August 2020 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Syria

Expected Council Action

In August, 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

On 30 June, the EU organised a donor meeting—the Brussels IV Conference—for Syria. Speaking at the conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reminded donor countries that “nine out of 10 people [in Syria] are now living in poverty” and that “the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a doubling of food prices”. He urged countries to “step up [their] financial, humanitarian and political commitments to the Syrian people”. The conference—which was held as a videoconference (VTC) due to special measures put in place in response to the pandemic—resulted in pledges of $7.7 billion for Syria, consisting of $5.5 billion to support humanitarian and development activities for the remainder of 2020 and $2.2 billion in 2021.

Syria’s economic, security and humanitarian situations all appear to have suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Syria’s already-precarious economic situation continues to deteriorate, and the security situation in the country’s north-west worsened in July, while the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing to UN cross-border humanitarian assistance and the announcement of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the north-west have made the humanitarian situation in and around Idlib more tenuous.

Over the last several months, the Syrian pound has suffered a major collapse, and the cost of essential goods continues to increase. According to OCHA, the Syrian pound has lost nearly half of its value since the start of May. This has led to a steep rise in the price of food, medicine and other goods. According to data from the World Food Programme, some 9.3 million Syrians are considered food insecure. While the Syrian economy has been severely weakened by nine years of conflict, its recent decline is due in large part to the combined effects of several factors. These include concern over EU sanctions and new unilateral US sanctions that took effect on 17 June under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, infighting between the Syrian government and Rami Makhlouf (President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and the head of Syriatel, a major telecommunications firm that provides a vital source of revenue to the government), and the spill-over effects of the economic crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.

Though north-western Syria continues to remain largely calm since a ceasefire was announced on 5 March, recent developments have contributed to a worsened security situation. On 14 July, a roadside explosive device was detonated on a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in the southern Idlib de-escalation area, reportedly injuring several Russian soldiers. This followed at least two other attacks on joint patrols along the M4 highway security corridor in June and early July. On 19 July, a car bomb was detonated near the north-west border crossing of Bab al-Salameh on the Turkish border, killing seven civilians and wounding over 60 people, while another explosion in the town of Afrin reportedly injured 13 people.

Syria’s humanitarian situation remains very fragile, particularly in the north-west. On 9 July, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the region. The infected person is reportedly a doctor based in Gaziantep, Turkey, who travels regularly to Syria and works at the Bab al-Hawa Hospital. An additional 28 cases have subsequently been identified. According to OCHA, all four patients are health professionals, and steps to mitigate the spread of the virus have resulted in restrictions of movements as well as suspension of routine clinical work in area hospitals. These first COVID-19 cases in the north-west come in the context of the Security Council’s adoption of resolution 2533 on 11 July on the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria, following six days of negotiations and four failed resolutions. Resolution 2533 re-authorised the Bab al-Hawa crossing for 12 months but did not re-authorise the crossing at Bab al-Salam, thus further limiting the UN’s delivery capacity.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock—who said on 19 May that “meeting the enormous humanitarian needs in the north-west requires a renewal of the cross-border authorisation for the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa border crossings for an additional 12 months”—was expected to brief the Council on 29 July and was likely to offer an assessment of what impact the closure of Bab al-Salam is having on OCHA’s work. (For more on this issue, please see “In Hindsight” in this month’s Forecast.)

On 14 July, the Security Council met in its regular, monthly closed format to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The meeting was scheduled to discuss the regular report by the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on progress in the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme. Apparently, however, the closed session focused on the 9 July decision by the OPCW’s Executive Council condemning the use of chemical weapons as reported by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syria used chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria in March 2017”. The Executive Council decision also requested that Syria declare to the OPCW where the chemical weapons used in the attacks were “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery” and declare “all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses”. The Executive Council will take further steps to decide “appropriate actions” under the Chemical Weapons Convention if Syria fails to meet these obligations within a 90-day period.

Finally, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen briefed the Council on 23 July, updating the Council on the situation of the Constitutional Committee, which is scheduled to meet in person in Geneva in late August. He also addressed the security situation in the country’s north-east and north-west as well as the situation of detainees in the country. The Council was also briefed by Wafa Mustafa, a representative of Families for Freedom, a Syrian civil society organisation comprised of families and relatives of those who have suffered enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention during the Syrian conflict, who also focussed on the situation of detainees in Syria.

Human Rights-Related Developments

During a virtual press conference on 7 July, the chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, presented the report on the special inquiry in the Idlib region. The report, which the Human Rights Council (HRC) requested in resolution 43/28, covered the period from November 2019 to June 2020 and reported 52 “emblematic attacks by all parties which led to civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure”. Among these attacks were 17 that affected hospitals and medical facilities, 14 attacks on schools, nine attacks on markets, and 12 attacks affecting homes. Calling the report a “chronicle of deaths foretold”, Pinheiro underscored that the Commission consistently called Idlib a “ticking time bomb”. Hanny Megally, one of the three members of the Commission, emphasised that since “pandemics know no borders, neither should life-saving aid”, with civilians needing “sustained and unfettered access to humanitarian assistance which must neither be politicised by Member States nor instrumentalized by parties to the conflict”. The report (A/HRC/44/61) was presented to the HRC during the last week of its 44th session.

Women, Peace and Security

In a 2 July op-ed essay titled “Put women at the centre of Syria crisis response”, published on the Egyptian news website Al-Ahram, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Executive Director of the UN Population Fund Natalia Kanem argued that the funding for programmes addressing gender-based violence, economic empowerment and women’s leadership as well as sexual and reproductive health services has to match the increase in needs on the ground. They said that Syrian women are more likely than men to be affected by poverty, be victims of gender-based violence and be responsible for the care of children and their other family members. This likelihood increases with the spread of COVID-19. Despite these challenges and risks, Mlambo-Ngcuka and Kanem emphasised that women’s organisations in Syria and Syrian women continue to be at the core in all aspects of crisis response, including health care, peacemaking, education and humanitarian efforts. Consequently, they called upon donors meeting at the Brussels IV Conference on Syria to put the rights and needs of women and girls at the centre of its discussions.

Key Issues and Options

With the adoption of resolution 2533 on 11 July, the contentious debate over cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance has been set aside for the time being. As the impact of the decision on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria’s north-west becomes clearer and the COVID-19 situation evolves, Council members may wish to consider other options. These could include consideration of re-authorising Bab al-Salam or, in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19 in Syria’s north-east or a lack of further improvements in cross-line delivery, reinstating the Al Yarubiyah border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Given the very difficult negotiations that surrounded the adoption of resolution 2533, these options may, however, be implausible.

Another key issue for the Council is progress on the political file. With the Special Envoy’s 16 June announcement that the Constitutional Committee is to meet in person in Geneva in August, the Council may seek ways to offer support to this body.

Finally, the OPCW Executive Council’s 9 July decision condemning the use of chemical weapons as reported by the OPCW IIT may again bring the work of the IIT to the fore at the Council. The Council may wish to invite the OPCW Executive Director to the Council to discuss the decision further and explore what actions the OPCW Executive Council can take if Syria fails to comply with the 9 July decision.

Council Dynamics

The Council remains divided on Syria, and the re-authorisation of cross-border aid mechanisms starkly illustrated differences on the humanitarian file. Resolution 2533 was adopted with 12 votes in favour and three abstentions (China, the Dominican Republic and Russia). The Dominican Republic, in its explanation of vote, noted that it had abstained owing to the Council’s “failure to re-open the border crossing of Al- Yarubiyah and [the] decision to close the Bab al Salam crossing, [which would] have terrible consequences to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children”. The negotiations leading up the adoption exposed deep rifts within the Council not only on the importance of the cross-border delivery mechanism but also on such issues as the impact of sanctions and the weight and confidence that the Council places on cross-line assistance. China and Russia maintained throughout the negotiations that coordination with Syria on this mechanism could be strengthened and argued that the humanitarian situation has been adversely impacted by unilateral sanctions. The US and European members of the Council have reiterated their position that US and EU sanctions exempt humanitarian goods and expressed distrust of the Syrian government’s intentions in handling cross-line humanitarian assistance.

Belgium and Germany are the penholders on humanitarian issues in Syria.

UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA

Security Council Resolutions
11 July 2020 S/RES/2533 This renewed the authorisation for cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria through one border crossing (Bab al-Hawa) for 12 months.
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 Reports
14 May 2020S/2020/401 This was on the review of the UN’s cross-line and cross-border operations.
29 May 2020S/2020/310 This was the first report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Investigation and Identification Team.
Security Council Letters
11 July 2020S/2020/702 This was from the president of the Security Council addressed to the Secretary-General and the permanent representatives of Council member states on the outcome of voting on resolution 2533.
16 June 2020S/2020/551 This was from the president of the Security Council addressed to the Secretary-General and the permanent representatives of Council member states containing the record of the 16 June open VTC meeting on Syria’s political situation.