March 2020 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In March, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on political issues, the humanitarian situation, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Key Recent Developments

The security and humanitarian situations in north-west Syria continued to deteriorate in February, as the Syrian government and its allies carried out a military offensive to retake control of parts of Aleppo and Idlib. This led to large-scale displacement, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that at least 100 civilians were killed in aerial and ground-based attacks in north-west Syria from 1 to 16 February. During his 19 February briefing to the Council, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock reported that over 90 percent of these attacks occurred in areas not controlled by the government. The Council-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham remains a major presence in Idlib, and Russia and Syria have repeatedly said that they are fighting terrorists in the north-west.

There were several deadly clashes in February between Turkish forces and Syrian government troops in Idlib. The Turkish army has been in Idlib since Turkey and Russia agreed to create a “de-escalation zone” there in September 2018. On 3 February, an attack by Syrian forces on a Turkish convoy resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers. On 10 February, five Turkish troops were killed in an attack by Syrian government forces on an observation post. Turkish forces responded in both cases by firing on Syrian government forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that 30 to 35 Syrian troops died in the Turkish military’s response on 3 February, but reports of the death toll have varied. Turkey also reinforced its troop presence in Idlib in February.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued statements regarding the situation in the north-west on 17 February and 18 February, respectively. Calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, Bachelet expressed “horror at the scale of the humanitarian crisis in north-west Syria”, referring to UN estimates that over 900,000 people (mostly women and children) have been displaced since 1 December 2019 while 298 civilians have died in the conflict in Idlib and Aleppo so far in 2020. Guterres similarly called for an immediate ceasefire. Expressing alarm at the suffering of civilians, he observed: “Young children are dying from the cold. Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas. People are on the move in freezing temperatures in search of safety, which has become even more difficult”.

The political process has been in a stalemate for several months. When the Constitutional Committee convened in Geneva from 25 to 29 November 2019, the co-chairs from the government side and the opposition side were unable to agree on an agenda for the meeting. The government side wanted to discuss “national constants”, such as terrorism and sanctions relief, prior to discussing constitutional matters. The opposition side maintained that these issues could be addressed but not outside the context of the constitution. At press time, this impasse had not been broken.

A briefing was held on the situation in Idlib on 6 February at the request of France, the UK and the US. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock briefed. Pedersen said that “a nationwide ceasefire alongside a cooperative approach to combating terrorism, full respect of Syria’s sovereignty and a credible and inclusive United Nations-facilitated political process”, as outlined in resolution 2254, “remains the only path to end the conflict”. He expressed strong concern about clashes between Syria and Turkey inside Syria, saying that this “suggest(s) the very real prospect of conflagration in the immediate region, as well as far beyond”. Lowcock echoed Pedersen’s call for a nationwide ceasefire and “serious international effort to cooperate on Idlib”.

Pedersen and Lowcock again briefed the Council on Syria during the scheduled monthly meeting on the political track on 19 February. Pedersen (briefing via video teleconference) said he could not report any progress in ending the violence in north-west Syria or in reconvening the Constitutional Committee since his last briefing to the Council two weeks earlier. He also referred to an uptick of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) activity in north-east Syria. Lowcock said that from 13 to 16 February, 160,000 people had fled from the fighting in north-west Syria. He added that “it is incumbent on all parties to protect” the displaced.

When the Council renewed the mechanism for cross-border aid delivery into Syria through resolution 2504 of 10 January, the Al Yarubiyah border crossing (on the Iraq/Syria border)—which had been authorised in previous resolutions on this issue—was not included as part of the aid mechanism. Nonetheless, the resolution asked the Secretary-General to report to the Council on alternatives to Al Yarubiyah by the end of February.

At press time, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller was expected to brief the Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria on 27 February. The report on alternative modalities to the Al Yarubiyah crossing was expected to be discussed at the meeting. The report, released on 21 February, said that “from a security and logistical perspective, in the current context, the Tal Abyad border crossing would constitute the most feasible alternative to the Al Yarubiyah border crossing”.

The Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria briefed Council members on 19 February on children’s rights in Syria in an Arria-formula meeting organised by Estonia, Germany and the UK. The briefing focused on the Commission’s January report, titled “They have erased the dreams of my children”: children’s rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (A/HRC/43/CRP.6) The report describes the killing and maiming of children and attacks on civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, during the conflict in Syria. It notes the conditions that children have faced in detention, including sexual violence, torture and beatings. While referring to abuses committed by government forces, it also describes sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers, and public executions, among other crimes, perpetrated against children by ISIL. During the Arria-formula meeting, the chair of the Commission, Paulo Pinheiro, said that a whole generation of children had been traumatised by the war.

Human Rights-related Developments

On 7 February, the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over “the sharp increase in hostilities in northwest Syria and the blatant disregard for protection of civilians”, adding that “fighting in southern and eastern Idlib and in western and southern Aleppo continues to kill and injure scores of civilians and displace hundreds of thousands of others.” On 10 March, during its 43rd session, the Human Rights Council is expected to hold an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and consider its report (A/HRC/43/57).

Key Issues and Options

An overarching key issue is how the Council can find an effective way to address the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in north-west Syria and help the parties participating in the Constitutional Committee to reinvigorate the stalled political process. Several members have expressed support for the efforts of Special Envoy Pedersen. One option would be for the Council to urge the Secretary-General to play an enhanced good offices role by supplementing Pedersen’s efforts and engaging in determined dialogue with all the relevant parties.

The Council could also make an appeal for enhanced financial contributions to support OCHA’s humanitarian plan for Syria, given the increased needs for support outlined by Lowcock in his 19 February briefing to the Council.

The Board of Inquiry established last year by the Secretary-General to investigate attacks on facilities in north-west Syria on a “deconfliction” list that included health facilities is expected to finalise its internal report this month. The Council could ask the Secretariat for a briefing on the board’s findings in a closed format to allow for a frank dialogue and exchange of views.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT)—established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)—may also finalise its report in March. The Council could discuss this report with the OPCW in a private-meeting format. While Council members often meet on chemical weapons issues in Syria in closed consultations, non-UN officials and non-Council members are not permitted to participate in closed consultations. That is not the case with private meetings, the format used when the Council discussed the use of chemical weapons in Syria with Fernando Arias, the OPCW’s Director-General, on 5 November 2019.

Council Dynamics

Sharp differences continue to define Council engagement on Syria. On the one hand, the P3 (France, the UK and the US) and others tend to condemn attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by the Syrian government and its allies. They also maintain that the Astana format—which established Idlib as a “de-escalation” zone – has failed. In contrast, China and Russia tend to underscore the importance of eliminating the threat of terrorism in Syria. In this regard, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said at the 6 February meeting that “Syrian citizens…have been taken hostage by the terrorists running rampant” in Idlib and noted that resolution 2254 “directly states that there is a need to combat terrorism”. Russia further maintains that its military operations are proportional and discriminate and that terrorists in Syria use civilian infrastructure in an effort to protect themselves.

There is growing concern among a number of members about the clashes between Syria and Turkey in Idlib and the potential for these clashes to escalate into a broader conflict.

Belgium and Germany are the humanitarian penholders on Syria.

UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA

Security Council Resolutions
10 January 2020S/RES/2504 This resolution renewed the authorisation of cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria through two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months.
18 December 2015S/RES/2254 This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.
Security Council Meeting Records
19 February 2020S/PV.8727 This was a meeting on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria.
6 February 2020S/PV.8715 This was a meeting on the situation in Idlib.
Secretary-General’s Report
28 February 2020S/2020/139 This was a report on the review of alternative modalities for the Al Yarubiyah border crossing.