Expected Council Action
In June, the Council expects to receive the monthly briefings on political and humanitarian developments in Syria and on the use of chemical weapons.
Key Recent Developments
May was marked by the Syrian government’s consolidation of territory. After taking over the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, the government has persisted in its military offensive and has displaced populations through so-called “reconciliation agreements” that provide for the evacuation of fighters and civilians to rebel-held territory, such as Idlib and the Aleppo countryside. Subsequent evacuations have taken place in the eastern Qalamoun area, southern Damascus and northern Homs.
Some of the areas targeted by the government were part of the de-escalation zones established by the Astana process. Even though delegations of the government and the opposition participated in a 14-15 May meeting in Astana convened by Iran, Russia and Turkey, violence in strategic locations continued, showing the limitations of these efforts. The situation of abductees, detainees and missing persons was discussed in Astana as a confidence-building measure, and a working group was established to address this issue, with little progress so far. Turkey is planning to hold another meeting of the working group in June.
The political process continues to fail to gain traction. Briefing Council members on 16 May, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura updated them on his consultations exploring options for a meaningful re-launch of the UN-facilitated political process. He identified several common positions among the different stakeholders, including on the need to de-escalate; forming a constitutional committee under UN auspices; establishing a safe, calm and neutral environment; and respecting Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. The establishment of a constitutional committee was the main outcome of a January conference hosted in Sochi by Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, but the Syrian government has repeatedly questioned the committee’s legitimacy. At the Sochi meeting, it was agreed that the UN would help in forming a constitutional committee, including defining its mandate and terms of reference, powers, rules of procedure, and selection criteria for its composition.
In briefings to the Council, de Mistura has repeatedly raised concerns regarding the Syrian government’s lack of engagement in the political process and called on those with influence on the parties to exert it in support of a political settlement.
At a 17 May bilateral meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the success of the government forces in the fight against terrorist groups. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, both leaders noted the need to create additional conditions for the resumption of a full-format political process in Syria.
Tensions between Iran and Israel, which have long been an important factor in the Syrian conflict, escalated in recent weeks. On 8 May, Israel launched an attack on a military position south of Damascus, claiming it was necessary to thwart an impending attack by Iran. On 9 May, Iran attacked Israeli outposts in the occupied Golan Heights. Israel responded the next day by attacking Iranian military installations in Syria, after which Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that almost all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria had been destroyed.
The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to be critical. The lack of safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access has been an ongoing factor in the conflict. By imposing bureaucratic hurdles and removing crucial items from those convoys that are allowed to proceed, the government has been able to limit humanitarian access to those areas that are not under its control. With the end of the siege of Eastern Ghouta and other areas, the besieged population has decreased sharply, but a 22 May report of the Secretary-General highlights that this has “too often [come] only after civilians have been exposed to prolonged periods of violence and deprivation, which [has] included the denial of critical humanitarian assistance”. The Secretary-General underlines how access has been limited in areas recently taken over by the government, as well.
The situation of Idlib, which remains under the control of rebel groups, presents major risks. Idlib has been receiving displaced fighters and civilians throughout the conflict and the UN has repeatedly warned of the impact that a military offensive would have in this region, which is overcrowded with vulnerable people.
The humanitarian appeal for Syria continues to be less than 25 percent funded. The Secretary-General is expected to circulate to the Council in June the independent written review requested by resolution 2393. The review, originally proposed by Russia, is expected to focus on UN humanitarian cross-border operations, including recommendations about how to further strengthen the existing UN mechanism monitoring cross-border deliveries.
The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been investigating various instances of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. After conducting a field visit to Douma, it has continued its work to ascertain whether chemicals were used as weapons in the alleged 7 April attack on that town. In a 15 May report, the FFM determined that chlorine, released from cylinders through mechanical impact, was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in the rebel-held Al Talil neighbourhood of Saraqib. According to the report, at the time of the incident, witnesses reported hearing a helicopter flying above the city and the sound of two “barrels” falling and striking in close proximity to their location. This report is the second to be received by the Council since the demise of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism in November 2017. The first one concluded that sarin “was more than likely used as a chemical weapon” on 30 March 2017 in Lataminah. The absence of an attribution mechanism has hampered the possibility of ensuring accountability for these attacks.
On 7 May, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, briefed Council members on the good offices carried out by the Secretary-General and herself to devise an attribution mechanism that would garner the unanimous support of the Council. On 18 May, France convened a ministerial meeting of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, which it established in January. The partnership comprises 34 member states, including Council members Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland and Sweden in addition to the P3. A special session of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention has been convoked for June in The Hague to work on supporting the Convention and its implementing body, the OPCW, and to explore options for attributing responsibility for chemical weapons attacks.
Human Rights-Related Developments
The special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Idriss Jazairy, visited Syria from 13 to 17 May, where he met with government representatives, civil society organisations, and representatives of the business and diplomatic communities in Damascus. In a 17 May press statement he expressed concern with the way sanctions are being implemented, saying “it is not allowing humanitarian actors to access the humanitarian exemptions that are an option under the unilateral coercive measures being applied to Syria”. The special rapporteur will present a report to the Human Rights Council at its 39th session in September.
Key Issues and Options
The current level of P5 divisions raises the question whether the Council will be able to work constructively on Syria in the foreseeable future. If the paralysis continues, those with even a limited capacity to act—whether elected members, the Secretary-General, or key members of the General Assembly—may seek to take initiatives. The Secretary-General could provide options for the Council to consider, or he could directly mobilise the mechanism for the investigation of alleged use of chemical and biological weapons, which was developed in the 1980s and was activated previously in the Syrian context in March 2013. Given the lack of unanimity among permanent members and the Council’s failure to exercise its primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security, members of the General Assembly could consider tabling a “Uniting for Peace” resolution.
While divided on Syria for more than seven years, the Council has been able to unite around certain aspects during that time, such as setting the agenda for a political process and authorising cross-border deliveries. As the political climate deteriorates, there is a risk of undermining these Council decisions, just as the mandate of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was discontinued. Council members could hold informal, unscripted and forward-looking discussions at the ambassadorial level to seek ways to increase pressure on the parties to the conflict and strive for a compromise that is both realistic and acceptable to all.
Council and Wider Dynamics
The alleged 7 April chemical weapons attack in Douma led to one of the Council’s most divisive periods in the post-Cold War era. In an effort to address the Council’s polarisation, Syria was added to the agenda of the Secretary-General’s retreat with Council members that took place in Backåkra, Sweden, on 21-22 April. Although Council members agreed at the retreat on press elements on the political and humanitarian situation and on the use of chemical weapons, it is unclear whether they will be able to engage constructively on this file. P5 members have started to meet regularly on Syria at the ambassadorial level, but substantive divisions persist and the meetings have yet to result in any outcome.
The recent military escalation between Iran and Israel highlights the role of external players in the Syrian conflict. As the government consolidates territory, it is unclear how it will approach the areas that are of strategic importance for external actors, particularly near Syria’s borders. The regional dimension of the conflict is thus likely to feature more prominently both on the ground and in Council discussions.
Kuwait and Sweden are the penholders on humanitarian issues in Syria.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|24 February 2018 S/RES/2401||This was a resolution, adopted unanimously, demanding a cessation of hostilities in Syria.|
|19 December 2017 S/RES/2393||This resolution renewed the authorisation for cross-border and cross-line aid delivery.|
|18 December 2015 S/RES/2254||This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.|
|27 September 2013 S/RES/2118||This resolution was adopted unanimously by the Council and required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, called for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorsed the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers.|
|22 May 2018 S/2018/484||This was the Secretary-General’s monthly report on the humanitarian situation in Syria.|
|Security Council Letters|
|17 May 2018 S/2018/478||This was a report of the Fact-Finding Mission of the OPCW determining that chlorine was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in Saraqib.|
|14 May 2018 S/2018/459||This was a letter from the Permanent Representative of Iran regarding the military escalation with Israel.|
|10 May 2018 S/2018/447||This was a letter from Syria condemning Israel’s “aggression”.|
|10 May 2018 S/2018/443||This was a letter from the Permanent Representative of Israel justifying the attack against Iranian military targets in Syria.|
|1 May 2018 S/2018/408||This was an OPCW report on the progress in the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|16 May 2018 S/PV.8260||This was a briefing by de Mistura on the political situation.|
|25 April 2018 S/PV.8242||This was a briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller on Syria.|