April 2019 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 March 2019
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MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In April, the Council will receive the monthly briefings on the humanitarian situation, the political process, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Key Recent Developments

As the conflict enters its ninth year, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains critical. After Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a Council-designated terrorist group) took control of most of Idlib in January, there has been an upsurge in attacks by government forces and in civilian casualties. The situation in the north-east of Syria remains fragile following the December 2018 announcement by the US regarding the withdrawal of its troops, with the potential for an escalation of violence between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On 23 March, the SDF took over the village of Baghouz and declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, concerns persist about the living conditions of civilians who had fled the area, including family members of foreign terrorist fighters.

Briefing the Council on 26 February, Reena Ghelani, the director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division, emphasised the need for sustained humanitarian access to the makeshift camp of Rukban near the border with Jordan. She said that although most residents have expressed their wish to leave the camp, they have ongoing concerns related to their safety and security. She reiterated that any returns or relocations must be voluntary, safe, dignified and well-informed and must abide by core protection standards that comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen briefed the Council for the first time on 28 February and identified five goals for the period ahead:

  • to begin and then deepen a sustained dialogue with the government and the opposition on building trust and confidence towards a safe, calm and neutral environment;
  • to see more concrete action on detainees, abductees and missing persons;
  • to engage a wide range of Syrians and involve them in the political process;
  • to convene a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee as soon as possible; and
  • to help the international parties deepen their own dialogue towards a credible and sustainable political settlement of the conflict that can enjoy international support.

High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu briefed Council members on 6 March in consultations on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Members considered a 1 March report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) regarding the chemical weapons attack that took place in Douma (Eastern Ghouta) on 7 April 2018. The report concluded that the evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered by the FFM “provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place” and that “the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine”. Although the FFM is not mandated to assign responsibility, the report established that it is possible that two yellow industrial cylinders “were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine” that caused structural damage in two locations (one of the cylinders was found on a rooftop terrace and the other passed through the ceiling of a different building and hit the floor). Although at this point no reaction is expected from the Council, the recently created Identification and Investigation Team of the OPCW is expected to focus in the coming months on this and other cases of suspected use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.

Separately, the OPCW and the Syrian government have held two technical meetings in recent weeks to discuss the gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies identified by the OPCW in Syria’s initial declaration in 2013 of its chemical weapons stockpile.

On 12-14 March, the EU and the UN co-chaired the third Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region. At the conference, participants pledged $7 billion for 2019 and close to $2.4 billion in multi-year pledges for 2020 and beyond.

Human Rights-Related Developments

During its 40th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue on 12 March with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and considered its report (A/HRC/40/70). The report details violations and the general absence of the rule of law affecting civilians throughout the country, including 6.2 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 million refugees seeking to return. Based on investigations conducted from 11 July 2018 to 10 January, the report finds that the current situation throughout Syria “undermines the feasibility of the return of internally displaced persons and refugees”. The report sets out ten recommendations to “effectively address the complex issue of returns”. On 22 March, the HRC voted 28 to 5 (with 14 abstentions) to extend the mandate of the Commission for one year (HRC/RES/40/L.7). The resolution expresses the HRC’s “appreciation to the Commission for its briefings to members of the Security Council, and recommends the continuation of future briefings”.

Key Issues and Options

Given the crucial role of the Astana guarantors (Iran, Russia and Turkey) on both the political and humanitarian fronts, Council members could seek an informal interactive dialogue with their representatives to have a more action-oriented discussion regarding current and future efforts to avert a full-fledged military offensive in Idlib.

Council members continue to be profoundly divided over Syria, and some question whether any effort on the political process is likely to yield results, considering the Syrian government’s emphasis on regaining territory and consolidating control. With Pedersen still early in his tenure, Council members could organise a retreat to hold an informal and frank discussion with him to consider how, individually and collectively, they can best support the prospects of a political process based on resolution 2254.

The issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons has not attracted much attention in the Council and is mostly considered under the rubric of confidence-building measures being discussed by the Astana guarantors. With little progress on this front and the Syrian government’s release of thousands of prisoner death notices, the Council could hold a meeting specifically to shed light on this little-discussed issue and call on the guarantors to use their influence on the government to engage in good faith on this matter.

A new concern is that the Syrian government and its allies could use the recent takeover of most of Idlib by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to justify a military offensive.

The Council could request a briefing in consultations from the Secretariat to focus on the potential for instability in north-eastern Syria, call on the actors involved to exercise restraint, and support good-offices efforts to address long-standing grievances.

Council members could invite the director of the OPCW to participate in an informal interactive dialogue on the work of the organisation on Syria.

Council and Wider Dynamics

The Council continues to be divided over the Syrian conflict. While the arrival of a new envoy provides an opportunity to reinvigorate the political process, Council dynamics on Syria continue to be characterised by polarisation, particularly among permanent members, on the three files through which the conflict is discussed: political, humanitarian, and chemical weapons.

Belgium, Germany and Kuwait are co-penholders on humanitarian issues in Syria.

UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA

Security Council Resolutions
13 December 2018S/RES/2449 This was a resolution prepared by Sweden and Kuwait renewing the authorisation for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access to Syria.
18 December 2015S/RES/2254 This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.
27 September 2013S/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.
Security Council Letters
1 March 2019S/2019/201 This was an OPCW report on progress in the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme.
Security Council Meeting Records
28 February 2019S/PV.8475 This was Pedersen’s first briefing to the Council on Syria.
26 February 2019S/PV.8471 This was a briefing by the OCHA Director of Operations and Advocacy, Reena Ghelani, on the humanitarian situation.