Expected Council Action
In November, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on the political and humanitarian situations and on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
November marks one year since the Constitutional Committee for Syria began its work. Following an official launch for all 150 members of the Committee in Geneva on 30 October 2019, the first round of meetings of the 45 participants who make up the “Small Body” met on 4 November, and the Committee reconvened in Geneva between 25 and 29 November 2019 for a second round of discussions. Progress has been slow, however; the co-chairs from the government side and the opposition side were unable to agree on an agenda over the first two rounds of talks. Despite this and after a long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen organised a third round of meetings, held in person in Geneva on 24 August and 27-29 August. Speaking to the Council on 18 September, Pedersen noted that “very real differences on substance even at the quite general level” persist. In order to get agreement on an agenda for a fourth round of meetings, the Special Envoy travelled to Damascus on 25 October for two days of meetings with Syrian officials. Pedersen, who briefed the Council on 27 October, informed members that “there was some valuable narrowing of the differences” on the agenda that “could provide a way out and enable consensus…on the agenda for the next two meetings”. If such as agreement could be reached, he noted, it is possible that the Committee could meet in Geneva sometime in November.
Pedersen’s visit to Damascus comes in the context of an increasingly precarious humanitarian situation in the country. The official total of COVID-19 cases throughout Syria remains relatively low (the Syrian Ministry of Health reported 4,826 cases of COVID-19 as at 13 October), but the country has seen a very rapid rise in cases since the summer. Recent independent studies suggest that the number of cases is significantly higher. With 143 healthcare workers having tested positive for COVID-19 (as of 13 October), there is concern that Syria’s strained medical care facilities will be further weakened.
Syria’s declining economic situation and a sharp rise in food insecurity also appear to be exacerbating the country’s humanitarian conditions. Syria has recently suffered from the sudden collapse of its currency, the Syrian pound, and, according to OCHA, an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent in August. By some estimates, 80 percent of Syria’s population now lives in poverty. Meanwhile, food prices continue to increase; according to a recent World Food Programme analysis, Syria’s national average price of essential commodities was the “highest rate recorded since the start of the crisis”. Overall, 9.3 million Syrians are considered food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million over the last six months.
The situation in Syria’s north-west remains particularly worrying. According to OCHA, the number of COVID-19 cases there has increased twenty-fold from early September to 20 October (the date of the most recent available data) with some 2,865 COVID-19 cases confirmed. As with the rest of Syria, the north-west also suffers from poorly equipped medical facilities, inadequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and low testing capacity. The latter has, however, seen improvement recently with the opening of two new testing laboratories, bringing the total to three. As for the security situation in the area, violence, including shelling and airstrikes, persists. OCHA reported that while regular airstrikes have been ongoing over the last several weeks, 20 September saw the highest number in a single day since a ceasefire went into effect on 5 March, with 28 airstrikes in the Idlib area. Incidents involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs as well as attacks by armed groups on civilians and humanitarian workers also appear to be on the rise in the area.
The region has also seen increased challenges to the delivery of humanitarian assistance since the adoption in July of resolution 2533, which left open only one Council-mandated border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for this purpose. Given that the Bab al-Hawa crossing now needs to handle humanitarian assistance for 1.3 million people, including 800,000 internally displaced persons living in the northern Aleppo Governate, OCHA reported on 20 October that work to repair and widen roads in the area was beginning.
Finally, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russia and China sponsored an Arria-formula meeting on 28 September. Several speakers who have publicly alleged that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) withheld exculpatory evidence regarding the 7 April 2018 chemical weapons attacks on Douma were invited to speak. (On 1 March 2019, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria [FFM]—whose mandate is “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic” rather than identify the perpetrators—released its report on Douma, concluding that the FFM’s investigation provided “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”.)
The Arria-formula meeting was followed by the regular monthly chemical weapons meeting on 5 October. Unlike previous recent meetings on the issue, which have been held in a closed format, Russia, as President of the Council in October, held the meeting in an open format. In addition to inviting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu—who regularly briefs the Council on the implementation of resolution 2118, which prohibits Syria from using, developing, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons—Russia also invited former OPCW Director–General José Bustani. Several Council members objected to Bustani’s speaking on the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, arguing that his tenure as head of the OPCW pre–dated the use of chemical weapons in Syria and thus he could not provide relevant information. A procedural vote was taken, and Bustani was not allowed to speak. Nevertheless, the Russian Permanent Representative, Vassily Nebenzia, speaking in his national capacity, read Bustani’s statement to the Council.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 45th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) considered an updated written report (A/HRC/45/31) from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria. Presenting the report, the commission’s chair, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said that Syrians continue to suffer “gross human rights violations by all the actors controlling the territory”. In the report, the COI proposed several steps for the international community, including an international mechanism to coordinate efforts currently taking place to collect information on an estimated 100,000 missing and disappeared persons and facilitating prisoner releases. Pinheiro was adamant that incommunicado arbitrary detention and torture amount to a “crime against humanity”. Syria, speaking as a concerned country, rejected the “selective and politicized report”, alleging that it employed double standards.
On 6 October, the HRC adopted resolution 45/21 with 27 members voting for (including current Council member Germany and incoming Council member Mexico), one against, and 19 abstentions (including current Council member Indonesia and incoming Council member India). Resolution 45/21 strongly condemned the government of Syria for severe human rights violations, drawing on the COI updated report, and noted that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the Syrian authorities, “in pursuance of a continued State policy”, continued to perpetrate crimes against humanity.
Key Issues and Options
The Council is closely following progress on the work of the Constitutional Committee. Council members may wish to use the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Constitutional Committee to take stock of the Committee’s work. With the anniversary and the announcement of a potential fourth round in November, the Council could adopt a presidential statement welcoming progress to date, while also laying out a clear set of substantive achievements they expect the Committee to aim for in upcoming rounds of meetings.
Council members will continue to monitor progress on the delivery of UN humanitarian assistance to Syria’s north-west and north-east, especially in light of the closure of all authorised border crossings except at Bab al–Hawa. Some members may pursue more information on cross-line delivery into Syria’s north-east in order to better assess its efficacy.
While there appears to be agreement among Council members that the work of the Constitutional Committee is an overall positive development, some members have become increasingly concerned with the committee’s lack of progress. In addition, 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. Finally, recent meetings on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, including both the 28 September Arria-formula meeting and the 5 October Council briefing, have further deepened divisions on this issue.
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 October 2020S/2020/1031||This was the regular 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions by all parties to the conflict in Syria.|