Expected Council Action
In February, 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
Briefing the Security Council on 20 January, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock offered a sobering account of Syria’s ongoing humanitarian needs. He noted that in 2020 the UN-coordinated humanitarian operation assisted, on average, 7.6 million people a month across Syria. That represented an increase of 20 percent compared to 2019. In Syria’s north-west, OCHA dispatched a monthly average of 1,000 trucks of aid, reaching 2.4 million people each month. He said that the situation was likely to deteriorate further in 2021, estimating that approximately 13 million people will remain in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria with an additional ten million people, including 5.5 million Syrian refugees, in need in the region.
The dire humanitarian situation has been exacerbated by Syria’s deteriorating economic conditions as well as continuing food insecurity. According to a 19 January 2021 World Food Programme (WFP) report, the price of basic food items continued to increase in December. Syria’s standard food basket was 236 percent higher compared to December 2019, a month-to-month increase of 13 percent that brought the basket to its highest recorded price since WFP started monitoring prices in 2013. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that the Syrian government has doubled the price of subsidised bread.
Fuel shortages have also contributed to the worsening economic situation. On 10 January, Syria’s petroleum ministry announced that it would cut its fuel distribution by 24 percent because of delays in the arrival of needed supplies, causing further hardship for many Syrians. Finally, Syria has seen the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise rapidly, putting increased strain on Syria’s health care and educational systems, as well as driving up unemployment.
During a briefing to the Council on 20 January, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen noted that the “Syrian people have seen less all-out violence” than during previous periods of the conflict. Nonetheless, the fragile security situation continues to threaten civilians, with reports of civilians being killed in crossfire between warring parties or by improvised explosive devices. On 2 January, two car bombs were detonated in northern Syria—one in a market in Ras al-Ain, killing two children, and another outside a bakery in Jinderis, near Aleppo, killing one person. Shelling and airstrikes continued to harm civilians in and around Idlib despite a 10-month-old ceasefire in the area.
Other reports suggest a recent uptick in violence in several of Syria’s regions: on 12 January, Israeli airstrikes in and around Deir al-Zour in the eastern part of the country reportedly targeted Syrian military sites, killing 57 Syrian government soldiers and, according to international media, members of Iranian-backed militias. On 30 December 2020, Islamic State militants attacked a bus on a road outside Deir al-Zour, leading to increasing concerns about the resurgence of the group in some parts of Syria. On 11 December, a car bomb killed 16 people at a checkpoint in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkish gendarmes were among those killed in the attack.
From 25 to 29 January, the Small Body of Syria’s Constitutional Committee convened for a fifth round of meetings, discussing constitutional principles for the first time. Speaking to the press on 29 January, Pedersen gave a downbeat assessment of the meetings, stating that the “week had been a disappointment” and that the committee “cannot continue to meet if [they] do not change their approach”. As such, he noted that there had been no agreement on the timeframe for another meeting.
The issue of the use of chemical weapons remains a deeply divisive one amongst Council members. During his 11 December 2020 briefing to the Council, Fernando Arias, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), concluded that “the declaration submitted by Syria still cannot be considered accurate and complete”, a sentiment that was echoed by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu during her briefing to the Council on 5 January. Though most Council members welcomed the work of the OPCW and Arias, Russia, in its 5 January statement to the Council, expressed dissatisfaction with Arias’ briefing, claiming that the Council had “heard nothing new from [Arias] either at the open or the closed segment of [the] meeting in December”.
On 21 January, Secretary-General António Guterres announced the establishment of a three-person independent senior advisory panel to strengthen the “deconfliction mechanism” in Syria. According to OCHA, this mechanism provides for “the exchange of information by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to…avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel”. On 6 April 2020, the Secretary-General released a summary of his Board of Inquiry (BOI) report into attacks on sites in north-west Syria—including hospitals, schools and camps for internally displaced persons—that had been on a “deconfliction” list. At the time, the Secretary-General informed the Council that he was planning to appoint a senior independent adviser to help prevent similar incidents and improve the mechanism. The panel is expected to submit its final report by 10 May.
Human Rights-Related Developments
In a 29 December 2020 statement, the special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Alena Douhan, called on the US to remove unilateral sanctions imposed in June 2020 under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. According to the statement, these broad sanctions “violate the human rights of the Syrian people” and may inhibit rebuilding of Syria’s civilian infrastructure destroyed during the conflict. They could target any foreigner helping in reconstruction as well as employees of foreign companies and humanitarian operators helping to rebuild Syria.
Key Issues and Options
The completion of the Constitutional Committee’s fifth round will be a key focus for the Council in February. Most Council members agree that the political track has yielded few results, and some members have become openly concerned about this after more than a year of Constitutional Committee meetings. European members on the Council have tended to emphasise that reconstruction aid to Syria will not be forthcoming without tangible progress on the political front. With the completion of the fifth round, members may wish to take stock of what the Committee has been able to accomplish to review how they will approach its future work. The Council could adopt a presidential statement welcoming the limited 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.
The Council remains deeply divided on Syria’s political, humanitarian and chemical weapons files. OPCW Director-General Arias’ unequivocal assessment for the Council in December that Syria is still not in compliance with its obligations did little to bridge the gap that exists amongst Council’s members on the chemical weapons file. While there are two new penholders—Ireland and Norway—on the Syria humanitarian file, the 20 January Council meeting showed little change in the stark cleavages that exist between Council members on that issue. On the political front, there is broad agreement among Council members that the work of the Constitutional Committee is a generally positive development, but some members have become openly concerned about the Committee’s lack of progress.
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.|
|11 December 2020S/2020/1195||This was the regular 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions by all parties to the conflict in Syria.|