May 2020 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action 

In May, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on political issues, the humanitarian situation, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Under the temporary measures adopted because of the COVID–19 pandemic, the three meetings will be held through video teleconference (VTC).  

Key Recent Developments 

In the wake of the 5 March ceasefire agreed between the Russian Federation and Turkey and amid concerns about the impact of COVID-19 in Syria, the Security Council convened an informal VTC meeting on 30 March on the political and humanitarian situations in the country. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen addressed progress on the political process, while Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock described the ongoing humanitarian situation in north-western and north-eastern Syria and OCHA’s efforts to implement resolution 2504, which renewed the authorisation of cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria through two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months. The situation of COVID-19 in Syria, including how restrictions put in place by the Syrian government could impede delivery of humanitarian assistance, was front and centre. Lowcock emphasised Syria’s overall unpreparedness for an outbreak, asserting that, after nine years of conflict, the country’s health infrastructure is severely depleted. Displaced populations are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, with camps for displaced persons remaining overwhelmed; an outbreak could severely strain an already stretched humanitarian response. (At press time, Syrian authorities had reported 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19, none of which were in the north-west.) 

On 6 April, the Secretary-General released a summary of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) report into attacks on sites in north-west Syria that had been included on a “deconfliction” list, which, according to OCHA, is the exchange of information by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to… avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel. The BOI analysed seven attacks on hospitals, schools and camps for internally displaced persons, offering conclusions on six sites. Of these, it found that it was “highly probable” that attacks were “carried out by the Government of Syria and/or its allies” in four of the incidents, by the “Government of Syria” in one incident, and by an “armed opposition group” in another. The BOI determined that it did not have a mandate to review and investigate one of the sites: it was “unable to establish that the [As-Suqaylabiyah] Hospital received support from the UN” despite the World Health Organization’s “provid[ing] material support to the Hospital around the time of the incident. The report offers recommendations on steps to prevent similar incidents and asserts that OCHA should undertake to improve the “deconfliction mechanism”.  

On 8 April, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Fernando Arias submitted the first report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The IIT, which was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, was formed after the Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, which it established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 “to identify those responsible” for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. 

The IIT report highlights three chemical weapons attacks in March 2017 in Ltamenah, concluding that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian Air Force conducted all of the attacks. Moreover, the reports said that military operations “of such a strategic nature as these three attacks” could only have occurred “pursuant to orders from the highest levels” of the Syrian Armed Forces. However, the IIT was unable to reach a definitive conclusion on the chain of command. Nor did it obtain any information that the Syrian authorities had investigated or brought about prosecutions with regard to these incidents. 

On 15 April, the Council held a closed VTC meeting with the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. While this was the regular meeting on the implementation of resolution 2118, which prohibits Syria from using, developing, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons, the session apparently focused primarily on the IIT report, which had been publicly released the week before. Despite the meeting being closed, statements subsequently published on respective Council members’ mission websites suggest that the meeting further illustrated differences on the Council regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the work of the IIT. The Russian Federation maintained that it “had no doubts that [the IIT’s] main purpose would be to whitewash the illegal acts of aggression against Syria” and that the IIT “echo[ed] baseless accusations. Other Council members, including Germany, the UK and Estonia, expressed concern about the need for accountability for those deemed responsible for the attacks 

The 5 March ceasefire agreement appears to have reduced violence in Syria’s north-west. While there have been reports of sporadic ceasefire violations, there have been no reports of aerial bombardment. The Turkish Defence Ministry announced on 21 April that five joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 security corridor had now taken place. Improvements in the security situation in the area have been overshadowed by concerns about a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Fearing an outbreak of COVID-19, over 100,000 people have left overcrowded camps to return to damaged homes around Idlib, according to media reports. 

At press time, the Council was scheduled to meet on 29 April to discuss political issues and the humanitarian situation. The humanitarian briefing was expected to include an update on the response to COVID-19 in Syria and OCHA’s operations as well as progress regarding resolution 2504. The status of an “independent written review” of the crossline and cross-border operations and recommendations, required by resolution 2504, was also expected to be discussed. The Special Envoy was expected to update on his nationwide ceasefire call and the status of a third constitutional committee meeting.   

Key Issues and Options 

A key immediate issue is how the Council might address the issue of COVID-19 in Syria. While there was broad agreement that steps need to be taken on this when the issue of Syrian government restrictions was raised on 30 March, Russia was critical of OCHA, saying that it was “untimely and inappropriate to criticize Damascus and impose new conditions regarding humanitarian access”. In May, Council members could ask OCHA to brief on how a potential outbreak would affect its operations in both the north-west and the north-east, especially given the closure in January of the Ya‘rubiyah border crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border.  

The Council may wish to revisit the issue of the 5 March ceasefire agreement. One option would be for the Council to ask to be updated on the ceasefire and to explore how the Special Envoy could use it as part of achieving a nationwide ceasefire. 

With the submission of the summary of the Board of Inquiry’s report to the Council, 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 report’s recommendations vis-à-vis OCHA with Lowcock. 

Though the OPCW IIT report was discussed on 15 April as part of the regular chemical weapons briefing, it had not been officially transmitted to the Council at press time. The Council could discuss the report with the OPCW in a private-meeting format. Council members often meet on chemical weapons issues in Syria in closed consultations, in which non-UN officials and non-Council members are not permitted to participate. 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 on 5 November 2019. 

Council Dynamics 

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. 

Belgium and Germany are the humanitarian co-penholders on Syria. 

UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA 

Security Council Resolution
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.
Secretary-General’s Report
21 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.
Security Council Letter
30 April 2020