Expected Council Action
In October, the Security Council is expected to hold meetings on the political process and on the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
On 11 July, the Security Council failed to reauthorise the Syria cross-border humanitarian aid delivery mechanism, which was last authorised through resolution 2672 of 9 January and expired on 10 July. It had allowed for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to north-west Syria from Türkiye through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing without requiring the consent of the Syrian government. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 11 July and the In Hindsight in our August Monthly Forecast.)
Following weeks of bilateral engagement, the UN and the Syrian government reached an understanding on the continued use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to deliver humanitarian aid into north-west Syria, formalised through an exchange of letters. In a 6 August letter, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh (Syria) reiterated the Syrian government’s 13 July decision to open the Bab al-Hawa border for a period of six months. He further announced the government’s decision to extend its authorisation for the use of the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings until 13 November. The letter also approved the use of the Sarmada and Saraqib crossings for cross-line operations—that is, across domestic conflict lines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control—for a six-month period, until 1 February 2024.
It appears that, on 11 September, the UN’s Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, David Carden, wrote a letter to the Humanitarian Action Coordination (HAC), which is reportedly a humanitarian wing of the Syrian Salvation Government. (The Syrian Salvation Government was established by the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, a Council-listed terrorist group, to govern the territory it controls.) In the letter, Carden said that “the [UN] seeks [HAC’s] facilitation of unimpeded humanitarian access into and within Idleb, including via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing”. It added that the UN “acknowledges the continued support of the HAC to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian personnel and assets in north-west Syria”. Reportedly, the HAC responded with a letter the next day (12 September), saying that it had decided to “independently authorize” the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing “to deliver humanitarian aid and to allow the passage of humanitarian missions for UN teams”.
On 19 September, humanitarian operations resumed through the Bab-al Hawa border crossing. According to OCHA data, at the time of writing, a total of 3,965 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies from seven UN agencies had crossed into north-west Syria from Türkiye since 9 February through the three border crossings: Bab al-Hawa (3,128 trucks), Bab al-Salam (742 trucks), and Al Ra’ee (95 trucks).
In recent months, securing funding for the myriad of new and ongoing humanitarian challenges in the country has continued to be difficult. At the time of writing, the humanitarian response plan for 2023 ($5.41 billion) was only 28.8 percent funded.
Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen has continued his engagement with stakeholders in the Syria political process through the “step-for-step” initiative. On 4 September, Pedersen met with Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) President Badr Jamous. (The SNC represents the political opposition to the government.) According to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the Special Envoy’s office, the meeting focused on the latest developments related to the Syrian crisis and efforts to advance the political process in line with resolution 2254. On the sidelines of the 78th session of the General Assembly, Pedersen met with ministers and senior officials of Bahrain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the US. In a 21 September tweet announcing these meetings, the special envoy’s office said that the situation in Syria is worsening on several fronts and that it remains vital for the Syrian-led and -owned political process to move forward, supported by constructive international diplomacy. The next day (22 September), Pedersen also held consultations with the members of the Astana Format (Iran, Russia, and Türkiye) and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
On 18 September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and GCC Secretary General Jasem Albudaiwi in New York. In a joint statement following the meeting, the ministers welcomed the efforts of the Arab countries in resolving the Syrian crisis in line with resolution 2254. They reaffirmed support for the efforts of the US and coalition forces in their fight against Da’esh (also known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]) in Syria. They condemned “all actions that threaten the safety and security of these forces”, and emphasised the need to ensure full, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access to all Syrians in need through all modalities, including cross-border and cross-line access.
On 22 September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in China, in his first known trip to the country since 2004, to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the meeting, the two leaders announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership”, which Xi said “will become an important milestone in the history of bilateral ties”. He added that “China supports Syria in conducting reconstruction, enhancing counter-terrorism capacity building, and promoting a political settlement of the Syrian issue”.
The region has witnessed an escalation in hostilities in recent months. On 28 August, the Aleppo airport was hit with airstrikes, allegedly conducted by Israel. In a statement later that day, the Syrian defence ministry said that the airstrikes caused material damage to the airport, putting it out of service. According to a 28 August Reuters article, regional intelligence sources said that the airstrikes “targeted an underground munitions depot run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps within the compound of Nairab military airport next to Aleppo airport”. On 31 August, Syrian state media reported that the Syrian army, in cooperation with the Russian air force, carried out air and missile strikes in Hama and Idlib, destroying “weapons, equipment and ammunition, in addition to killing and wounding dozens”. The media report added that these strikes were conducted in response to recent attacks carried out by “terrorist organizations” on Syrian bases.
According to a 6 September OCHA flash update, an uptick in shelling was reported, starting on 1 September, across Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates. OCHA subsequently reported that five people had been killed and 22 others, including 11 children, had been injured as a result of this shelling.
According to a 31 August Reuters article, fighting erupted on 27 August between Arab tribal groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish group opposing the Syrian government, in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, northeast Syria. According to media reports, the clashes broke out after the SDF apprehended Abu Khawla, the Arab leader of the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council, a local SDF affiliate, accusing him of involvement in several crimes. A 14 September OCHA situation report noted that approximately 6,500 families have been displaced to government-held areas since the outbreak of fighting. It added that, according to local sources, 96 people had reportedly been killed and 106 injured since 27 August.
In a 25 September statement, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) noted that it had conducted a helicopter raid in northern Syria, capturing Abu Halil al-Fad’ani, whom it claims has had “relationships throughout the ISIS network in the region”. The statement added that, “[t]he capture of ISIS officials like al-Fad’ani increases our ability to locate, target, and remove terrorist [sic] from the battlefield”.
On 27 September, the Council met on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen, Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu, and Regional Vice President (Middle East and North Africa) at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Su’ad Jarbawi briefed. Wosornu noted that the reopening of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is the result of an understanding with the Syrian government; of operational and security assurances from the de facto authorities in Idlib; and of consultations with a range of member states, including Türkiye and donors, non-governmental organisations, and other partners. In his remarks, Pedersen said that several stakeholders, including the Syrian parties, members of the Astana format, the Arab ministerial liaison committee—comprising Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and League of Arab States Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit—and western members, apprised him of their support for the resumption of the Constitutional Committee. He further noted that he seeks to continue the consultations to resume the work of the committee before the end of this year. He added that there are new manifestations of popular frustration in Syria, referencing protests in al-Sweida governorate, with participants citing economic, social, and political grievances and demands. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 27 September.)
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 12 September, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) published its seventh report (A/HRC/54/58), which covered the developments from 1 January to 30 June. The report states that grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law continued across Syria, including in government-held areas and areas controlled by “non-State actors”. The report notes that the COI has reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian government “continued to commit acts of torture and ill-treatment, including practices causing death in detention, arbitrary detention…and enforced disappearances, confirming continuing patterns of crimes against humanity and war crimes”. The report adds that the COI received multiple reports of aid diversion, extortion and corruption, and documented aid obstruction and interference in the delivery of aid in the immediate aftermath of the 6 February earthquake.
On 22 September, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with the COI on the 12 September report. In a press release following the meeting, the Chair of the COI, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, noted that, despite the diplomatic efforts to stabilise the situation in Syria, civilians continue to suffer from “escalating unrest and fighting along multiple frontlines, a near collapse of the economy, and persistent human rights violations and abuses”. He described the present stalemate in Syria as “intolerable”.
In a 14 September statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said that the recent outbreak of fighting in north-east Syria has heavily impacted civilians and raises wider security concerns that risk exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis. He expressed concern that “tensions and hostilities in and around Deir-ez-Zor will be exploited by other parties trying to exert their influence”.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is to ensure the continued flow of humanitarian aid to those in need in north-west Syria. A related and broader issue is how to alleviate the growing humanitarian needs throughout the country. The deteriorating socioeconomic conditions are also of concern. Another issue for Council members is the ongoing hostilities in the region and the risk of escalation.
Periodic briefings from OCHA have helped keep the Council informed of the humanitarian situation on the ground. Council members could consider inviting representatives of Syrian humanitarian aid organisations to engage with them to explore avenues for improving and expanding aid delivery mechanisms, including early recovery projects, 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. One option would be for the Council to hold a private meeting with Pedersen and interested member states with influence over the parties in Syria to discuss recent developments in his “step-for-step” initiative.
Over the years, Syria has been one of the most divisive files on the Council’s agenda. China and Russia are supportive of the Syrian government, emphasising the need to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and drawing connections between unilateral coercive measures on Syria and the challenging humanitarian situation in the country. In contrast, 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.
Council members also hold diverging views on normalising ties with the Syrian government. In the 27 April Council briefing, the US noted that it will not normalise relations with Syria and has discouraged other member states from doing so. It added that the US will not lift sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or support reconstruction in the absence of “genuine, comprehensive and enduring reforms and progress on the political process”. The European members of the Council hold a similar view. On the other hand, other Council members, including Russia, China, and the UAE, support the normalisation of ties with the Syrian government.
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 Letters|
|15 August 2023S/2023/603||This was a letter from the Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council, transmitting the exchange of letters between OCHA and the Syrian government.|