Expected Council Action
In April, 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
As the security and humanitarian situations in north-west Syria continued to worsen, the Council met twice at the end of February to discuss rapidly unfolding events. On 27 February, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller briefed the Council on the ongoing situation in Syria’s north-west, where 950,000 people had been displaced since 1 December and fighting continued. She also updated the Council on the Secretary-General’s report that reviewed alternative modalities for the border crossing of Ya‘rubiyah, which had been one of four Council-authorised crossings for the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria. However, the Council was unable to reach agreement on maintaining this crossing and the Al-Ramtha crossing when it renewed the cross-border aid delivery mechanism on 10 January through resolution 2504. Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, also briefed, focusing on the estimated half-million children affected by the crisis.
With fighting continuing to escalate, the Council met again on 28 February in an emergency public session. Secretary-General António Guterres made opening remarks followed by Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo’s briefing on attacks in southern Idlib by Syrian government forces and the Russian Federation air force as well as attacks launched by non-state armed groups. According to OHCHR, around 1,750 civilians had been killed since April 2019, DiCarlo said.
On 2 March, an inter-agency UN mission crossed from Turkey into north-west Syria to assess first-hand the deteriorating humanitarian situation and determine the feasibility of “a sustained UN presence in Idlib”. Led by Kevin Kennedy, regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, it included representatives from the International Organization for Migration, the UN Population Fund, UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, OCHA, and the World Health Organization. The mission noted that over 2,150 trucks carrying aid had crossed from Turkey into north-west Syria in January and February—twice the number that had delivered assistance in the same period the year before. On 3 March, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock also visited the border area near Hatay in Turkey, where he described the situation in which traumatised people—up to 2.8 million in north-western Syria—were living in open-air conditions, despite cold temperatures. Ambassador Kelly Craft (US) joined Lowcock at the border during part of his visit.
Tensions between Turkey on one side and Syria and the Russian Federation on the other escalated further after an attack on Turkish forces on 27 February and subsequent counter-attacks by the Turkish military on Syrian government forces. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Moscow on 5 March, agreeing to a cessation of all military actions effective 6 March. The agreement also included the establishment of a security corridor along the strategic M4 highway, with joint Russian-Turkish patrols.
The Council held closed consultations on 6 March to discuss the agreement. The Russian Federation proposed press elements for the President of the Council to read out, which included the Council’s welcoming the establishment of a ceasefire and encouraging all parties to comply. Some member states objected to the lack of language on the humanitarian situation in the text while others felt that the Council would be acting prematurely in welcoming the previous day’s agreement. On 15 March, both Russian and Turkish officials announced that joint patrols of the M4 security corridor had begun; media sources, however, noted that some patrolling had been cut short because Syrian opposition forces blocked the roadway.
On 13 March, the Board of Inquiry, established in August 2019 by the Secretary-General to investigate attacks on sites in north-west Syria on a “deconfliction” list that included health facilities, submitted its report to the Secretary-General. According to his spokesperson, the Secretary-General intends to share a summary of the report publicly.
Lowcock had been expected to brief the Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria on 25 March. However, this meeting was removed from the Council’s Programme of Work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The briefing had been expected to cover the situation in north-western Syria, Lowcock’s visit to the region, updates on progress regarding resolution 2504, and the potential impact that COVID-19 could have on vulnerable communities in Syria, particularly in the country’s north-west.
Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen briefed the Council on 30 March on the political situation, including any progress on the political process, which has remained in a stalemate for several months since the Constitutional Committee convened in Geneva in November 2019. On 24 March, Pedersen called for a “complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out-effort to suppress COVID-19 in Syria”. Syrians remain “acutely vulnerable to COVID-19” and need a “sustained period of calm throughout the country respected by all parties” so that the necessary measures are taken to address this crisis.
On 26 March, it was announced that Pedersen’s 30 March briefing would be convened as an informal videoconference meeting and would be organised as a joint political and humanitarian briefing, where Lowcock also briefed. This was the third informal videoconference meeting of Council members since measures announced by the Secretary-General to address COVID-19 included a partial closure of UN headquarters that began on 16 March.
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)—is scheduled to deliver its report by 27 March.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 43rd session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue on 9 and 10 March with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and considered its report (A/HRC/43/57), which presents findings based on investigations conducted from 11 July 2019 to 10 January. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chair of the Commission, told the HRC that since December 2019, nearly one million Syrians had been displaced, with some 80 percent of these being women and children. More than three million people remain trapped in northern Idlib with a “near absence of humanitarian aid”, he said. He also referred to the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which had carried out attacks on civilian-inhabited areas under the control of the government, killing dozens of women, men and children. Hundreds of Syrians had been killed in near-constant bombardments during the period under review, he said.
Given the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, the HRC suspended its 43rd session on 13 March and adopted a decision extending all mandates and mandated activities that would otherwise expire at the end of the 43rd session, including that of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, until a yet to be determined date on which the 43rd session is resumed (A/HRC/43/L.14). At the adoption, the representative of Syria expressed its opposition to the extension of the Commission’s mandate in this manner, adding that it is a “disputed” and not a consensual mandate.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue is how the Council might support the 5 March ceasefire agreement. Despite some members’ view that welcoming the ceasefire would be premature, the Council may wish to revisit the issue as the ceasefire appears to be holding. One option would be for the Council to organise a briefing to be updated on the ceasefire. Several members may also call for Special Envoy Pedersen to support the ceasefire agreement. 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 dialogue with all the relevant parties in the area to build on the opportunity presented by the ceasefire. The Council could also urge him to explore how the parties in the Constitutional Committee could reinvigorate the stalled political process.
The Council could also make an appeal for enhanced financial contributions to support OCHA’s humanitarian plan for Syria, given increased needs in the north-west and increased deliveries of assistance that the inter-agency mission noted in its visit to the region.
With the submission of the Board of Inquiry report on 13 March, 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 Council could also discuss the IIT report with the OPCW in a private-meeting format in April. 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 these informal meetings. That is not the case with formal 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.
Member states hold markedly different views on Council engagement on Syria. 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, while China and Russia often emphasise the importance of eliminating the threat of terrorism in Syria. The failure of the Council to agree on elements to the press at its 6 March closed consultations on the ceasefire in the north-west illustrated the tense dynamics.
Belgium and Germany are the humanitarian co-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.|
|28 February 2020S/2020/139||This was a report on the review of alternative modalities for the Al Yarubiyah border crossing.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|28 February 2020S/PV.8738||This was a meeting on the situation in Idlib.|
|27 February 2020S/PV.8734||This was a meeting on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria.|