Why road to Syria peace could begin in a sleepy Swedish farmhouse

The incessant trilling of the larks was still the dominant sound at Backåkra, a traditional ‘fyrlängad’ – a four-sided, half-timber farmhouse, overlooking a sun-bathed coastal heath sprinkled with purple flowers.

But this peaceful, secluded corner of Österlen, the southeastern corner of the Swedish county of Skåne, will on Saturday be crawling with specialist security officers, diplomats and journalists as the UN security council meets for its annual retreat.

With just six small windows built into the white, lime-washed walls of the farmhouse, it is hard to see how 15 council representatives and 10 UN officials will fit inside.

Speaking in New York before his departure for Sweden, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, appeared concerned at being forced into such close proximity with his counterparts from the United States, France and Britain.

The week running up the meeting saw the two sides accusing each other of lying about the chemical attack in Syria. “I will see how they feel about dealing with me after all what happened,” Nebenzia said.

What is the UN security council and why is it paralysed over Syria?

Why road to Syria peace could begin in a sleepy Swedish farmhouse

What is it?

The security council is the UN’s most powerful body, the only one with the authority to issue legally binding resolutions that can be backed up by sanctions, blue-helmeted peacekeepers or by force of arms.

Who is on it?

There are five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and 10 temporary members at any one time, elected by the general assembly for two-year terms.

Why hasn’t it taken stronger action against Syria?

For a resolution to be passed, nine of the 15 council members must vote for it, but permanent members have a veto. Russia has repeatedly blocked resolutions targeting its ally, Syria. China has also vetoed resolutions on Syria.

What can be done to solve the veto problem?

One possible remedy is to expand the security council and its permanent membership, but the existing members have mixed feelings. The UK and France say they are in favour, the US and Russia are more tepid and China is against it.

Another possible remedy involves reining in the use of the veto. France and others argue an immediate fix would be for permanent members to waive their veto rights in cases of mass atrocities, but Russia is adamant in its opposition.

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Should diplomatic tensions rise, the only easy escape will be to a meditation circle 300 metres away built at the instigation of Dag Hammarskjöld, the legendary Swedish secretary general of the United Nations, who was killed when his plane crashed in unexplained circumstances in Zambia in 1961.

Hammarskjöld, who bought this farmhouse four years before he died, is the reason that Sweden has chosen to drag the world’s top diplomats so deep into the countryside as part of its two-year term on the council.

After a recent refurbishment, the house was reopened this May for what Karin Erlandsson, its manager, describes as “highly exclusive conferences for companies and organisations who share Dag’s spirit”.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, said at a press conference on Friday that she hoped the presence of Hammarskjöld’s books, furniture and writings at the house would inspire today’s council members. “He was an extremely brave person with great relevance to the security council,” she said.

The council has been paralysed by acrimonious rifts in the six meetings it has held since the chemical weapons attack on the rebel Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April.

“I don’t think anyone should have any exaggerated expectations that this whole issue will be solved here,” Wallström said. “It takes time. What we hope is that we will create an opportunity for them to have time to hang out here and to do it in the informal way that such an environment allows.”

The council is also expected to discuss the refugee question and the future of its peacekeeping efforts.

The British ambassador, Karen Pierce, has said she hopes the retreat would at least begin a political process that could eventually lead to peace in Syria. “That’s the most important thing,” she said. “I do hope that the retreat will be able to make progress on that.”

Jill and Jan, two locals out for their morning walk, said that a taste of the Österlen countryside might indeed help Nebenzia and his US counterpart Nikki Haley thrash out their differences.

“Maybe they will have more nice earthy thoughts here,” Jill says. “If you are here, you can let your thoughts wander. You can see the horizon.”

The Syrian war

March 2011

Unprecedented protests demand civil liberties and the release of political prisoners after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad family. The regime represses demonstrations in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa but protests continue.

July 2011

Defecting army colonel Riad al-Asaad sets up the Turkey-based rebel Free Syrian Army. Islamist groups join the revolt.

March 2012

Regime forces take control of the rebel stronghold in Homs after a month of bombardment. Other bloody operations are carried out, notably in the central city of Hama, after massive anti-regime protests.

July 2012

FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.

August 2013

More than 1,400 people die in a chemical weapon attack on rebel-held districts near Damascus.

September 2013

The US and Assad ally Russia agree a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, averting punitive US strikes against the regime.

January 2014

Hostilities between jihadists and rebel groups turn into an open war in the north. The group that will become known as Islamic State takes Raqqa – the first provincial capital to fall out of regime control – from rebel forces.

September 2014

A US-led coalition launches airstrikes against Isis in Syria. The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, which since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.

September 2015

Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad’s troops, who are on the back foot. Russian firepower helps turn the tables for the regime, which begins to retake rebel-held territory.

December 2016

The regime retakes Syria’s second city, Aleppo.

January 2017

Russia and Iran, as backers of the Syrian regime, and Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, organise talks in Kazakhstan, between representatives of both sides. The process leads to the creation of four “de-escalation zones”.

April 2017

A sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people, prompting Washington to attack a regime airbase.

January 2018

Further complicating an already drawn-out conflict, Turkey launches an operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units which, with US support, played a key role in beating back Isis.

February 2018

Regime launches a ferocious assault on the remaining rebel-held enclave near Damascus, eastern Ghouta. In under four weeks, the Russian-backed onslaught kills more than 1,200 civilians.

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The only time they could remember the village hosting anything similar was when Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia visited the farm in 2005 to celebrate the centenary of Hammarskjöld’s birth.

Then, they say, it poured with rain and, as the party made their way across the field to pay their respect at the meditation circle, Queen Sylvia’s dress became near transparent while another attendee stepped in a cow pat, which went straight through her sandals.

Fortunately for the participants in Saturday’s informal meeting, the house is set to be bathed in sunshine and a late-running winter means the cows have yet to released.

“I’m very happy that we have such great weather,” said Erlandsson. “It’s going to be extra beautiful.”

This article was amended on 21 April 2018 to correct the spelling of Queen Silvia.

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