Expected Council Action
In December, 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
In recent months, the Council’s deliberations around the use of chemical weapons in Syria have become particularly heated. The Security Council continues to meet monthly, often in closed consultations, on the implementation of resolution 2118 requiring the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, which the Council adopted unanimously in 2013. On 5 October, the Council, meeting in person in a public briefing, held a procedural vote after several Council members objected strongly to Russia’s inviting former Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General José Bustani to brief. They argued 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. Only three Council members (China, Russian Federation and South Africa) voted in favour of allowing Bustani to participate in the meeting, with six votes against and six members abstaining. At the following meeting, on 5 November, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu noted that “due to…identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the OPCW’s technical secretariat has assessed that the declaration submitted by the Syrian Arab Republic cannot be considered accurate and complete”.
Syria’s humanitarian situation remains tenuous, with the number of Syrians considered food insecure now over 9.3 million, and as the Syrian economy deteriorates, with rising unemployment and inflation making access to basic goods more difficult. According to OCHA, Syria’s current socio–economic situation “represents some of the most challenging humanitarian conditions experienced in the past ten years of [the] crisis”. Though it has been widely reported in the past several months that some 80 percent of Syria’s population lives in poverty, OCHA says that there are indications that “more families have been pushed toward poverty and destitution”.
The number of cases of COVID-19 in Syria continues to rise sharply, further degrading Syria’s damaged health care system. Children have also been severely affected by the pandemic: because of serious overcrowding in some school settings, efforts to mitigate any potential transmission of COVID-19 in schools have proven to be challenging despite initiatives by the World Health Organization and UNICEF to train students and teachers on necessary precautionary measures against coronavirus and to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to school staff throughout Syria.
The humanitarian and security situations in Syria’s north-west region remain fragile. The region, like many other parts of Syria, has seen a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases. It also suffers from particularly poorly–equipped medical facilities, inadequate access to PPE and low testing capacity. The region’s security situation has also continued to worsen. According to media reports, on 4 November, Syrian military shelled several areas around Idlib, killing at least eight civilians. This incident follows a period of several weeks in which OCHA reported an increase in shelling and airstrikes in the area. The increased violence also comes in the wake of recent reports that Turkey has withdrawn from several observation points and military outposts that it had established in Syria’s north-west, raising concerns that the 5 March ceasefire in the region, agreed between Turkey and Russia, is weakening.
In this difficult humanitarian and security context, the Syrian government organised an international conference in Damascus from 11 to 12 November on refugee returns to Syria. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, international media reported that Russia and the United States had put pressure on various countries to participate in or to boycott the meeting, respectively. The US, supported by the EU, argued that the conference should not be allowed to decouple the issue of refugee return and the ongoing political process implemented under resolution 2254. Resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted in 2015, calls for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition” and highlights the “critical need to build conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons”.
In the run-up to the meeting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, informing Putin that the return of refugees is “a number one priority” for Damascus. Nonetheless, of Syria’s neighbours, only Lebanon and Iraq sent representatives to the conference, and Turkey was not invited. Russia and China were both in attendance. On 10 November, EU High Representative Josep Borrell announced that neither the EU nor any of its members would attend the event, calling the conference “premature”. The UN attended as an observer. According to UNHCR, 5,575,708 Syrians have fled the country, the vast majority of whom live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
During a Council briefing on 27 October, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen informed members that “there was some valuable narrowing of the differences” on the agenda of the work of the Constitutional Committee for Syria and that he was hoping to identify dates to reconvene the committee for its fourth and fifth rounds. Initial proposals suggested that the end of November would be a viable option for a fourth round and early January for a proposed fifth round of in-person meetings in Geneva. Media outlets have reported that since March, 128 Geneva-based UN staff have been infected with COVID-19, with another 30 cases being reported on 17 November alone. When Pedersen organised a third round of Geneva meetings in August, held in person, three Syrian participants tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival in Switzerland, and two days of meetings had to be cancelled. Briefing the Council on 25 November, Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar confirmed that an agreement had been reached for a fourth round to be held from 30 November and another in January. She cautioned, however, that travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the relatively high coronavirus caseload in Switzerland may cause the timeline to shift.
Key Issues and Options
Despite potential setbacks to the timeline due to COVID-19, Council members may wish to use the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Constitutional Committee and the current momentum to welcome 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.
Given the increasing security challenges in the north-west, some members may pursue more information on the security situation and the status of the 5 March ceasefire in the region in order to better understand their potential impact on the humanitarian situation.
As the chemical weapons file and the work of the OPCW itself continue to be sources of division amongst Council members, they may wish to invite current OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias to brief the Council in December.
The Council remains deeply divided on the political, humanitarian and chemical weapons files. There appears to be agreement among Council members that the work of the Constitutional Committee is an overall positive development; however, some members have become increasingly concerned with the committee’s lack of progress. The response of various Council members to the Syrian-organised refugee conference further illustrates the stark cleavages on the Council vis-à-vis the way forward on the humanitarian file, while recent meetings on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the current contention around the format in which OPCW Director-General Arias could brief the Council, 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.|