This was a condition on which the U.S. had previously insisted. White House press secretary Josh Earnest later clarified that Washington’s policy remains unchanged: Assad must go.

At their New York meeting International Syria Support Group members confirmed an earlier adopted decision that the authorities and the opposition in Syria should, within six months, agree to form a national unity government. Syria should hold elections under a new constitution which must be adopted within 18 months. Talks between Syrian authorities and the opposition should start under UN auspices in January 2016. As soon as they reach an agreement to form a coalition government, hostilities must stop.

There is still no agreement on a definitive list of terrorist groups currently present in Syria. Jordan, as decided at the meeting in Vienna on November 14, has compiled a list of such groups which, according to media reports, comprise 160 organizations.

So far, the members of the International Syria Support Group unanimously agree only on two names on the draft list: Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front. Also, there is no clarity about who will represent the Syrian opposition at the talks.

Participants at the New York meeting also failed to reach agreement on the thorniest issue of all, that of Bashar al-Assad’s political future. According to Kerry, “obstacles and sharp differences remain within the international community, especially about the future of President Assad.”

The adopted resolution says that “the Syrian people will decide the future” of their country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “this is a clear answer to attempts to impose on Syrians solutions to any questions, including the question on the future of their president.”

At his annual news conference on December 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow “generally agreed with” the draft resolution prepared by the U.S. “I think Syrian officials, having studied the draft, will agree with it, too, although there may be something that somebody does not like. In an attempt to resolve a conflict that has lasted many years, a bloody conflict, there is always room for compromise, but concessions should be made on both sides,” said Putin.

For Russia, other than the political settlement, another aspect of the Syrian crisis is also important, that of uniting efforts in the fight against terrorism. Commenting on the adopted resolution, Lavrov said voting at the UN “should pave the way to forming a broad anti-terror front on the basis of the UN Charter and relying on all those who are fighting terror on the ground, including the Syrian army, Kurdish militias, and armed groups of the patriotic Syrian opposition.” He said the Russian military operation in Syria was a contribution to that fight.

The talks were attended by representatives of Russia, the U.S., the UN, France, Britain, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the European Union, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

According to Lavrov, members of the group are planning to convene for the next round in January. By then, it is expected, the list of opposition representatives to attend the intra-Syrian talks would have been compiled.

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