Expected Council Action
In May, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on the political and humanitarian situations and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
On 18 April, the speaker of Syria’s parliament announced that the country would hold presidential elections on 26 May. The election is being held in accordance with current Syrian law, which says that elections must take place at least 90 days before the end of the president’s seven-year term. The current constitution, adopted in 2012, permits a president to serve two seven-year terms. However, the constitution does not apply retroactively, thus allowing President Bashar al-Assad—who has led Syria since July 2000 but was elected in 2014 under the current constitution—to run for another term.
The elections are likely to be a source of tension amongst Council members. Several Council members—including France, the UK and 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”. Other members have argued that the elections must be held as they comply with current Syrian law, and that their organisation is an internal matter.
In this tense political context, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen, speaking to the Council on 28 April, announced that he was still aiming to organise a sixth round of meetings of the Constitutional Committee as soon as “logistically possible”. The last round of meetings of the committee was held in Geneva during the week of 25 January and failed to achieve any discernible progress. Since that time, Pedersen has been working closely, but separately, with the government and opposition representatives to set out a series of clear goals for the committee’s work as well as an agreed methodology and workplan. According to media reports, on 15 April he shared a confidential proposal spelling out his vision, and was expecting to receive feedback from the parties. Pedersen told the Council that he had received input from the Syrian opposition but had yet to hear back from the government on his proposals, noting that he would determine the timing of sixth round of meetings of the Constitutional Committee when he “ha[d] both responses in hand”.
On 12 April, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published the second report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The IIT was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of State Parties (CSP) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was formed after the Security Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, which the Council established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 “to identify those responsible” for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The 12 April report focuses on the use of chlorine gas during an attack on Saraqib, Syria, on 4 February 2018. The IIT concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that a Syrian air force helicopter dropped at least one cylinder of chlorine in the area, affecting at least 12 individuals.
On 16 April, Russia organised an Arria-formula meeting on the “Protection of Developing Nations Against Political Pressure: Upholding the Integrity of International Non-proliferation Regimes”. The meeting focused largely on the Syria chemical weapons file, including what the concept note prepared for the meeting called the “politicised nature of OPCW investigations”, specifically raising concern about the work of the IIT.
On 21 April, the OPCW CSP voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges within the organisation’s policy-making organs. The vote, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, saw 87 members voting in favour of the measure and 15 members voting against, with 34 members abstaining. On 22 April, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias responded to the decision, saying that it “reiterated the international community’s ethical commitment to uphold the norm against these weapons”.
Syria’s economic downturn continues to exacerbate the fragile humanitarian situation in the country. According to the March 2021 World Food Programme (WFP) situation report, the value of the Syrian pound “spiraled” in early March, reaching a record low of 4,700 pounds to one US dollar, before stabilising at 3,700 pounds to one US dollar. This has led to steep rises in the prices of basic goods and food, thereby worsening Syrians’ food insecurity. According to the WFP’s report, the food security situation has “deteriorate[d] rapidly”, with data showing a 72 percent year-on-year increase in “rates of poor and borderline food consumption”. Meanwhile, there are ongoing reports of bread and fuel shortages in both government– and non-government–controlled areas.
According to the Secretary-General’s regular 60-day report on the humanitarian situation, published on 22 April, the issue of access remains paramount in the context of the deteriorating humanitarian situation. The report notes that “intensified cross-line and cross-border deliveries are essential to reach everyone in need”; it further urges the Council to find consensus on the matter, noting that a “failure to extend the UN cross-border authorization would not only disrupt life-saving aid to millions”, but would also disrupt the UN COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan in Syria’s north-west. According to UNICEF, 203,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Damascus for further distribution, while another 53,000 have arrived in Syria’s north–west under the COVAX plan led in Syria by UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 46th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted resolution 46/22 on 24 March by a vote of 27 in favour and six against (including Russia and China), with 14 abstentions (including India). The resolution said the ten-year conflict in Syria had been marked by consistent patterns of gross violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law. It recalled the statements made by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights that crimes against humanity and war crimes are likely to have been committed in Syria and the recent conclusions of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria that violations and abuses have included acts that are likely to constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide. The resolution extended the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria for one year.
Key Issues and Options
Syria’s political process—including a possible sixth round of meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee as well as the 26 May presidential elections—is likely to be a major focus in May. The Council remains deeply divided on the validity of the upcoming Syrian elections, and there are strong disagreements on the progress achieved by, and the future of, the Constitutional Committee. Despite this, Council members may wish to issue a press statement that expresses their support for the Constitutional Committee’s ongoing work while offering their continued, full endorsement of resolution 2254.
During its meeting on the use of chemical weapons, the Council is also likely to focus on the recent IIT report and decision by the CSP. Members may wish to invite Arias to discuss the report’s findings in a private meeting (as was done on 5 November 2019). Like consultations, a private meeting is closed to the public. Unlike consultations, however, a private meeting is considered a formal meeting of the Council, and persons other than Council members and Secretariat officials can participate.
Addressing the deteriorating humanitarian situation also remains a major issue for the Council. As the Council will possibly begin negotiations sometime in May on the renewal of resolution 2533, which authorises cross-border humanitarian deliveries and is due to expire on 11 July, Council members are likely to pay careful attention to Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock’s 28 April briefing and the findings of the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of relevant humanitarian resolutions.
The Council remains deeply divided on Syria, with little suggestion that members can overcome the multiple impasses that exist on the file. The recent IIT report and OPCW decision have furthered aggravated the already tense dynamics on the Syria chemical weapons file, while the announcement of presidential elections is likely to create further rifts amongst Council members. Finally, members may expect discord as discussions about the renewal of cross-border humanitarian access gather pace in the coming weeks because of the 11 July expiration of resolution 2533, authorising cross-border humanitarian deliveries.
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.|
|22 April 2021S/2021/390||This was the regular 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions by all parties to the conflict in Syria.|