Expected Council Action
In April, the Security Council is expected to hold its monthly meetings on political and humanitarian developments in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Syria continues to grapple with the devastating humanitarian consequences of the 6 February earthquake and its aftershocks. According to OCHA’s 16 March situation report, at least 5,791 people were killed and 10,041 injured in Syria, including 4,377 dead and 7,692 injured in north-west Syria. The report notes that the healthcare system is at risk of collapse in some areas.
Syria continues to suffer from an outbreak of cholera, which has exacerbated the already dire humanitarian situation. According to OCHA’s 28 February situation report on the cholera outbreak in Syria, 92,649 suspected cases, including 101 deaths attributed to the disease, were reported across the country between 25 August 2022 and 15 February.
The opening of two additional border crossings–Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee–in north-west Syria has allowed the UN and other humanitarian organisations to accelerate the delivery of aid to people in need. According to data provided by OCHA, at the time of writing, a total of 1202 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies from seven UN agencies have crossed to north-west Syria from Türkiye since 9 February through three border crossings: Bab al-Hawa (932 trucks), Bab al-Salam (225 trucks), and Al Ra’ee (45 trucks).
On 11 March, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi concluded a five-day visit to earthquake-affected areas of Syria and Türkiye. In a 13 March press release, Grandi noted that “much more humanitarian aid and early recovery resources are needed” to allow people to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
On 16 March, Council members held a meeting on Syria under “any other business” at the request of China and Russia. OCHA Deputy Director of Operations and Advocacy Ghada Eltahir Mudawi and Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča briefed Council members on the impact of the 7 March airstrikes on the Aleppo airport, allegedly conducted by Israel, on the delivery of humanitarian aid to earthquake victims. According to the Syrian Ministry of Transport, the airport was forced to shut down, and all flights carrying earthquake aid were diverted to Damascus and Latakia. According to Syrian officials, the Aleppo airport was hit again by Israeli airstrikes on 22 March, in the third attack on the airport in six months. According to a 22 March Reuters article, regional intelligence sources said that the 22 March airstrikes “hit an underground munitions depot linked to the nearby Nairab military airport, where missile systems delivered on several Iranian military planes had been stored”.
On 21 March, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths visited Syria, where he met Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad. Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq said later that day that during these meetings Griffiths had emphasised the need for expanded humanitarian access to continue to address the growing needs throughout Syria.
The international community has mobilised support in the past weeks to address the myriad of new and ongoing humanitarian challenges in the country. On 20 March, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, co-hosted an international donors’ conference attended by 60 delegations from the EU and its member states and partners, including the UN and international financial institutions. The conference resulted in a total pledge of 950 million euros in grants for Syria.
At the time of writing, the flash appeal for earthquake relief in Syria was 78.6 percent funded, and the humanitarian response plan for 2023 was 5.7 percent funded.
On 21 March, a meeting of envoys focused on Syria was held in Amman to discuss the situation in the country in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes. The envoys of Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Norway, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK, the US, the EU, and the League of Arab States attended the meeting. In a 23 March joint statement, the representatives called for a nationwide ceasefire and for unhindered humanitarian access to all Syrians through all modalities, including cross-border and cross-line (that is, across domestic frontlines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control). They also called for the expansion of UN cross-border aid and further supported the efforts undertaken pursuant to resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which focused on a political solution to the conflict.
The political track in Syria remains at a standstill and the Syrian Constitutional Committee has not met since June 2022. At an 8 March press briefing, Geir O. Pedersen said that the work of the Constitutional Committee should not be held hostage to issues that have nothing to do with Syria and the committee needs to reconvene and move forward on substance. He added that all the challenges that existed before the earthquakes still remained and that to move beyond an emergency response to the earthquakes, political issues needed to be addressed, including the drafting of a new constitution. Among other unresolved issues that he highlighted were Syria’s governance, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; the need for a nationwide ceasefire; the challenges posed by terrorist groups; safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation.
On 23 March, the Council convened its monthly meeting on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. Pedersen and OCHA Acting Director of Operations and Advocacy Tareq Talahma briefed. Talahma provided an overview of the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the country and described the recent efforts of the UN and other actors to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria. He noted that the recent earthquakes have strained the existing delivery infrastructure in the country and have resulted in death and injury to humanitarian aid workers, including UN staff members. He added that the UN has continued to conduct daily missions in earthquake-affected areas, delivering assistance, assessing the structural integrity of buildings, and identifying protection requirements. Talahma also apprised the Council of a cross-line operation undertaken by a UN inter-agency team to the town of Ras Al-Ain in Al-Hasakeh governorate in late February.
In his remarks, Pedersen noted that there has been a sharp rise in shelling, rocket fire, cross-line raids by terrorist groups, and air strikes attributed to Israel. He highlighted his continued engagement with regional stakeholders toward finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis and promoting calm in the country. He also called for more engagement with Syrian parties on ways to create an enabling environment for earthquake rehabilitation and with other actors on how they can provide enhanced resources and remove hindrances arising from sanctions.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 13 March, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria launched its latest report covering the period from 1 July to 31 December 2022. Among other things, the report noted that violations of human rights and humanitarian law continued across the country; conflict intensified across several front lines; and insecurity persisted across government-controlled areas, notably in the south with unabating clashes and targeted killings. Following the report’s launch, the Commission of Inquiry noted that parties to the conflict in Syria committed “widespread human rights violations and abuses” in the months leading up to the recent earthquakes in the country. On 21 March, the Commission presented its 13 March report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. In his remarks, Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission, stressed that the Syrian government delayed in giving consent for allowing the cross-border aid to reach into north-west Syria from Türkiye and further impeded aid delivery, along with UN-designated terrorist group Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army (SNA). He added that the Commission is probing the recent incidents of “shelling, obstruction of humanitarian assistance and looting of vacated homes” by the parties in the earthquake-affected areas, including the reported Israeli airstrikes on Aleppo airport. He also expressed his support for the assessment of the effectiveness of the humanitarian response plan undertaken by the UN and other humanitarian aid organisations in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Security Council is how to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria in the aftermath of the 6 February earthquake. Periodic briefings from Griffiths or other OCHA officials could help keep the Council informed of the humanitarian situation on the ground. Council members could also consider inviting representatives of Syrian humanitarian aid organisations to engage with them to explore avenues for improving aid delivery mechanisms in Syria.
Another key, long-standing issue is finding a way to break the political impasse in Syria and to provide political support for the Special Envoy’s efforts in this regard.
The Council could consider adopting a presidential statement that:
- expresses strong concern about the dire humanitarian consequences of the 6 February earthquake and its aftershocks;
- expresses strong support for the efforts of the UN and humanitarian actors on the ground;
- condemns attacks on civilians and underscores the need for the parties to the conflict to abide by international humanitarian law and human rights law;
- encourages donors to enhance their support for the Syrian humanitarian response plan, including early recovery efforts and the Secretary-General’s 14 February flash appeal;
- urges the Syrian government to facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access for the UN and other humanitarian agencies in the earthquake-affected areas; and
- expresses strong support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to reinvigorate the political process.
Strong divisions persist among Council members on the Syria file. China and Russia tend to be sympathetic to the Syrian government, emphasising the need to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and drawing connections between unilateral sanctions on Syria and the challenging humanitarian situation in the country. On the other hand, the P3 (France, the UK and the US) and other like-minded members criticise the government for violating international humanitarian law and human rights law, arbitrarily detaining people, and not engaging meaningfully in political dialogue.
Most members emphasise that the cross-border aid mechanism is essential to saving lives in Syria and strongly support its continuation. Other members, such as China and Russia, continue to argue that cross-border deliveries are extraordinary measures that undermine Syria’s sovereignty and should be supplanted as soon as possible by enhanced cross-line assistance.
Council members hold starkly different views on the chemical weapons track in Syria. China and Russia and some others have long complained about the frequency of the meetings on the Syria chemical weapons track, calling for an end to the practice of monthly meetings, given that the meetings infrequently provide any new information. In organising the programme of work for April, Russia, in its capacity as Council president for April, has not included a meeting on Syria chemical weapons, in contrast with established practice. At the time of writing, it remains unclear if any other Council member will challenge this decision by requesting a meeting on the Syria chemical weapons track.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|9 January 2023S/RES/2672||This resolution extended the authorisation for the Syria cross-border aid mechanism for an additional six months, until 10 July 2023.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|23 March 2023S/PV.9291||This was a briefing on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria.|