Expected Council Action
In December, the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the political process and the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Amidst rising hostilities in the country over the past few months, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. According to OCHA’s 2 November situation report, the escalation of hostilities following an attack on the Syrian military academy in Homs on 5 October has resulted in over 70 civilian casualties—including at least 23 children, 14 women, and four aid workers—and the displacement of more than 120,000 people, representing the most significant escalation in violence in north-west Syria since 2019. The report added that the incidents have affected over 43 health facilities, 27 schools, and 20 water systems. (For more, see the Syria brief in the November Monthly Forecast.)
On 13 November, the Syrian government announced its decision to extend its authorisation for the use of the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings at the Syria-Türkiye border—used by UN humanitarian agencies and its partners for conducting cross-border humanitarian operations—until 13 February 2024. Humanitarian operations have also continued through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing at the Syria-Türkiye border, which was authorised by the Syrian government following Russia’s 11 July veto of a Security Council resolution, until 13 January 2024. The vetoed resolution would have extended the Syria cross-border mechanism, which had allowed the delivery of humanitarian assistance into non-government-controlled parts of Syria 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.)
Council members last met on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria on 30 October. Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu and UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen briefed. Wosornu 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. She added that the funding shortages for relief efforts had significantly affected the ability of humanitarian organisations to provide assistance in the country. In some cases, she pointed out, these shortages had led to the reduction in food distributions, the closure of safe spaces for women and girls, and the scaling back of health services. At the time of writing, the humanitarian response plan for 2023 ($5.41 billion) was only 29.6 percent funded.
In his remarks at the meeting, Pedersen described the intensified hostilities in the country and stressed the urgent need for de-escalation and restoration of calm leading to a nationwide ceasefire, along with a cooperative approach to countering Security Council-listed terrorist groups. In light of the crisis in Israel and Gaza, Pedersen said, “the Syrian people face a terrifying prospect of a potential wider escalation”, adding that the spillover of the conflict into Syria had already begun.
Pedersen further noted that “months of intensive efforts have still not yielded consensus on the venue for resuming the Constitutional Committee, or on its substance”. He added that he will continue to prioritise contacts with the members of the Astana format (Iran, Russia, and Türkiye) as well as Arab and Western countries, and to foster joint efforts towards de-escalation and advancing the political process.
On 15 November, Pedersen met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Geneva. According to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the Special Envoy’s office, during the meeting, Pedersen stressed the importance of protecting Syrian civilians, de-escalating violence, and containing regional violence. On 16 November, Pedersen met with the senior officials of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC)—which represents the political opposition to the government. In a post on X, the Special Envoy’s office said that Pedersen had underlined that the current status quo in Syria is untenable and that lack of progress on the political front increases the risk of further escalation of violence. On the same day, Pedersen also engaged with the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Ethan A. Goldrich. Pedersen reportedly stressed that, in the context of heightened tensions in the region, it remains crucial for key actors to cooperate on Syria to de-escalate tensions and advance the political process.
On 17 November, Pedersen met with the German Special Envoy to Syria, Stefan Schneck, highlighting the growing regional instability and violence and emphasising the need to move forward on a meaningful political process in line with resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. He also met the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles on 19 November. At the meeting, Pedersen expressed grave concern about regional tensions and their wider implications, according to a post on X.
There has been an uptick in attacks against the US forces stationed in Syria and Iraq, following the 7 October attack against Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza, and the subsequent response from Israeli forces, including airstrikes and ground operations in the Gaza Strip. In a 16 November press briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed that there had been 58 attacks against US service members since 17 October.
Against the backdrop of the increasing violence, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin said in a 21 October press statement that he had authorised the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, an anti-ballistic missile defence system; and battalions of Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target (PATRIOT), a surface-to-air missile defence system, to locations throughout the region to increase protection for the US forces. The US has also deployed two naval strike groups to the region led by the aircraft carriers USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In a 9 November press briefing, Singh said that, on the previous day, the US had conducted a targeted strike in eastern Syria directed against a weapons-storage facility affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and aligned groups. Singh further noted that the US holds Iran “accountable for the attacks on US forces and we expect Iran to take measures to direct its proxies to stop”. On 12 November, the US again targeted a training facility and a safe house, allegedly used by the IRGC and affiliated groups, near the cities of Abu Kamal and Mayadin in eastern Syria, according to the US Department of Defense.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 16 November, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its consideration of the case Canada and the Netherlands v. Syrian Arab Republic in relation to the application of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, rendered provisional measures, ordering Syria to “take all measures within its power to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and ensure that its officials, as well as any organizations or persons which may be subject to its control, direction or influence, do not commit any acts of torture or other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The ICJ further ordered Syria to “take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of any evidence related to allegations of acts within the scope of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”. The judgment was pronounced with 13 votes in favour and two against. Decisions rendered by the ICJ on provisional measures under Article 41 of the ICJ Statute are legally binding.
On 15 November, the Third Committee of the General Assembly approved a resolution titled “Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic” (A/C.3/78/L.43). The resolution condemned “the continued widespread and systematic gross violations and abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms and all violations of international humanitarian law by the Syrian regime, the government-affiliated militias and those who fight on their behalf”. The resolution further demanded that Syria and all other parties to the conflict allow and facilitate safe, full, timely, immediate, unrestricted, and sustained humanitarian access, including through the continuation of cross-border assistance. The resolution was approved by a vote of 86 in favour, 15 against, and 73 abstentions.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for Council members is the ongoing hostilities in the region and the risk of escalation.
Another important 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. According to OCHA, some 15.3 million Syrians—over 69 percent of the population—require humanitarian assistance in 2023. The deteriorating socioeconomic conditions are also of concern.
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 and ways to make progress on the political track.
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.
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.
|18 December 2015S/RES/2254
|This was the first resolution focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.
|Security Council Meeting Record
|30 October 2023S/PV.9459
|This was a briefing on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria.
|Security Council Letter
|13 July 2023S/2023/526
|This was a letter dated 13 July from the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council.