Expected Council Action
In March, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on Syria regarding the political and humanitarian situations and the use of chemical weapons.
Key Recent Developments
Speaking to the press after briefing the Council in closed consultations on 9 February, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the Constitutional Committee, which held its fifth round of in-person meetings in Geneva during the week of 25 January. The talks, which failed to produce any tangible results and concluded without an agreement to meet for a sixth round, had been, according to Pedersen, “a missed opportunity and a disappointment”, owing to both procedural and substantive disagreements between the Syrian government side and participants from the political opposition. Pedersen had apparently expanded on these sentiments in the closed Council session, echoing the sombre appraisal that he gave immediately after the conclusion of the fifth round on 29 January when he said that the body “[could] not continue to meet” unless there was a change in the sides’ approach to the meetings.
Pedersen also noted on 9 February, however, that the lack of progress on the political track had been due to a lack of “constructive international diplomacy” on Syria. Without international diplomacy that “bridges existing divides and focuses on mutual and reciprocal steps for steps,” he argued, it is “unlikely that any track—the constitutional track or any other—will really move forward”. Council members were unable to agree on a press statement at the conclusion of the 9 February meeting due to the sharp divisions within the Council on Syria. On 15-16 February, Pedersen travelled to Sochi, Russia, to attend a meeting with members of the configuration referred to as the Astana guarantors, which consists of Russia, Turkey and Iran. On 18 February, Pedersen travelled to Moscow for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and subsequently visited Damascus from 22 to 23 February.
The lack of progress on the political track comes ahead of controversial presidential elections scheduled to take place sometime between 16 April and 16 May (according to Syrian law, the elections must take place at least 90 days before current President Bashar al-Assad’s seven-year term expires). While the Syrian government has indicated that the elections will be held within this timeframe, a number of Council members—including France, the UK and the US—have stressed that they will not recognise the results if the elections fail to conform with resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted in 2015 and calls for “free and fair elections, pursuant to [a] new constitution, to be…administered under supervision of the UN”. Speaking to the Council on 20 December 2020, France, the UK and the US were joined by Belgium and Tunisia in reiterating the need for Syria’s elections to be held under resolution 2254, with Belgium warning that “any election not held under resolution 2254 would be a major step backwards and would undermine any prospects for peace”.
This month will mark the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire agreed on 5 March 2020 between Russia and Turkey in Syria’s north-west, in and around Idlib. Although the ceasefire has largely held, there continue to be reports of clashes between Syrian military and armed opposition forces in the area and of shelling and sporadic aerial bombardment. Russian and Turkish military forces recently conducted a series of joint military drills in Saraqib, just south of the M4 highway security corridor agreed by Russia and Turkey. These joint activities reportedly come in anticipation that the two sides will re–establish regular joint patrols of the M4 in accordance with the ceasefire agreement. The patrols, which were conducted until 25 August, were halted after several incidents in which patrols were blocked by local activists and reportedly came under attack by members of the armed opposition.
The security situation outside the area covered by last year’s ceasefire also remains fragile. According to media reports, at least two dozen people were killed as a result of two car bombs that were detonated in towns near the Syrian-Turkish border. In one incident, in the town of Azaz, a car–bomb attack took place outside an administrative building on 31 January. On the same day, a car bomb was detonated at a checkpoint outside the town of Beza’a. In another development, Israel launched missile strikes against targets near Damascus on 15 February. While neither Israeli nor Syrian media sources reported on the nature of the targets nor the number of casualties, other press reports suggest that the targets were linked to the presence of the Iranian military in Syria and that the attacks resulted in nine fatalities.
Syria’s humanitarian situation continues to be dire. Briefing the Council on 25 February, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock underscored the growing number of Syrians who are food insecure. According to a 17 February World Food Programme statement, “in just over one year, an additional 4.5 million Syrians have become food insecure”, making a total of 12.4 million Syrians—nearly 60 percent of the country’s population—who suffer from food insecurity. “The increase maybe shocking,” Lowcock noted, “but it cannot be said to be surprising”. In Syria’s north-west, winter floods have affected over 67,000 internally displaced people. According to OCHA, nearly 3,800 tents have been destroyed and another 7,800 damaged, while roads leading to camps have been cut off or damaged as the result of the floods. The situation for children has been particularly difficult in recent weeks: nearly 120 schools have been damaged by the flooding, affecting 21,000 children, and at least 13 children have been killed and another 14 injured in incidents involving explosive weapons and unexploded ordnance across Syria so far this year. Finally, according to the Secretary-General’s 18 February report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, of the 62,000 people who remain at Al Hol camp—a refugee and internally displaced persons camp in Syria’s north-east housing both victims and relatives of armed members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—94 percent are women and children and 53 percent are children under the age of 12. These children face deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the camp as recent violence in the camp has made delivery of humanitarian assistance and provision of other services difficult.
Speaking to the Security Council on 3 February, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu reiterated her concern about Syria’s failure to fully cooperate on the file. “I say this every month because it bears consistent repeating,” she said. “There is an urgent need to not only identify but hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law.” The meeting, which was held via open videoconference, again illustrated the stark divisions on this issue: the Russian Federation repeated its views that Syria is in compliance with its Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) obligations and criticised the work of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, which concluded in April 2020 that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syria used chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria in March 2017”. The US, and other European members of the Council, argued that the Syrian government has obstructed the OPCW’s work to avoid accountability.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 46th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) is expected to hold an interactive dialogue on 11 March with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and consider its report, covering March 2011 to 24 December 2020 (A/HRC/46/54). The report concludes that “[o]ver the past 10 years, parties to the conflict have perpetrated the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of international human rights law…[including] acts that are likely to constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide”. It observed that the “massive crimes, violations and abuses have gone unpunished”. Along with other recommendations, the report makes “one overarching recommendation: immediately institute a permanent ceasefire, endorsed by the Security Council and enforced by the key Member States supporting the Government and armed groups”. The HRC will also consider the commission’s report on arbitrary imprisonment and detention in Syria, requested in HRC resolution 44/21 (A/HRC/46/55).
Key Issues and Options
The failure of the Constitutional Committee’s fifth round to achieve any progress will be a key focus for the Council in March. Given the negative tone of Pedersen’s recent public statements on the committee’s fifth round of meetings and the apparently down-beat assessment he offered Council members on 9 February, Council members will be following closely his engagement with Damascus. Council members may ask the Special Envoy to outline concretely the next steps that need to be taken—by the Special Envoy himself, by the parties, and by external actors—if the stalled process is to be reinvigorated.
Though the Council was unable to agree on a press statement after Pedersen’s last briefing, the Council may try to find consensus on a document that lays out a clear set of substantive achievements they expect the committee to aim for if upcoming rounds of meetings are planned. Council members may also use this opportunity to address their concerns over the Syrian government’s plan to hold presidential elections outside the provisions of resolution 2254.
The Council may also wish to consider issuing a presidential statement on the ten-year anniversary of the start of the conflict, which could address the need for a political solution to the conflict and highlight the dire humanitarian situation.
There has been little discernible progress in recent months in bridging the differences between Council members on Syria’s political, humanitarian and chemical weapons files. Some members, including the US, the UK and France, have become openly concerned about the failure of the Constitutional Committee to achieve anything after more than a year of meetings, but others such as China and Russia have argued that there should be no externally imposed timelines on the process and have cautioned that more patience is needed. February’s meeting on chemical weapons again illustrated the Council’s wide rift on the issue, and the 20 January Council meeting on humanitarian issues showed little change in the stark cleavages that exist between Council members on that file.
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.|
|18 February 2021S/2021/160||This was the regular 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions by all parties to the conflict in Syria.|