Expected Council Action
In September, 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
Violence appears to have increased in several parts of Syria since mid-July. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen, briefing the Council on 23 July, noted that there had been “sustained clashes” between armed opposition groups in the north–west, as well as a “brief uptick in pro-government airstrikes south of the M4 [security corridor]” and shelling by government forces in north–west Syria. In addition, there have been regular road blockages as well as attacks on the joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 that have been conducted since Russia and Turkey signed a 5 March ceasefire agreement. On 13 August, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson announced that Russia intended to suspend participation in the joint patrols, given its security concerns, but it appears that this decision was superseded by the resumption of joint patrols four days later. On 17 August, another joint Turkish-Russian patrol monitoring the M4 came under attack by unknown assailants, causing damage to a Turkish military vehicle, although there were no injuries. There have also been reports of a build-up of Syrian forces and Syrian rocket attacks in areas south–west of Idlib.
In recent weeks, high–profile violent attacks have also intensified in other parts of Syria. On 3 August, the Israeli military struck Syrian military targets, killing three Syrian soldiers. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the attack was in retaliation for an attempt by unidentified militants based in Syria to place explosives near the Golan Heights. On 17 August, two US helicopters attacked a Syrian army checkpoint in Syria’s north–east near Qamishli, killing one Syrian soldier and injuring two others. According to media reports, on 18 August an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated next to a Russian convoy near Deir-ez–Zor in eastern Syria, killing a Russian major general and injuring two Russian soldiers.
Syria’s precarious humanitarian situation has worsened because of a growing outbreak of COVID-19 and the ongoing deleterious impact that Syria’s economic crisis is having on food security, education and access to jobs. Briefing the Council on 29 July, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted that COVID-19 was now a countrywide problem, with cases reported in all but one governorate. According to OCHA, COVID-19 is causing Syria’s weak economy to contract even further, reducing remittances from abroad and increasing unemployment from 42 percent in 2019 to nearly 50 percent in August. Children have also been affected: already, some 2.5 million children—one-third of all school-aged children in Syria—are unable to attend school, a figure that OCHA believes is likely to spike as more schools are closed down due to COVID-19.
According to figures from the Syrian Ministry of Health, the number of COVID-19 cases in Syria still appears to be relatively small: officially, the number of people confirmed to have COVID-19 has reached only 1,677. The number of cases in Syria’s north–west, as of 7 August, stood at 40, with 36 in Syria’s north–east. However, Lowcock said the “true number of cases is certainly higher”, given the limited testing capacity and “a reluctance, among some people, to acknowledge an infection” likely to mask the real scale of COVID-19’s spread. According to some estimates, including a recent investigative media report using excess deaths as a basis for determining the size of a possible outbreak, there may be up to 85,000 COVID-19 infection cases in the Damascus region alone.
Regarding the political process, Pedersen briefed the Council on 19 August and in his briefing included the announcement that the Constitutional Committee was scheduled to hold in-person meetings in Geneva from 24 August.
Human Rights-Related Developments
At its 44th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted, on 17 July, resolution 44/21, which “strongly condemns” the Syrian government for serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence. The vote was 22 in favour, two against, and 17 abstentions. The resolution also requests the Commission of Inquiry to prepare a report on arbitrary imprisonment and detention in the Syrian Arab Republic and present the report to the Council at its 46th session, scheduled for 22 February to 19 March 2021. The resolution further notes that “parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of hostilities” in accordance with Security Council resolution 2474 and underscores the need for all parties to the conflict to “engage meaningfully in the political process under the auspices of the Special Envoy” in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254.
Key Issues and Options
In the wake of the 11 July adoption of resolution 2533, which re-authorised the Bab al-Hawa crossing for 12 months but did not re-authorise the crossing at Bab al-Salam, the contentious issue of humanitarian access is, at least temporarily, not on the Council’s front burner. When briefing the Council last month, Lowcock did not address the effect of its decision on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria’s north–west. As the dual impacts of the closure of Bab al-Salam and the severe disruption to a key humanitarian assistance delivery logistics hub caused by the recent massive explosion at the region’s main port in Beirut become evident, Council members may wish to consider other options moving forward. 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 2533, these options may, however, be implausible.
The Council is also closely following progress on the political file. With the Special Envoy’s 19 August confirmation that the Constitutional Committee meeting would go ahead in person in Geneva, members may seek ways to offer support to this body. On 8 October 2019, the Council adopted a presidential statement welcoming the Secretary-General’s 23 September announcement of the agreement by the Syrian government and opposition for “a credible, balanced, and inclusive Constitutional Committee facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva”. While there appears to be agreement among Council members that the formation and continuing work of the Constitutional Committee is a positive development, some members have noted that this is only the first step in a political process that should lead to free and fair elections under UN supervision.
The Council remains deeply divided on Syria. Negotiations leading up to the adoption of resolution 2533 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. Recent violence in north–west Syria, and particularly attacks on the joint Russian-Turkish patrols and the Russian convoy in Deir-ez–Zor, are also likely to expose the differing standpoints from which Council members see the conflict in Syria, with Russia and China in particular arguing that stronger emphasis must be placed on ridding Syria of terrorists.
Belgium and Germany are the penholders on humanitarian issues in Syria.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|13 July 2020S/RES/2533||This resolution renewed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing (Syria/Turkey) until 10 July 2021. Twelve members voted in favour of the resolution, while three members (China, the Dominican Republic and Russia) abstained.|
|14 May 2020S/2020/401||This was on the review of the UN’s cross-line and cross-border operations.|