Expected Council Action
In February, the Security Council expects to meet on the political, humanitarian and chemical weapons tracks in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Resolution 2585, adopted on 9 July 2021, authorised the cross-border mechanism for the delivery of humanitarian assistance from Turkey into Syria until 10 January with an additional six months’ extension until 10 July subject to the issuance of the Secretary-General’s substantive report focusing on “transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs”. That report was issued on 15 December 2021, appearing to meet the requirements for the mandate to continue for the additional six months.
Despite the timely release of the report, however, there had been indications that some Council members, most notably Russia, might request a separate discussion of the issue or might even argue that a vote would be needed to extend the mandate beyond 10 January. On numerous occasions, Russia had argued in the Council that the mandate’s extension was not automatic. In an interview with Russian media on 23 December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said that Russia would “most likely” agree to extend the mandate to 10 July as “there [had been] advances in the implementation of the resolution, but they are very few”. When asked about the mandate’s renewal on 28 December, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told the media to “not rush things. It’s only December 28 and the issue is to be decided”. Russia, he noted, was “still considering [its] position in this regard”, adding that the Secretary-General’s 15 December report “in general…answers the requirements that we set forth in resolution 2585”.
Despite the uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian assistance stemming from 2585’s automatic extension, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains dire. The country continues to contend with an ever-worsening economic situation, rising food and fuel prices, increased unemployment, and a growing COVID-19 caseload. In addition, the recent arrival of harsh winter conditions, with heavy snowfall and unusually cold temperatures in Syria’s northwest, is endangering vulnerable communities, especially the internally displaced persons living in camps in the area.
On 11 January, a Syrian aid worker in the Al Hol camp—a refugee and internally displaced persons’ camp in Syria’s northeast housing both victims and relatives of members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—was killed in an armed attack. Media reports indicate that two ISIL members carried out the attack. Violence in the camp remains widespread; according to reports received by the UN, in the last 12 months alone, 90 camp residents have been murdered. Nearly 94 percent of the camp’s approximately 56,000 residents are women and children, and more than half are under 18.
On 22 December 2021, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the conflict in Syria had killed 3,746 people during the year, the lowest annual death toll in over a decade of violence. The number was less than half of the fatalities in 2020 and a third of 2019’s total.
Despite this downward trend, the security situation remains tenuous in several parts of the country. On 1 January, international media reported that Russian fighter jets had bombed several towns in Syria’s northwest, near the opposition-held city of Idlib, as well as a water treatment plant that serves the city. At the time of writing, it appeared that two children and a woman had been killed and ten civilians wounded in the attacks. In response, the UN’s Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, Mark Cutts, said that Syria is “facing a water crisis and continued destruction of civilian infrastructure will only cause more suffering of civilians”. On 28 December 2021, Syrian state media announced that Israel had conducted missile strikes on Latakia, Syria’s main commercial port. Similar airstrikes also took place on 7 December. The motivation for the airstrikes remains unclear, although some media speculated that the missiles were intended to destroy Iranian arms shipments arriving in Latakia.
On 5 January, the Council held its regular meeting on chemical weapons in Syria. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu told the Council that Syria’s chemical weapons declaration to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) contained unresolved “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies”. She outlined a number of areas where Syria had not fully complied with the OPCW, including its failure to provide information and documentation about damage sustained on 8 June 2021 during an attack—reportedly by Israel—on a Syrian military facility housing a previously declared former chemical weapons production facility. She added that the OPCW had also yet to receive information about “the unauthorized movement and remains of two destroyed cylinders related to the chemical-weapon incident that took place in Douma on 7 April 2018”. The OPCW had been mandated to transport the cylinders to its headquarters for further inspection but was prevented from doing so by the Syrian authorities. At the meeting, Russia announced that it intended to invite OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias to meet with the Council in February.
On 13 January, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court in Germany found former Syrian intelligence official Anwar Raslan guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The court determined that Raslan oversaw the torture of prisoners at the Al-Khatib detention centre in Damascus, resulting in the deaths of at least 27 people. The court’s decision was welcomed by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
Human Rights-Related Developments
In a briefing on 25 January, the spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “the situation of civilians in the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Hasakeh is deeply troubling” following ISIL attacks on the Ghweiran prison on 20 January, which allowed “dozens of inmates, many of them suspected ISIL members, to escape”. (The prison is one of the largest in northeast Syria.) The attack led to fighting between ISIL and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including in residential areas. According to the spokesperson, “detainees, many of whom are suspected to have been ISIL fighters, are said to be in control of the prison’s main building and have taken some prison staff hostage”. In response to the attacks, which the spokesperson said were “the biggest since ISIL was declared defeated in Syria in 2019”, international forces carried out airstrikes near the prison and thousands of people have reportedly fled the area. The special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, released a statement on 25 January, conveying serious concern “for the welfare of close to 700 children” held at the prison. According to reports, almost 300 people—mostly detainees—have been killed in and around the prison, the statement said.
Issues and Options
Syria’s security situation remains a key issue for the Council. Most Council members are concerned about the ongoing violence and the apparent increase in attacks in the country’s northwest. Council members will be listening closely to the political briefing to gain a better understanding of how the worsening security situation is inhibiting the political process. They may wish to adopt a press statement, echoing the Special Envoy’s many calls for a nationwide ceasefire and the need for discernible progress on the political file.
The humanitarian situation in Syria will be another key issue for the Council in February. The continuation of the mandate of the cross-border mechanism for another six months allows for the uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian assistance from Turkey across the border into Syria. Council members may wish to pursue a discussion on early recovery projects, a controversial issue that was a key element of last year’s negotiations on resolution 2585, in order to gain a better understanding of how these projects function and how they can contribute to ameliorating the dire humanitarian situation in Syria.
The mostly positive atmosphere on the Council that immediately followed the unanimous adoption of resolution 2585 in July 2021 has largely dissipated over the last months. The arrival in January of five new Council members does not appear to have fundamentally altered the overall dynamics on the Syria file. Despite the passage of the 10 January deadline with little fanfare and the continuation of the cross-border mechanism’s mandate for the delivery of humanitarian assistance for another six months, Council members continue to express divergent views on a number of issues related to the humanitarian file, including crossline deliveries and the effects of sanctions. These differences are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|9 July 2021S/RES/2585||This resolution renewed the authorisation for cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.|
|18 December 2015S/RES/2254||This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis.|
|15 December 2021S/2021/1030||This was the “substantive report, with particular focus on transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs” requested in resolution 2585.|
|This was the latest report on the humanitarian situation in Syria.|