Expected Council Action
In October, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on both the political and humanitarian situations and on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
The security situation in much of Syria appears to be relatively stable, according to Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, who briefed the Security Council on 16 September. This assessment, Lowcock noted, comes despite a series of incidents and reports of civilian casualties in the country’s north-west and south. In north-west Syria, there have been ongoing reports of artillery shelling and aerial bombardment and, according to Lowcock, ceasefire violations have increased near the southern contact line of the Idlib “de-escalation area”. In addition, on 25 August a joint Turkish-Russian patrol monitoring the M4 security corridor was attacked by unknown assailants, injuring two Russian soldiers. In southern Syria, there continue to be reports of popular unrest, owing to the country’s deteriorating economic situation, and targeted assassinations of Syrian officials and kidnappings by armed opposition groups.
There is increasing concern over the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in Syria. According to Syrian Ministry of Health data from 17 September, the number of COVID-19 cases in Syria still appears to be relatively small: officially, there are 3,654 confirmed cases (including 163 fatalities). While this appears to be a sharp increase over previous reporting periods, Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, said on 27 August that reports of increasing numbers of patients arriving in health care facilities and growing numbers of death notices and burials indicate that “actual cases far exceed official figures”. The pandemic is seriously affecting Syria’s health care capacity and further damaging Syria’s fragile economy. During the Council’s 16 September session, Lowcock noted that Syria lacked adequate COVID-19 testing capacity and that medical personnel have limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE). As a result, a sizeable number of healthcare workers have contracted the virus, causing medical facilities to close or offer limited services. In the Al Hol refugee and internally displaced persons camp in north-east Syria, for example, health facilities had to cease operations entirely due to the lack of PPE, and infected staff.
Meanwhile, Syria’s economic situation continues to worsen. Coupled with the Syrian pound’s sudden collapse, COVID-19 has exacerbated Syria’s rapid economic deterioration over the summer. According to OCHA, the unemployment rate increased from 42 percent in 2019 to nearly 50 percent in August. The current economic situation, along with damaged supply chains from the Beirut explosion on 4 August, has caused food prices to rise, increasing food insecurity. According to a World Food Programme food security analysis in July, Syria’s national average price of essential commodities was the “highest rate recorded since the start of the crisis”, having increased 251 percent compared to July 2019.
On the humanitarian situation in Syria’s north-west, the Secretary-General reported that the challenges to the delivery of humanitarian assistance have increased since the adoption in July of resolution 2533, which left open only one Council–mandated border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for the delivery of humanitarian assistance into Syria. The Secretary-General’s 20 August report to the Council argues that, in the context of resolution 2533, “available routes are limited, in poor condition, frequently congested, and not always open” and that “the single remaining authorized border crossing, Bab al-Hawa,…will need to sustain higher demands”. Since July, there have been lengthy delays and a significant increase in travel times for vital humanitarian assistance: according to OCHA, getting assistance into areas of the northern Aleppo Governate, which previously took two hours from the now–closed Bab al-Salam crossing point, currently takes over 11 hours.
Regarding the political process, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen informed the Council on 18 September about last month’s meetings of the Constitutional Committee, which were held in person in Geneva on 24 August and 27-29 August. Despite the two-day hiatus after three members of the Constitutional Committee tested positive for COVID-19, the meetings were held in a generally positive atmosphere, though there were no concrete outcomes, with Pedersen informing the Council that “very real differences on substance even at the quite general level of the discussions” persist. Nonetheless, and despite the committee’s inability to agree on an agenda for a future meeting, the committee co-chairs remain willing to meet again.
Finally, on 10 September, the Council met in an open videoconference (VTC) session to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu informed Council members that the Syrian authorities have “not yet provided sufficient technical information or explanations” regarding the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Technical Secretariat’s work on two Syrian research centres alleged to be sites where chemical weapons have been developed. Moreover, further inspections have been delayed because of COVID-19. As such, the OPCW has been unable to close its work on this matter. The OPCW is awaiting a response to a 20 July letter sent by its Director-General to Syria’s deputy foreign minister, which followed a 9 July decision, taken by a vote of the OPCW’s Executive Council, condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Executive Council decision and subsequent OPCW letter are both in reference to the report of its 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’s decision requested that Syria declare to the OPCW not only where the chemical weapons used in the attacks were “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery” but also “all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses”. The Technical Secretariat, the letter noted, “is ready to assist the government in the fulfilment of these obligations” within the 90-day period called for in the decision.
Human Rights-Related Developments
Addressing the Human Rights Council (HRC) at the opening of its 45th session on 14 September, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reiterated that Syria’s people continue to face “multiple and comprehensive crises”. COVID-19 has highlighted the ravages of a health system battered by “deliberate bombings…and ill-equipped to meet even basic needs”. Noting that the World Food Programme reports that 9.3 million Syrians face food insecurity, she called for “an end to this inhumanity and conflict”. On 22 September, the HRC was scheduled to consider an updated written report (A/HRC/45/31) from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
Key Issues and Options
The 20 August Secretary-General’s report and briefings by Rajasingham and Lowcock over the past two months indicate that the closure of the Bab al-Salam crossing has had a negative impact on OCHA’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance in a timely manner. Damage to supply chains from the Beirut explosion, concerns about the arrival of winter, and rising food insecurity are likely to return the contentious issue of humanitarian access to the Council’s front burner, forcing the Council to explore options to improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the north-west. These could include consideration of re-authorising Bab al-Salam or, in the event of a rapidly deteriorating situation due to 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.
The Council is also closely following progress on the work of the Constitutional Committee. With the Special Envoy’s 18 September announcement that he hoped another round of the Constitutional Committee could be held in person in Geneva in early October, members may seek ways to offer support to this body.
On the chemical weapons track, Council members will be eager to hear whether the OPCW has received any reaction from the Syrian government to its 20 July letter. Failing an official response by the 9 October deadline, one option for the Council would be to issue a statement reminding the Syrian government of its obligation.
The Council remains deeply divided on Syria. 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. Also, despite growing concern about the impact of COVID-19, Syria’s economic collapse, and challenges facing delivery of humanitarian assistance, there is little agreement on how these issues should be resolved.
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.|
|20 August 2020S/2020/813||This was the regular 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions by all parties to the conflict in Syria.|