February 28, 2018
UNSC Resolution 2401 (2018) of February 24 demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria. It calls upon all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas and allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It also affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against terrorist organizations as designated by the Security Council.
In Ankara, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately welcomed the Resolution and said that uninterrupted access to humanitarian aid is a dictate of international law and Turkey, while continuing to extend humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, will remain resolute in fighting terrorist organizations that threaten the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria.
Many observers interpreted the statement as an expression of Turkey’s determination to continue with Operation Olive Branch launched under earlier UNSC resolutions on combatting terrorism and Article 51 of the UN Charter which stipulates that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security…”
UNSC Resolution 2401 does not contain a specific reference to Afrin like some other places, in particular Eastern Ghouta. Neither does it mention the PYD/YPG which, so far at least, does not figure among the terrorist organizations as designated by the Security Council. As a matter of fact, the PYD/YPG remains Washington’s principal partner in Syria.
Following the UNSC meeting, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia, in response to persistent questions on Afrin said, “I will not interpret it. You read the Resolution and interpret it yourself.” He later added that the Resolution says, “throughout Syria” and covers humanitarian access “everywhere”. Officials of other countries including the U.S. have made similar remarks.
So, what to expect in the coming days?
There is no doubt that the behind closed doors diplomacy which allowed the adoption of Resolution 2041 must have covered the challenges faced throughout Syria. The fact that the Resolution does not contain a specific reference to Afrin is probably the result of major powers’ reluctance to further burden a discussion which essentially focused on Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks. Moreover, this may reflect a desire on the part of the U.S. and Russia keep Turkey on their side and to resolve the Afrin issue on their own terms; Washington through the bilateral mechanisms announced during Secretary Tillerson’s recent visit to Ankara and Moscow primarily through resumption of full political dialogue between Ankara and the Assad regime, and the Astana process.
Having created a security zone around the town of Afrin referred to in the Turkish media as the “crescent” with minimum civilian casualties, Turkey needs to be prepared for more calls in the coming days to end or downsize its military operations. Those who have counseled restraint in Afrin may say that the situation now falls under the second part of Article 51 which says, “ … Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense … shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” They may claim that Resolution 2041 represents the action mentioned therein. Much will depend on whether the Resolution would remain a dead letter or not. Though not very likely, a sustained ceasefire will increase pressure on Ankara.
To conclude, Ankara is still running in a narrow alley between the U.S. and Russia. And, the bigger question remains whether Moscow and Washington would ever agree on an agenda of peace and reconstruction in Syria. Almost exactly two years ago, on February 22, 2016, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), had issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. (*)
(*) Syria: “Cessation of Hostilities”, February 29, 2016.