Expected Council Action
In October, the Council expects to receive the monthly Syria briefings on the humanitarian situation, political developments, and the use of chemical weapons.
Key Recent Developments
September was marked by the looming offensive in the governorate of Idlib by Syria and its allies and its potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences. The UN has repeatedly warned of the possibility of a humanitarian emergency on a scale not yet seen in the Syrian conflict in case of an escalation of military activity in and around Idlib. The area hosts 1.4 million civilians displaced by the conflict and a total of 2.9 million people, including one million children. Despite constituting a de-escalation zone agreed to in 2017, Idlib has been targeted by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. The presence in Idlib of around 10,000 fighters of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a Council-designated terrorist group) continues to be used to justify military operations, as has been the case in other parts of Syria.
On 7 September, OCHA’s Director of Operations and Advocacy John Ging and Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefed the Council on the situation in Idlib. That afternoon, the five EU members of the Council (France, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK) co-hosted an Arria-formula meeting on “Syrian Voices on Preventing a Deathtrap in Idlib”. At the meeting, which was webcast, several participants emphasised the role that civil society can play in fighting terrorism and promoting the separation of forces in Idlib.
Ahead of the meeting, several configurations of Council members issued joint statements in an attempt to avert the negative humanitarian impact of a major military operation in Idlib. The E10 (the ten elected members of the Council) met on 4 September to discuss developments in Idlib. Poland, in its capacity as the monthly coordinator of the E10, read a statement at the Security Council media stakeout expressing their deep concern about a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation in Idlib province. The statement reiterated the urgent appeal of the Secretary-General to the government of Syria and all parties to exercise restraint and to prioritise the protection of civilians. On 6 September, eight current, past and future Council members that belong to the EU expressed support for the urgent diplomatic efforts undertaken by Turkey and the UN and called on the Astana guarantors—in particular Russia and Iran—to uphold the ceasefire and de-escalation arrangements they had previously agreed, including protecting civilians as a matter of priority.
On 10 September, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters that “there need to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century”. According to OCHA, between 1 and 12 September, a sharp increase in hostilities and fears of further escalation led to the displacement of over 38,300 people in northwest Syria.
Russia requested a Council meeting on 12 September to brief on a 7 September high-level meeting convened by the guarantors of the Astana process—which include Turkey as well as Iran and Russia—in Tehran. Speakers highlighted efforts to cooperate and find a solution for Idlib. During the meeting, in which Iran and Turkey also briefed the Council for the first time on this issue under rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedure, differences among the Astana guarantors regarding how to deal with Idlib became apparent.
On 17 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the establishment of a demilitarised zone 15 to 20 kilometres wide in Idlib along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops. Council-designated terrorist groups are to be withdrawn from the area and by 10 October, heavy military equipment is to be removed from the area. Turkish mobile patrol groups and Russian military police units are expected to monitor the zone. The agreement also provides for the restoration of transit along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama routes before the end of 2018.
On 18 September, Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement and called on all parties in Syria to cooperate in its implementation and ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access in all areas through the most direct routes. At a Council meeting that same day, Lowcock, who also welcomed the agreement, wondered: “Is this merely a stay of execution? Or is it the beginning of a reprieve, the first tiny glint of light at the end of the very darkest tunnel?” Reacting to the agreement, most Council members considered it a positive step, but many had questions regarding the conditions for the separation of forces, the mechanisms to enforce the agreement, and the situation of civilians beyond the zone and in the near future.
The Special Envoy’s efforts to facilitate the establishment of the constitutional committee continue to face challenges. The committee is expected to be formed by 150 people (one-third each from the government, the opposition, and civil society). At the 18 September briefing, de Mistura told the Council that the names of 50 civil society members that he had proposed have been significantly challenged by Astana guarantors. Furthermore, and while issues such as chairing and voting have been canvassed with the Astana guarantors, much remains unresolved regarding rules of procedure for the committee. At the meeting, several Council members encouraged de Mistura to proceed to convene a first session of the committee as soon as possible and report back to the Council by 31 October.
When discussing Idlib, Lowcock has repeatedly emphasised the vital role that Council-authorised cross-border deliveries of humanitarian aid continue to play in alleviating the suffering of civilians. Humanitarian access continues to be restricted for the UN and its partners despite the fact that swaths of territory are increasingly under the control of the government and that it should be possible to deliver aid through regular Damascus-based humanitarian programmes.
The High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, briefed the Council on 6 September. Although the two remaining chemical weapons production facilities have been destroyed, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) continues to regard the initial declaration submitted by the Syrian government to the OPCW in 2013 as incomplete. In October, the OPCW Director-General is expected to submit a progress report to the organisation’s Executive Council on arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in line with the decision taken on 27 June by the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Regional tensions between Israel and Syria continue. On 17 September Syria’s air defences downed a Russian surveillance plane killing 15 people on board. According to Syria’s state-owned media, air defences were activated in response to Israeli airstrikes in the Syrian province of Latakia.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 39th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue on 17 September with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and considered the commission’s report, which was based on investigations conducted from 16 January to 10 July (A/HRC/39/65). The reporting period was marked by “continued proliferation of warring parties, increased militarization and unprecedented levels of internal displacement” of more than one million civilians. The report deals with the battles that led to mass displacement and their impact on civilians, and sets out applicable internationally accepted principles that have not been observed in relation to forced displacement and internally displaced persons. The HRC also considered the report of the special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Idriss Jazairy, on his mission to Syria in May (A/HRC/39/54/Add.2). The report concludes that the application of accumulating unilateral coercive measures is making it “unnecessarily difficult” for Syrians to enjoy basic human rights and to receive humanitarian aid. At press time, the HRC was expected to vote on 28 September on a resolution on the human rights situation in Syria.
Key Issues and Options
Given the crucial role of actors such as Russia, Turkey and Iran on both the political and humanitarian fronts, Council members could seek an informal interactive dialogue with them in order to have a more action-oriented discussion and to ascertain whether the Council can support the establishment of the demilitarised zone in Idlib.
Some Council members question whether any efforts on the political process are likely to yield results, given the Syrian government’s emphasis on regaining and consolidating control of territory. However, within the window of opportunity created by the temporary reprieve in Idlib, 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 political settlement that is both realistic and acceptable to all.
Since it was established in August 2011, the Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has briefed Council members in an Arria-formula meeting seven times, most recently on 21 April 2017. Council members could hold a meeting to be briefed by the commission.
Council and Wider Dynamics
In September alone, the Council held five meetings on Syria, the most since April and mainly focusing on the situation in Idlib. Over the last six months as the government has consolidated the territory under its control (taking over Dara’a and Quneitra in the southwest and lifting the sieges of Foah and Kafraya), the Council has mostly discussed Syria through its scheduled monthly briefings. The increased attention in September might not have generated concrete Council outcomes, but it has contributed to raising the visibility of the stakes in Idlib. Although consultations could have provided for more action-oriented discussions on sensitive matters, no Council member formally requested consultations on Syria in September.
A new element has been the participation in Council meetings of Iran and Turkey, Astana guarantors that do not have a seat on the Council. In early 2017, several Council members tried to organise an informal interactive dialogue with the Astana guarantors, but this was resisted given the strong divisions among the guarantors. Previous efforts by Council members to receive their briefings, whether formally or informally, had not been successful since the Astana process started gaining traction.
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.
|14 September 2018 S/2018/845
|This was the monthly report on the humanitarian situation.
|Security Council Letters
|10 September 2018 S/2018/828
|This letter conveyed a joint statement by the Astana guarantors after a 7 September high-level meeting in Tehran.
|6 September 2018 S/2018/804
|This was the monthly report of the OPCW.
|Security Council Meeting Records
|18 September 2018 S/PV.8355
|This was a briefing by Lowcock and de Mistura.
|11 September 2018 S/PV.8347
|This was a briefing requested by Russia on the Astana process.
|7 September 2018 S/PV.8345
|This was a briefing on Idlib by de Mistura and Ging.
|6 September 2018 S/PV.8344
|This was a briefing by Nakamitsu