Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro | "Syria’s murderous stalemate: the imperative to break it"
On 3rd and 4th of July 2017, the International Panel on Exiting Violence (IPEV), along with a dozen of North-African researchers, gathered in Tunis for a symposium including conferences and roundtables about five of the research topics of the panel’s working groups.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, director of the IPEV International Advisory Board, gave a public talk about the situation in Syria.
« Syria’s murderous stalemate: the imperative to break it »
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro
Chair of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, director of the IPEV International Advisory Board
International Panel on Exiting Violence, Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme
Tunis, 3/4 July 2017
Six long years have passed since the war in the Syrian Arab Republic started. The toll that this conflict has taken on the Syrian people goes far beyond anything that we could have imagined when the uprising began in 2011
During this barbaric conflict the Syrian people have seen their country torn apart at the hands of an ever growing number of belligerents, while warring parties fight for their own political and strategic interests. Former UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to Syria once said that “everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all.” Sadly, these words ring truer today than ever.
Syria’s civil war is the worst geopolitical disaster of the twenty-first century. As violence escalated year after year, so did the seemingly endless number of innocent men, women and children whose lives were lost to the conflict. No corner of the country has been left unscathed. Destruction, rubble and chaos have replaced homes, schools, hospitals, we can speak of a weaponisation of health care, and historical monuments. 
In the next minutes I will deal with the mission impossible to inform you about the six years work of the UN commission on Syria, to depict the murderous stalemate in the country, to explain why the war continues and to understand why exiting violence so difficult .
THE WORK OF THE COMMISSION
The Human Rights Council, in its resolution S-17/1, mandated the commission to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic, to establish the facts and circumstances, to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations are held accountable.
We rely primarily on first-hand accounts. The commission has collected an enormous volume of evidence, that will be essential to any eventual effort to ensure accountability. The information herein is based on 5200 interviews conducted in the region and from Geneva and corroborated by at least another source. Photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery and medical records are collected and analyzed. The standard of proof is met when the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that incidents occurred as described.
We investigate an ongoing conflict, usually unpredictable and evolving rapidly. We don’t take sides, we are only accountable to the HRC, and we have accomplished to reach the five UN SC permanent members, all the influential states in the war and all warring parties, except the terrorist organisations.
THE MURDEROUS STALEMATE
The result of this six years’ war is a bitter and murderous stalemate. Frontlines shift incrementally, as parties occasionally make tactical gains, and this generates the illusion that a military solution to the conflict is possible. In reality, the war remains deadlocked, while violence rips further through the social fabric of Syrian society.
The militarization of the conflict in Syria since 2012 has each year deepened. The dynamics of the conflict has become increasingly more complex. The proliferating number of parties engaged in direct hostilities on an expanding number of frontlines has brought further chaos and destruction to a nation on the brink of disintegration.
Civilians have been deliberately targeted for attacks – including ground and air assaults, as well as sieges – where belligerents conflated a community’s ethnic and/or religious background and its perceived political loyalties. In some cases, there has been intentional targeting of communities, notably by ISIS. In some cases, external intervention has exacerbated ethno-sectarian tensions.
Almost 85% of Syrians live in poverty, with more than two-thirds of the population in either extreme or abject poverty. Half of Syria´s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced by war. Owing to the escalation in hostilities countrywide, an additional 4.5 million Syrian men, women, and children are confined to areas where humanitarian actors do not have regular access.
Forced to leave their homes to escape the violence, more than six and half million Syrians now live as refugees. Neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have struggled to cope with one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Around one million refugees live across Europe where most of transit and destination countries do not protect their rights and dignity.
Over the past six years, thousands of detainees have been killed while in the custody of warring parties. Syrian civilians have been arbitrarily arrested, unlawfully detained, taken hostage, or kidnapped, since the conflict erupted. Thousands more have disappeared after initial arrest by State forces or while moving through Government-held territory. Those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes, violations and abuses committed against Syrians fear no consequences. The Commission has repeatedly called upon the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or to an ad hoc international tribunal, without success. The absence of decisive action by the community of States, as a whole, has nourished a deeply culture of impunity.
WHY THE WAR CONTINUES FOR SO LONG
Since the first report in 2011 we said clear and loudly and since then repeated as a mantra that there is no military solution for the crisis. The only one way out of this conflict is for the parties to engage in genuine, all-inclusive and constructive political dialogue.
The continuing war represents a profound failure of diplomacy because of the very nature of the war. Influential states have acted with equivocation in their efforts to extinguish the conflict in Syria. While upholding the need for a political solution, some have deepened their military involvement, accentuating the internationalization of the conflict. Believing that military pressure is a prerequisite for any political process to succeed, external actors have flooded the warring parties they support with money, fighters, and weapons.
There are transfers of arms, ammunition and other form of military support from regional and international powers for all warring parties. Over 90 percent of the arms in Syria were manufactured in countries that are permanent members of the UNSC. This has only fed a brutal escalation of the armed violence that continues to take the lives of Syrian civilians.
The porous borders of Syria facilitated the involvement of regional armed actors, increasingly along sectarian lines. The dynamics of the conflict are extremely complex and extend well beyond its borders. The overtones of sectarianism present in many of the violations find their roots in politics. It is politics that pushes sectarianism, engenders violence and empowers its perpetrators. We could speak of a “politicization of ethnicity“.
The fact that the underlying battle is multiparty rather than two-sided also works against the resolution of the conflict, the war has mutated into a multi-sided and highly fluid war of attrition where belligerents have repeatedly experienced surges and setbacks. This has served only to fuel the illusion that a military victory remains possible.
THE DIFFICULT EXITING FROM VIOLENCE
During the course of the war, the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council launched international peace initiatives during different moments with mixed results. From early in 2011, Western countries concerned about the mounting crisis raised the situation in the Human Rights Council. Arab governments, initially wary of this route, came to embrace it as they increasingly turned against President Assad.
Geneva has been at the center of international peace efforts since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. In March 2012, Kofi Annan then UN and Arab League Joint Envoy presented a six point plan.
The plan presented by Kofi Annan linked a cessation of armed violence to the creation of “an effective United Nations supervision mechanism”, paving the way for a peacekeeping mission. The plan did not call for Assad’s departure – instead Annan demanded a “transitional governing body” to administer the end of his political system. The plan had borrowed ideas endorsed by the Human Rights Council and proposed by the Commission of Inquiry; it deliberately emphasized politics and security issues rather than human rights concerns.
Kofi Annan’s attempt to resolve this by engineering a negotiated transition came too late, as both the Syrian government and its opponents were trapped in an escalatory cycle of violence. It is tragic that the Security Council did not head off the Syrian crisis escalating in 2011 before a settlement became almost impossible. If the members of the Security Council learn anything from this grim narrative, it is that they should respond to human rights abuses and the first signs of conflict as early as possible – both to save lives on the ground and to avoid deep diplomatic rifts such as those created by Syria’s descent into all-out war. In the following years several opportunities to end the war were missed.
The UN-led talks in Geneva remain until today “the main basis for the political solution and transition”. In June 2012, the United States, Russia, and other nations gathered there for a meeting, later called Geneva, and they issued a Geneva Memorandum – that has been the main foundation for 13 UN SC resolutions on Syria, never fully implemented, and other talks until today .
The memorandum also served as a guiding framework for Syrian- talks in January and February 2014 (“Geneva II”) and also influenced the negotiating round in February 2016 (“Geneva III”). In February-March 2017 there was another round of negotiation, the Geneva IV peace that achieved no breaktrough but conclude with an “agreed agenda” and both parties claimed a small success. Unlike, previous, failed attempts, no delegation walked away.
In the Geneva process and other talks three features persist to hamper negotiation such as the split among the five permanent member, the composition of the delegations of the different rebel groups, the definition of the nature and the process of transition and particularly over the question of President Assad´s future. UN SG Ban Ki Moon rightly once said that the negotiations became hostage to the issue of the departure or not of President Assad. At a high point of the uprising in July 2011, it was thought that Assad was finished. But in the diplomatic corps there were dissenting voices. The long serving British ambassador to Damascus, Simon Collis, said that “Assad can still probably count on the support of 30-40 per cent of the population“. And he was conservative in his assessment; I would have said 60%. Former ambassadors to Syria, whom I met several times at that period, were equally extremely reticent about the imminent fall of Assad. Eric Chevallier, from France, expressed some doubts about the destiny of Assad to Paris and he received a classic rebuke “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall“. Robert Ford, USA, also refuted the domino theory of the Arab Spring that posited that the fall of Assad was inevitable.
Beyond the Geneva Talks there was an infinity of formal or informal conferences in different cities, Montreux, Lausanne (when there was not sufficient rooms in Geneva because of the watch or car shows) Moscow, Cairo, Zabadani, Vienna, Riyadh, and Astana in Kazakhstan.
Looking through all these years, without having any responsibility for the political track, I must recognize that the conflict in Syria has proven particularly resistant to mediation, as a recent assessment by the International Peace Institute concluded. The Syrian government, “made up of hardened Machiavellians”, as someone said, has been prepared to do whatever necessary to survive, whatever the cost to the country, it would find it very hard to share power or to remove the president without risk of collapse. The opposition, the myriad of rebel groups, immensely divided on all instances among themselves, has contributed to the intractability of the conflict through its maximalist demands for the “fall of the regime”, its “rush to confrontation” when the regime still retained significant support, and its unwillingness, where in the name of a democratic or Islamist state to accept a political compromise. There was a divide between a fractious exiled opposition with little legitimacy in the country and an opposition inside Syria that was increasingly fragmented in multiple localized fractions and dominated by intransigent and often jihadist (or terrorist) factions backed by external sponsors. Thus the warring parties were not readily amenable to a compromise political settlement or fully welcoming of UN mediation, except insofar as they thought it would strengthen their own hand in shaping any settlement. 
The most recent phases of the peace process began in Astana, Kazakhstan where an International Meeting on Syrian Settlement took place there on 25 January 2017. The ”Astana Process” talks aimed to support the framework in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, that proposed a road map for peace and ended on the 24th with an agreement between Iran, Russia, and Turkey to form a joint monitoring body to work to enforce the Resolution 2254 ceasefire. Then there was another round of meetings in Astana held between 14 and 15 March yielded further agreement by all parties to the existing ceasefire agreement.
But let’s end with some auspicious notes.
In Astana, Kazakhstan, last May when Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to establish four ‘de-escalation zones’ in western Syria in the form of areas where the three guarantors of the agreement planned to reduce violence. Effectively the talks have resulted in a discernible reduction in levels of violence in the zones around Idlib and western Aleppo. Hostilities continue unabated in the zones around Homs, Damascus and southern Dara’a. Sadly, the enduring violence in these areas has not changed in nature. Outside of the de-escalation zones, the conflict continues to rage with disastrous consequences for civilians.
To the detriment of the countless Syrians in desperate need of assistance, the de-escalation zones have yet to bring any tangible improvement in the delivery of humanitarian aid. In fact, in those areas more urgently in needs of humanitarian assistance, the United Nations has only been permitted one humanitarian delivery in 2017.
Over the past few months ISIL lost territory at a rapid pace in northern and central Syria. As we speak, an SDF assault backed by the international coalition on Raqqa city is underway to expel the terrorist group from its de facto capital. If successful, this offensive could liberate the city’s civilian population from the group’s oppressive clutches, including Yazidi women and girls, whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide.
The establishment of de-escalation zones is a step in the right direction. They potentially help to support the conditions necessary for more comprehensive political discussions within the Geneva framework led by Special Envoy De Mistura. An inclusive political settlement is the only long term hope to end this conflict and the suffering of Syrian civilians.
 23 June 2017: the total number of persons of concern, including registered refugees, in neighboring countries and North Africa is 5, 058,456 (Turkey–2, 992,567; Lebanon–1,011,366; Jordan–660,785; Iraq–241,406; Egypt–122,228; and the rest of North Africa–30,104).
 Total Syrian Asylum Applications in Europe: 937,718 between April 2011 and March 2017 (65% Germany and Sweden; 21% Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria; 14% all others). http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php
 For the previous paragraph see https://www.ipinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/IPI-Rpt-Syrian-Crisis2.pdf p.4