November 2019 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In November, the Security Council is expected to hold its monthly meetings on the political process, the humanitarian situation, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Regarding the meeting on the use of chemical weapons, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Fernando Arias, is expected to brief the Council in a private meeting.

The current authorisation for cross-border humanitarian assistance expires on 10 January 2020.

Key Recent Developments

On 9 October, Turkey initiated a military offensive against Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria, which it called “Operation Peace Spring”. The operation—which has employed aerial bombardments, artillery fire, and ground forces—took place on the heels of a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan on 6 October, in which Trump indicated that US troops would be withdrawn immediately from the border area inside Syria.

In a letter to the Security Council on 9 October, Turkey cited article 51 of the UN Charter, on self-defence, as a reason for its intervention, saying that the operation was intended to ensure the security of its border and to fight terrorism. Turkey considers Kurdish forces in Syria to be terrorists, and it maintained in its letter that the operation would counter Kurdish forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Erdoğan called for the establishment of a “safe zone” inside Syria 30 kilometres wide and 480 kilometres long in which to resettle one to two million Syrian refugees.

The security and political impacts of the incursion have been significant. Following several days of fighting, US Vice President Mike Pence met with Erdoğan in Ankara on 17 October, agreeing on a 120-hour pause in the fighting to allow Kurdish troops to withdraw from a border zone approximately 20 miles (32 kilometres) wide in order to pave the way for a more permanent ceasefire. For its part, the US—whose troops moved out of north-eastern Syria and into Iraq—agreed to withdraw sanctions it had imposed on Turkey in response to the incursion.

Subsequently, under an agreement reached by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan in Sochi on 22 October, Russia and Syria agreed to patrol part of the border area and oversee the withdrawal of Kurdish forces 30 kilometres from the border over a period of 150 hours. Following this time period (that is, beginning the evening of 29 October), Russia and Turkey were expected to patrol sections of the border east and west of where the Turkish military operation was conducted and 10 kilometres into Syria, with the exception of Qamishli city. Turkey announced that its military campaign had ended on 22 October.

Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” apparently detracted from the ability of Kurdish forces to guard the thousands of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters under their watch. On 13 October, Kurdish officials claimed that hundreds of ISIL prisoners escaped from Ain Issa, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria, following shelling by Turkish forces near the camp.

The security environment remained uncertain and fluid at the time of writing. On 25 October, media outlets reported that skirmishes had resumed between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters, and US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said that some US troops would remain in eastern Syria to prevent oil facilities from falling into ISIL’s hands.

The conflict in north-eastern Syria has had grave humanitarian consequences. OCHA has estimated that by 24 October, nearly 180,000 civilians had been displaced by the fighting that began on 9 October. On 29 October, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 130 civilians had died in north-eastern Syria as a result of fighting since Turkey initiated its military operation.

On 26 October, the leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died near Barisha, Syria, during a raid conducted by US special forces.

Council members have engaged closely on Syria in recent weeks. On 30 September, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen briefed the Security Council on the political situation in the country. This came one week after Secretary-General António Guterres announced on 23 September that the Syrian government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission had agreed to form “a credible, balanced and inclusive Constitutional Committee that will be facilitated by the UN in Geneva”. At the meeting, Pedersen announced his intention “to convene 150 Syrian men and women for the launch of a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, credible, balanced and inclusive Constitutional Committee” on 30 October, facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva. At press time, the meeting was still scheduled to take place on this date.

On 8 October, the Council adopted a presidential statement welcoming the Secretary-General’s 23 September announcement of the agreement to form the constitutional committee. The statement reaffirmed that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, which can only be resolved through the full implementation of resolution 2254.

Council members discussed north-eastern Syria during “any other business” on 10 October at the request of the five European members of the Council (Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK). Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller briefed, apparently noting that Turkey’s incursion was not a limited action and expressing concerns about its impact on the humanitarian, security and political situation in Syria. Members criticised the fighting to varying degrees, ranging from condemnation of Turkey’s action and calls for it to exercise restraint, to calling on all parties to exercise restraint.  The US proposed press elements—an informal product that requires unanimity and is generally issued immediately after a closed meeting to provide information to the press—that would apparently have expressed concern about the humanitarian and security impact of the fighting. Members were unable to agree, however, and at the stakeout, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said that a product “should take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis, not just the Turkish operation”.

On 16 October, Council members again discussed the situation in Syria under “any other business”, also at the request of the five European members. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Khiari briefed. In the press elements following the meeting, members expressed deep concern about the risk of dispersion of terrorists belonging to UN-designated groups, including ISIL, and about the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria.

The monthly humanitarian meeting on Syria was held on 24 October with Assistant Secretary-General Mueller, Khiari, and Agnès Marcaillou, the Director of the UN Mine Action Service, briefing. Mueller emphasised the importance of protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure, the need for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, and the need for an end to hostilities in Syria. She said that it was critical that cross-border humanitarian assistance be reauthorised by the Council for another year.  Khiari also expressed concern about the humanitarian impact of the military operation in north-eastern Syria, while reporting that there had been an increase in air strikes in Idlib since 12 October. He noted the possibility that local populations could face political retribution, detention, and conscription when Syrian authorities regain control of the north-east. Khiari added that the issue of foreign nationals in Syria (most likely a reference to foreign terrorist fighters) had to be addressed, calling on all member states to take “all measures necessary to ensure that their nationals are repatriated for the purposes of prosecution, rehabilitation, and/or reintegration as appropriate and in line with international law and standards”. Marcaillou stressed that mine action was critical to improving humanitarian access in Syria.

Human Rights-Related Developments

On 27 September, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on human rights in Syria by a vote of 27 in favour, six against and 13 abstentions (A/HRC/42/L.22). The resolution deplored the fact that the conflict in Syria continues in its ninth year with its devastating impact on the civilian population. It reaffirmed that there can only be a political solution to the conflict in Syria and demanded that all parties work towards a genuine political transition based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and Security Council resolution 2254. On 10 October, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a statement noting “with grave concern the military offensive and aerial campaign being launched in northeast Syria on 9 October”.  Hundreds of thousands of civilians may be affected by any operations along the border and “any new military campaign may lead to insecurity and chaos, risking circumstances under which a resurgence of ISIL could occur”, the statement said. In a press briefing on 15 October, a spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “since the Turkish military offensive began on 9 October, we have verified a number of civilian casualties each day as a result of airstrikes, ground-based strikes and sniper fire”.

Women, Peace and Security

In his 30 September briefing to the Council, Pedersen announced in relation to the Constitutional Committee “that nearly half the civil society list are women, and that we have around 30 percent women in the overall 150”. He argued that “any viable, sustainable peace process needs to have women of all political persuasions at the table, since they represent over half its population and since, throughout the course of the conflict, they have taken on an ever more prominent role in their communities”. 

Key Issues and Options

A key issue is how the Council can support the work of Special Envoy Pedersen in facilitating the Constitutional Committee. Members may emphasise the importance of confidence-building measures as a means of energising the political process. For example, in next month’s meetings, they could highlight that large-scale releases of detainees and abductees and information about missing persons could be important steps in this regard, as some have already begun to do.

Another key issue for the Council is how to address the humanitarian and security impacts of the recent conflict in north-eastern Syria. Humanitarian access to this area and the rise in displacement are important considerations, as are plans to guard the ISIL fighters who had been detained by Kurdish forces that have now retreated from the border areas. Members could seek further information from OCHA on how humanitarian access can be maintained and enhanced in north-eastern Syria, especially given that control of this area has changed hands.

In the future, the Council will also need to consider how to approach the potential repatriation of Syrian refugees now in Turkey to north-eastern Syria. A reaffirmation of the importance of the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees in accordance with international law, possibly in a Council outcome, could be considered.

Addressing the humanitarian situation in north-western Syria is another ongoing issue facing the Council. Given that a significant amount of aid comes across the Turkish border with north-western Syria, members could begin discussing the reauthorising of cross-border humanitarian assistance, which has traditionally occurred in December.

Council Dynamics

Many Council members were highly critical of Turkey’s military operation in north-eastern Syria. Russia’s position varied from that of other members. While also calling for maximum restraint from the parties, it framed the operation as a result of coalition forces having supported the Kurds in north-eastern Syria at the expense of Arab groups, which Ambassador Nebenzia referred to as “demographic engineering” at the press stakeout on 10 October. All members are keenly aware of the importance of ISIL not regaining a foothold in north-eastern Syria. Several Council members share a variety of other concerns: that any repatriation of refugees into north-eastern Syria is done in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; that civilians and civilian infrastructure are not targeted in the conflict; and that there is accountability for the crimes being committed. As reflected in statements during the 24 October briefing, several members are also emphasising the critical importance of re-authorising cross-border humanitarian assistance.

Belgium, Germany, and Kuwait are the penholders on Syria humanitarian issues.

UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA

Security Council Presidential Statements
8 October 2019S/PRST/2019/12 This was a presidential statement welcoming the Secretary-General’s announcement of the formation of the Constitutional Committee.
Security Council Meeting Records
24 October 2019S/PV.8645 This was a meeting on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria.
30 September 2019S/PV.8628 This was a meeting on the political situation in Syria.