Expected Council Action
In August, 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
The intensification of hostilities in north-western Syria continues. Even though this was considered one of the four “de-escalation” areas agreed by the Astana guarantors (Iran, Russia and Turkey) in 2017, Syrian and Russian air strikes as well as ground attacks have continued. A Council-listed terrorist group that controls a large part of the territory, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has also engaged in attacks.
Since the recrudescence of attacks in late April, more than 400 civilians have been killed, many more have been injured, and 440,000 people have been displaced within Syria’s north-west. Attacks on health care facilities have persisted. The UN has confirmed 45 incidents affecting 35 health facilities since the beginning of the year, and other facilities have partially or totally suspended activities for fear of being attacked. Several health facilities were hit on 10 July, including the Ma’arat National Hospital, one of the largest in the area, whose coordinates had been deconflicted—shared with the parties in order to avoid attacks. Briefing the Council on 27 June, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock had specifically asked that this hospital be spared from harm. The Secretary-General condemned the air strikes and said that perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law must be held accountable.
At the request of the humanitarian penholders on Syria (Belgium, Germany and Kuwait), the Council was briefed on 18 July under “any other business” on ongoing air strikes affecting civilians in north-west Syria, including strikes on medical facilities and medical workers. At the meeting, Lowcock asked Council members to take action. He also called on the parties to end the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure, to investigate breaches of international humanitarian law, and to ensure access to areas currently inaccessible to humanitarian assistance.
The humanitarian penholders proposed press elements echoing the statement issued by the Secretary-General, but not all Council members were able to agree. Divergent positions among Council members on the military operations in the north-west have prevented the emergence of a unified position. Speaking to the press after the meeting, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia questioned whether some of the attacks on health care facilities had taken place at all.
Beyond the north-west, the humanitarian situation remains critical in other parts of the country. At a press conference on 18 July in Geneva, Najat Rochdi, the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria, said that the situation in the Al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria is unsustainable for the approximately 70,000 people sheltered there, the vast majority of whom are Syrian and Iraqi women and children. Furthermore, some 25,000 internally displaced people remain in need of humanitarian and protection assistance in the makeshift settlement of Rukban, near the border with Jordan.
In north-eastern Syria, there has been heightened tension between Turkey and its allies regarding the area held by the Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The situation has become increasingly fragile following the December 2018 announcement by the US that it would withdraw its troops from Syria.
On 27 June, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen briefed the Council on his efforts to revive the Syrian-led and -owned political process. He said that international discussions and cooperation can contribute to this process and declared his intention to convene a meeting in Geneva bringing together all key international players, such as the Astana guarantors, the Small Group (Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US) and China.
The Identification and Investigation Team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a decision of the Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in June 2018, became operational in June 2019. It has identified a non-exhaustive provisional list of nine incidents on which it intends to focus its investigative work. The OPCW has made public that Syria has denied visas and refused to submit confidential information to the members of the team.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 41st session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) received an oral update on 2 July from the chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, who emphasised that the “violent conflict in Syria is not over, nor are its devastating effects on the Syrian people”. He highlighted that over the previous few months, dozens of health facilities were either damaged or destroyed and that schools, markets, and camps for internally displaced persons continue to be struck by both aerial and ground offensives. More than 300,000 individuals have been internally displaced in the north-west of the country over the past three months, and over 6.6 million internally displaced persons countrywide face “appalling squalor and deprivation”, he said. Lack of security and guarantees concerning housing, land, and property rights were described as the largest obstacles to displaced civilians and refugees who wish to return. On 12 July, the HRC adopted a resolution that deplores the fact that the conflict in Syria continues in its ninth year (A/HRC/41/L.25). Among other things, it welcomed Security Council resolution 2474 on missing persons adopted on 11 June and called on parties to the armed conflict “to take all appropriate measures to actively search for persons reported missing, to enable the return of their remains, and to account for persons reported missing”. The HRC resolution was adopted with 26 votes in favour, seven votes against (including Security Council member China) and 14 abstentions (including Security Council member South Africa).
Key Issues and Options
Despite international engagement supporting the establishment of the constitutional committee, this has yet to take place. It remains an open question whether efforts on the political process will yield results, considering the divisions in the Council, the trajectory of the conflict, and the consolidation of control by the Syrian government. Council members could organise a retreat to hold an informal and frank discussion with Pedersen to consider how, individually and collectively, they could best support the prospects for a political process based on resolution 2254.
Given the crucial role of the Astana guarantors 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 efforts to prevent a full-fledged military offensive in Idlib.
The Council could suggest that the working group on detainees, abductees, handover of bodies and identification of missing persons—which was set up in December 2017 and includes the Astana guarantors and the UN—meet in Geneva in the near future and move beyond one-for-one exchanges to focus instead on the simultaneous release of unequal numbers of detainees/abductees. The Council could hold a meeting specifically to shed light on this little-discussed issue and call on the guarantors to use their influence with the government to engage in good faith on this matter.
The Council could request a briefing in consultations by the Secretariat to focus on the threats of 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-General of the OPCW to participate in an informal interactive dialogue on the work of the organisation on Syria.
Members’ positions on Syria appear entrenched, with their significant differences reflected in approaches to the situation in north-western Syria and in the Council’s inability to react unequivocally to serious violations of international humanitarian law. The clear divisions on the three areas through which the Council engages on the conflict—humanitarian situation, political process and chemical weapons—continue to hamper an effective Council response.
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|
|27 June 2019S/2019/541||This was an OPCW report on progress in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|27 June 2019S/PV.8567||This was a briefing on the political process in Syria.|
|25 June 2019S/PV.8561||This was a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria.|