The United Nations Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a resolution that for the first time endorses a roadmap for peace in Syria, and offers backing to a nationwide ceasefire as part of that process.
The vote followed a convening of the so-called International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna last month, which resulted in plans for talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and opposition groups by January as well as a parallel ceasefire. It also set an optimistic goal of holding elections in 18 months. Those objectives were endorsed in the resolution passed on Friday.
"We have a lot of distance to travel, some would say miles to go, but the truth is that in the past two months we have started from a standstill, from a non-existent process to have three separate meetings of the ISSG and now a UNSC embrace of a process," said US Secretary of State John Kerry after the vote, which he oversaw as president of the council.
"We have agreed on a plan of action, and the council's action today is an important boost on the road to a political settlement," he added.
Earlier in the day, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with diplomats from other ISSG members — including the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey — at the Palace Hotel in New York to hash out details of the text. According to diplomats, negotiations over the resolution were carried out almost entirely by representatives from the US and Russia.
In spite of its lofty goals, the resolution leaves much undetermined, and even in the best case affects only part of Syria's conflict. Explicitly left out of any ceasefire or peace process are two of the most powerful groups operating in the country: the Islamic State and al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. Also unknown at the time of the vote is the makeup of a list, meant to be compiled by Jordan, containing other extremist rebels that will be isolated — including, as Kerry put it, any "we might decide at some time to designate." The resolution, which was sponsored by the Syrian government itself, notably does not rule out Assad running in a future election.
While the US and Russia both oppose and have launched airstrikes on IS and elements of al Nusrah, they disagree on the fate of Assad, who Moscow has remained a staunch backer of since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. Though some Russian diplomats privately concede that Assad will have to leave power at some point, the future they envision resulting from any talks likely differs widely from that of the US and its Western and Sunni-Arab allies.
"Syria should remain unified, secular, pluri-religious, and pluri-ethnic," Lavrov remarked after the vote. Appearing to reference questions about the yet to be finalized list of extremists, Lavrov added that "it is inadmissible to divide terrorists between good and bad ones." Western officials have accused the Russians of bombing moderate groups — various of which could potentially participate in talks with the government. Kerry repeated that accusation at the tail end of a mostly warm press conference with Lavrov on Friday evening. After Lavrov thought he had had the last word, stating terrorism was the primary issue in Syria, Kerry cut off his own press officer, who was concluding the event, to reference reports that 80 percent of Russian strikes have hit neither IS nor al Nusrah.
The resolution demanded that "all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects… including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardment."
Perhaps the single deadliest weapon used in the war has been the rudimentary barrel bomb, which has been routinely dropped from the air by Syrian government forces. Though rebels have also been responsible for massacres and the killing of thousands of non-combatants, Assad's forces are widely believed to have killed the most civilians during the war. More than 250,000 Syrians have died since 2011.
The conflict has led to an unprecedented displacement both inside and outside Syria. More than four million Syrians have fled the country entirely, most of them living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan — countries that have strained to accommodate the influx of people fleeing bloodshed and unrest.
As the war evolved, early American insistence that Assad had to go gave way to a focus on IS after the group widely expanded the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria last summer. IS has claimed responsibility for several attacks outside of the two countries, including a Paris assault that left 131 dead in November, and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt the month before.
The Security Council's vote on Friday marked the second resolution in as many days that both Russia and the US worked on together. On Thursday, the two countries drafted a text targeting IS financing, including its trade in black market oil and antiquities.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford