December 28, 2015 No.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime

By: N. Mozes*


On December 18, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254, which included a "road map for a peace process in Syria, setting a timetable" for talks between the parties. This resolution, which stemmed from a Russian initiative, granted de-facto legal status to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which convened in Vienna on November 14, 2015.[1]

A comparison of this resolution and the June 30, 2012 Geneva Communique ratified in Security Council Resolution 2118 shows the changes in the international community's perception of the Syria crisis, of its causes  and of ways to resolve it. These changes tend towards favoring the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and imply legitimization of this regime for at least another two years. One of the manifestations of this is the invitation extended to Iran - the regime's strategic ally, which is playing an active role in the fighting in Syria - to be part of the ISSG.

This change in the international community's position is not taking place in a vacuum. An early sign of it was seen in the September 2013 U.S.-Russia agreement on the chemical weapons disarmament of the Syrian regime, following claims that it had used them on civilians. That agreement effectively rubberstamped the regime's remaining in power at least until the disarmament was completed - which was to be in 2014. Another early sign of the change was seen in was the initiatives of UN Special Envoy for the Syria Crisis Staffan de Mistura, which accepted the regime's claims that addressing the danger posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) took priority over the political process.

This paper will outline the differences between UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December 18, 2015) and the Geneva Communique (June 30, 2012).

The UN Security Council unanimously adopts Resolution 2254 (Image: Un-report.blogspot)

Geneva Communique, June 2012: Assad Regime Primarily Responsible For Crisis; Transitional Body Will Have Full Powers; Parties Will Be Held Accountable For Acts Committed During The Conflict

In late June 2012, over a year after the outbreak of the Syria crisis, the foreign ministers of the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, and the EU convened in Geneva. At the end of their meeting, they issued a Final Communique that included the following points:

Responsibility for the Crisis: The responsibility for the crisis and its solution was placed primarily on the Syrian regime.

Ceasefire: A call for an immediate ceasefire and for the Syrian government to take confidence-building steps such as releasing political prisoners and enabling freedom of protest.

Establishing Transitional Governing Body: Solving the crisis will take place via an interim phase that will include establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over intelligence services. According to the communique, this body "could include members of the present government" as well as from the opposition and other groups.

Constitution: The Communique states that "there can be a review of the constitutional order and the

legal system. The result of constitutional drafting would be subject to popular approval." That is, there is no explicit demand to draft a new constitution.

Elections: After the establishment of constitutional order, free and fair multiparty elections will be held for the new institutions and offices established in the constitution.

Government Bodies: A continuity of governmental institutions and qualified staff, including intelligence services and military forces, must be preserved, but they must operate according to professional standards while protecting human rights. In effect, this is a demand for a fundamental change in the behavior of these organizations. It was also stated that these institutions would be subordinate to the transitional governing body.

Accountability for Acts Committed during the Crisis: Demanding accountability for acts committed during the conflict and carrying out national reconciliation, possibly according to the South African model.

Opposition Elements That Will Conduct the Negotiations: Undetermined.

Fate of Bashar Al-Assad: Assad was not mentioned in the communique, but its content indicates that as part of the transitional process, he will be held accountable and will relinquish his powers to the transitional governing body. However, the communique did not specifically determine that he should step down.[2]

UNSCR 2254, December 2015: Both Sides Responsible For Crisis; Transitional Body's Powers Unspecified; No Demand For Accountability For Acts Committed During The Conflict

As stated, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 effectively adopted the ISSG Vienna statement, granting it international legal legitimacy. While the resolution does call for full implementation of the aforementioned Geneva Communique, a close examination indicates that there are substantial differences between the two documents, some of which stem from developments on the ground and the rise of ISIS. These developments were skillfully leveraged by the Assad regime and its ally Russia to attempt to allow Assad to remain in power.

UNSCR 2254 includes the following points:

Responsibility for the Crisis: While the Geneva Communique placed responsibility for the crisis primarily on the regime, in UNSCR 2254 responsibility is placed on all sides, though the main responsibility for protecting the population is placed on the regime.

Terrorism: Great emphasis is placed on the danger that terrorist organizations, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN), pose to the future of Syria, the region, and the world, and on the need to eliminate them.

Ceasefire: The resolution calls for a ceasefire across Syria that will take effect concurrent with the start of the political process in January 2016. This means that all sides are given a chance to improve their positions on the ground, and, as a result, in the negotiations. The ceasefire will not apply to defensive and offensive action against terrorist organizations such as ISIS, JN, and other groups, as determined by the ISSG. This is, therefore, a limited ceasefire. Another problematic aspect of this clause is the cooperation that exists in certain areas between JN and rebel groups that are considered moderate.

Transitional Period: While the resolution does state that the crisis will be resolved via a Syrian political process that will fully implement the Geneva Communique, including the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, it also adopts more ambiguous terminology to describe the body that is to manage the interim period leading up to the elections - "credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance" that would draft a new constitution and prepare the country for elections - without mentioning what elements will take part in this governance. This terminology was initially mentioned in the closing statement of the October 30, 2015 foreign ministers' meeting in Vienna, and it is unclear whether it is another name for the "transitional governing body" mentioned in the Geneva 2012 Communique, or is meant to refer to a different body. In any case, it appears to be a concession to the Syrian regime and its allies, who oppose the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, because that would effectively mean a fundamental regime change. Instead, they have called to establish a national unity government, which would ensure the survival of the current regime in its present form.

Opposition Elements That Will Conduct the Negotiations: While not specifically identified, the resolution stresses that the opposition delegation must represent "the broadest possible spectrum," which also includes moderate oppositionists who are not demanding that Assad step down. Indeed, though the resolution stresses the December 11, 2015 meeting of opposition elements in Riyadh - which was attended by the more hawkish elements that reject any possibility of Assad remaining in power - it also mentioned the meetings of the moderate opposition that took place in Moscow (in January 2015 and April 2015) and Cairo (in June 2015). The mere mention of the Cairo and Moscow meetings, attended by opposition elements that Russia considers more moderate, effectively invalidates the decisions of the Riyadh meeting regarding the makeup of the opposition delegation to the negotiations with the regime, opening this issue for further discussion. This is to the satisfaction of the Syrian regime and to the chagrin of those demanding its ouster.

Timetable: Unlike the Geneva Communique, which set no timetable, the resolution determines that negotiations will begin in early January 2016, and that a "credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance" will be established six months later to draft a new constitution. No more than eighteen months after the establishment of this governance, and once a new constitution is drafted, elections will take place under UN supervision. The resolution does not determine whether the elections will be parliamentary or presidential, or both, apparently in order to avoid determining in advance the character of the future Syrian regime. 

Constitution: Unlike the Geneva Communique, the resolution states explicitly that the "credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance" must draft a new constitution. However, while the communique stated that the constitution should receive popular support, the resolution includes no such stipulation.

Elections: As stated, the resolution determines that, after the drafting of a new constitution and no more than two years after the start of negotiations, elections will take place under UN supervision. The resolution states that Syrians living in exile will also be eligible to vote. It should be emphasized that this is the only clause in the resolution that seems to imply that Assad will not continue as president after the interim period, since most of the Syrian refugees are likely to be regime opponents. However, if by the inclusion of this clause some of the drafters of the resolution meant to ensure Assad's ouster, it should be noted that the inclusion of this clause also means that they do not rule Assad's running in these elections.

Government Bodies: The resolution reiterates the importance of maintaining the continuity of state institutions. Unlike the Geneva Communique, it does not state that their continued operation must be based on human rights criteria.

Accountability for Acts Committed during the Crisis: While the Geneva Communique demanded accountability for acts committed during the Syria conflict, the resolution calls on all parties to act according to international humanitarian law, but does not explicitly call for holding criminals accountable.

Fate of Bashar Al-Assad: Like the Geneva Communique, UNSCR 2254 does not address the fate of Bashar Al-Assad. While the Geneva Communique stipulated that the transitional governing body would have full authority, the resolution also does not define the authority of the "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance," nor, as mentioned, does it mention prosecuting war crimes. These points could indicate that the resolution effectively enables Assad's ongoing rule for at least another two years.[3]


Thus, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 grants the Bashar Al-Assad regime de-facto legitimacy to continue ruling for two more years under the auspices of the UN.

 *N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.





[1] The ISSG, which included foreign ministers and representatives of 18 states (including the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran) and organizations, convened to discuss ways to expedite the resolution of the Syrian crisis. The main points of its final statement were:  The political process must be "Syrian-led" and "Syria-owned" and based on the 2012 Geneva Communique; a UN-sponsored ceasefire across Syria will take effect concurrent with the start of the political process; the ceasefire will not apply to defensive and offensive action against terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and other groups, as determined by the ISSG; official negotiations between regime and opposition representatives will commence on January 1, 2016; within six months a "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" will be established to draft a new constitution; within 18 months of the establishment of this governance free and fair elections will be held under UN supervision. The statement did not address the fate of Bashar Al-Assad.

[2], June 30, 2012.

[3], December 18, 2015.