Expected Council Action
In January 2024, the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the political process and the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Following a 5 October 2023 drone attack on a Syrian military academy in Homs that reportedly killed at least 100 people, north-west Syria has witnessed a steep rise in hostilities, representing the area’s most significant escalation in violence since 2019. In the latest round of attacks between 15 and 17 December, shelling in residential neighbourhoods in Idlib and western Aleppo killed at least seven people and injured 24 others, according to a 19 December OCHA press release. Hostilities since 5 October have resulted in over 99 civilian casualties, nearly 40 percent of whom have been children, and have injured more than 400 people, as at 19 December. (For more, see the briefs on Syria in our November and December 2023 Monthly Forecasts.)
The situation in north-east Syria, particularly in the Deir-ez-Zor governorate, also remains volatile. On 27 August 2023, fighting erupted between Arab tribal groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish group opposing the Syrian government, in Deir-ez-Zor. The clashes reportedly broke out after the SDF apprehended Ahmed al-Khubail, also known as Abu Khawla—the Arab leader of the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council, a local SDF affiliate—accusing him of involvement in several crimes. A 12 December OCHA press release said that clashes in Deir-ez-Zor continue to result in civilian casualties and damage to critical civilian infrastructure, including water stations and schools. The press release added that approximately 27,000 people have been displaced since the onset of fighting. (For more, see our 27 September 2023 What’s in Blue story.)
Council members met on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria on 28 November 2023. Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu and Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Najat Rochdi 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 apprised members of OCHA’s continued engagement with the Syrian government in an effort to promote the principled, sustained and predictable delivery of cross-border assistance in north-west Syria from Türkiye. She underlined the significance of maintaining an independent and robust oversight mechanism at the border points. She also highlighted that funding shortages for relief efforts had significantly curtailed the ability of humanitarian organisations to provide assistance in the country. At the time of writing, the Syria humanitarian response plan for 2023 ($5.41 billion) was only 33.8 percent funded.
On 4 December 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it will terminate its general food assistance programme in Syria, which provided assistance to 5.5 million people across Syria, because of funding shortages, starting from January 2024. Media reports, however, suggest that WFP will continue to support families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through smaller, more targeted emergency interventions. In July, WFP cut its assistance by almost 40 percent, ending food assistance for 2.5 million people, because of lack of resources.
In her remarks at the 28 November 2023 Council meeting, Rochdi described the intensified hostilities in Syria and stressed the urgent need for de-escalation and a nationwide ceasefire, along with a cooperative approach to countering Security Council-listed terrorist groups. She expressed deep concern about the potential for a wider escalation in Syria from the spillover effects of the crisis in Israel and Gaza. She said that “attention on Syria has ebbed somewhat given the terrible crisis in the region” while noting that “Syria is a piece of that puzzle too and the situation in Syria is too dangerous to be left unattended”. With regard to the envisioned resumption of the Constitutional Committee, she said that “Special Envoy [Geir O. Pedersen] is continuing to speak with all concerned [parties] about how, in these circumstances, the non-Syrian issues that have so far prevented reconvening the Committee in Geneva should be put aside in the interest of the process”.
On 11 December 2023, Pedersen met with the representatives of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), which represents the political opposition to the government. On 14 December, Pedersen met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin in Geneva. According to a post on X by the Special Envoy’s office, Pedersen stressed that all stakeholders must prioritise de-escalation and re-commit to a genuine political process in line with resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis, including reconvening of the Constitutional Committee.
Also on 14 December 2023, Pedersen met with the Director General of the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Nagaoka Kansuke. According to a post on X by the Special Envoy’s office, both officials emphasised the significance of a renewed commitment from all parties to advance the implementation of resolution 2254 and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of all Syrians. Later that day, Pedersen also met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon’s caretaker government, Abdallah Bou Habib. At the meeting, Pedersen noted the dire situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and emphasised the need for urgent action and funding to address humanitarian needs. On the following day, Pedersen met with Syrian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Bassam Sabbagh in Geneva, where he emphasised the importance of de-escalating violence in Syria and the region. On 21 December, Pedersen spoke by telephone with Senior Assistant to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji. Both officials discussed the “step-for-step” confidence building measures, including the resumption of the Constitutional Committee and the broader issues necessary to advance the implementation of resolution 2254.
There has been an uptick in attacks against US forces stationed in Syria and Iraq, following the 7 October 2023 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 the latest round of attacks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based human rights monitoring organisation, reported that on 14 December, Iranian-backed militias attacked the international coalition base in Al-Shaddadi town in the southern countryside of al-Hasakah governorate. Earlier the same day, the international coalition base in the Al-Tanf area and the Koniko gas field in the Deir Ezzor countryside also came under attack from a drone and rocket fire, reportedly by Iranian-backed militias. According to SOHR, since 19 October, there had been 57 attacks against coalition forces in Syria, as at 14 December.
Women, Peace and Security
A report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published in August says that despite the negative consequences on women and girls of the protracted conflict in Syria—such as accessing health care, property rights as well as heightened levels of discrimination and violence—Syrian women’s rights organisations have continued to raise awareness about women’s rights, gender equality, and gender-based violence. The report notes, in particular, how the advocacy efforts of women civil society leaders and the families of the missing led to the establishment of a UN institution for the missing and the disappeared in the country; the Independent Institution on Missing Persons in the Syrian Arab Republic (A/RES/77/301). The report recommends that UN member states support and fund the institution.
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. 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 to find 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. (A private meeting is a closed, formal meeting format; unlike closed consultations, non-Council member states are allowed to participate in this format.)
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.
It remains unclear whether any Council member will assume the role of co-penholder on the humanitarian file alongside Switzerland, thereby replacing outgoing Council member Brazil, which served in this role in 2023.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions
|18 December 2015S/RES/2254
|This was the first resolution that focused exclusively on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It was adopted unanimously.
|Security Council Meeting Records
|28 November 2023S/PV.9487
|This was a briefing on the political process and the humanitarian situation in Syria.