Can the UN Help Broker a Syria Ceasefire?

For the first time in years, there is actual momentum towards an international political solution to the Syria conflict.

Over the weekend, the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States, operating under the auspices so-called International Syria Support Group issued the most tangible roadmap for ceasefire and political solution to the Syria conflict since the outbreak of the war.

The plan set forth in Vienna basically disaggregates the international fight against ISIS and al Qaeda from a political process that can bring the other rebel groups into negotiations with the Assad government. In other words, the rebels who are not considered irredeemable terrorists and the government will negotiate directly with each other about coming to some political accommodation to lay down arms. It envisions that negotiations start by January 1 and “within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”

This is clearly very ambitious. And to be sure, the communique punts on some of the more divisive issues, such as the precise status of Bashar al Assad. But the prospects of success of this newest push are arguably brighter than other previous failed efforts for the fact that the international community–namely Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia and Iran– have all signed onto this vision in the joint communique released in Vienna.

The communique gives a three big roles to the United Nations to implement this vision.

The first is complicated, if fairly straightforward. The group singles out the efforts of UN envoy Steffan di Mistura to wrangle the various rebel groups to the negotiating table. The Swedish-Italian diplomat will serve as the main interlocutor between the international community and the rebel groups “to bring together the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians, who will decide their negotiating representatives and define their negotiating positions.”

The efforts of his predecessors Kofi Annan and then Lakdhar Brahimi all fell short because of irreconcilable differences at the Security Council. The disagreements between Russia and the USA still persist. But after this communique, there is far wider diplomatic space for the UN envoy than at any other time in the last five years. Di Mistura has been at this for over a year, to varying degrees of success. He’ll have to summon all his diplomatic acumen, honed over decades in tough places like Afghanistan and Iraq, to leverage his UN good offices to this cause.

The second role envisioned for the UN is far more nebulous. The contact group calls for a “U.N. endorsed ceasefire monitoring mission in those parts of the country where monitors would not come under threat of attacks from terrorists.” To that end, the group called on Ban Ki Moon to “accelerate planning for supporting the implementation of a nationwide ceasefire.”

As Richard Gowen points out, the Vienna group used the term “UN-endorsed” as opposed to a “UN-commanded” one. This is probably a good thing. A 2012 UN monitoring mission ended in failure, as blue hatted monitors were unable to operate in the ongoing war zone and were obstructed in their work by the Syrian government. Even if conditions are more favorable this time around, this will arguably be the most difficult, politically fraught and dangerous peacekeeping mission in the UN’s history.   But if not for the UN, then what group can credibly and neutrally monitor a ceasefire? Ban Ki Moon will have to tread very carefully and his plan will likely include options for a ceasefire monitoring mission that have does not have precedent in UN history. The situation is simply not suitable for traditional UN peacekeeping or peace monitoring.

The final role envisioned for the UN is to implement elections in a year-and-a-half, providing everything up to that point goes according to plan.  “Fee and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months,” the joint communique states. “These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.”  To that end, the United Nations is well suited for this task. Post-conflict election monitoring and administration is bread-and-butter UN work.  It’s administered elections in the toughest conflict zones on the planet, including elections in Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2010 and 2014, among many others. Both elections took place in the context of an ongoing insurgency, and both lead to generally accepted results.

The bottom line is that if this new diplomatic process is to succeed there must be broad unity in the international community. If this unity remains and the UN is empowered to undertake the tasks to which its been directed, then this is the first real chance of ending this war after five brutal years.