Expected Council Action
In February, the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the political process and the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
The political track in Syria remains at a standstill, and the Syrian Constitutional Committee has not met since June 2022. Russia, a close ally of Syria, has been objecting to Geneva as the venue for convening the Constitutional Committee, following Switzerland’s imposition of sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. In his remarks at the 21 December 2023 Council meeting on Syria, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen said that “[t]he blockage of the Constitutional Committee for a year and a half—largely over what should be a secondary issue, namely, the venue—has sent the wrong signal and has been a setback”. He added that “there is no venue in the region that is both on offer and attracts consensus”. He called on member states to respect the Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, and UN-facilitated nature of the Constitutional Committee. He also appealed to members “to act in a manner that enables the Constitutional Committee to resume, at least initially in Geneva, and for reciprocal, verifiable and parallel confidence-building measures to be agreed and implemented”.
On 24 January, Pedersen met with several high-level officials, including from Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, the UK, and the US, in New York. According to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the Special Envoy’s office, Pedersen emphasised the need for maximum restraint and the importance of de-escalating violence in the region and in Syria. During the meetings, he also discussed the prospects for reconvening the Constitutional Committee and the need to move forward substantively on the broader political process in line with resolution 2254.
On 11 January, the Syrian government announced its decision to extend its authorisation for the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing at the Syria-Türkiye border—used by UN humanitarian agencies and their partners for conducting cross-border humanitarian operations—until 13 April. Humanitarian operations have also continued through the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings at the Syria-Türkiye border. The Syrian government’s authorisation for the use of these border crossings expires on 13 February.
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. Pro-government air strikes have intensified in the region, along with shelling by government forces in Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—an armed opposition group that is designated by the Security Council as a terrorist organisation and controls parts of Syria’s north-west region—has also continued shelling and drone attacks in government-controlled areas.
In the latest round of attacks on 22 January, shelling in the city of Ariha in southern Idlib injured at least six civilians, including four children, according to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the “Syria Civil Defence” (also known as the White Helmets). Hostilities since 5 October 2023 have resulted in over 100 civilian deaths, nearly 40 percent of whom have been children, and have injured more than 440 people. (For more, see the briefs on Syria in our December 2023 and January 2024 Monthly Forecasts.)
The situation in north-east Syria also remains volatile. According to an 18 January OCHA press release, multiple airstrikes in Al-Hasakeh over the last few weeks have led to civilian casualties and caused significant damage to several civilian facilities, including power stations and oil production fields. A 22 January flash update from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations reported that the ongoing hostilities have led to fuel shortages, which in turn pose significant risks to humanitarian response, staff movement, transport of essential goods, and the ability of health facilities to function.
Attacks against US forces stationed in the region have increased manifold 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 a 29 January press briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed that there had been 165 attacks against US service members in the region, including 65 in Iraq, 98 in Syria and one in Jordan, allegedly by Iranian-backed militias, since 17 October. In the same statement Singh said that, on 28 January, a US military facility (also known as Tower 22) in northeast Jordan, was attacked using a one-way attack unmanned aerial system, adding that “[i]n terms of attribution for the attack, we know this is an [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] IRGC-backed militia [and] has the footprints of Kata’ib Hezbollah”. In an escalation of tensions in the region, this attack resulted in the deaths of three US service members and injured more than 40.
On multiple occasions, the US has conducted retaliatory strikes, both in Iraq and Syria. In the latest round of such attacks, on 23 January, the US military forces carried out strikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq according to a statement by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. He added that these strikes were “conducted in direct response to a series of escalatory attacks against [the] US and coalition personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias”. In response to the 28 January attack on Tower 22, Pentagon Press Secretary Major General Pat Ryder during a 30 January press briefing that “[w]hile we do not seek to escalate tensions in the region… we will also take all necessary actions to protect our troops, our facilities, and our interests”.
There have also been reports of several airstrikes, allegedly by Israel, targeting sites in Syria. In a letter dated 29 December 2023, the Syrian government informed the Council members about two airstrikes in southern Syria. The Aleppo and Damascus airports have also been bombed repeatedly since 7 October. Although it has not commented on the strikes, Israel has traditionally argued that it carries out airstrikes in Syria to disrupt Iranian supply lines to its proxy groups. In addition, according to media reports, airstrikes also attributed to Israel struck Damascus on 20 January, killing at least five Iranian military figures, including the head of intelligence for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds force and his deputy.
In a 16 January letter, the Iranian government informed Council members that earlier the same day, it had fired several ballistic missiles targeting positions of Da’esh (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the HTS in Idlib. These strikes, the letter noted, were conducted in response to an attack in Kerman, Iran, on 3 January, in which more than 100 people were reportedly killed and many more injured.
On 24 January, Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths briefed the Council members in closed consultations on political and humanitarian developments, respectively. It appears that, following the meeting, Slovenia proposed press elements, which would have expressed concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the threat of regional escalation, among other things. Russia apparently insisted on a written text and the elements were not agreed upon.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for Council members is the ongoing and escalating hostilities in the region. Determining how the Council can address the spillover effects from the situation in Israel and Gaza and de-escalate tensions is a fundamental issue for the Council. The violence in the country and lack of accountability threaten to destabilise it further. At the same time, Da’esh remains a key security threat in Syria. The latest report of the Monitoring Team assisting the 1267/1989/2253 Sanctions Committee, dated 29 January, said that Da’esh has intensified attacks in Syria since November 2023, conducting sporadic attacks, including in Sukhnah in the desert of Homs Governorate and in Rusafah in Raqqah Governorate. It further said that “Da’esh exploits any cessation or diversion of counter-terrorism pressure to resurge, capitalizing on local and regional geopolitical dynamics”, adding that Da’esh-related violence poses a heightened risk of spillover to neighbouring countries.
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 in the country are also of concern.
Periodic briefings from OCHA have helped keep the Council informed of the country’s humanitarian situation. 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 in Syria, including early recovery projects. The co-chairs (Switzerland and the UK) of the Informal Expert Group on the Protection of Civilians could also hold a meeting on the situation in Syria to receive briefings from relevant UN entities.
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 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.
The advent of five new elected Council members in 2024—Algeria, Guyana, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Sierra Leone, and Slovenia—appears unlikely to change the already difficult dynamics underlying Security Council discussions on the situation in Syria. While Algeria is expected to be supportive of the Syrian government, other members are expected to align themselves with the Western and other like-minded Council members.
Switzerland is the penholder on the Syria humanitarian file.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SYRIA
|Security Council Resolutions
|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 Letters
|16 January 2024S/2024/71
|Letter dated 16 January 2024 from the Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN addressed to the President of the Security Council.
|29 December 2023S/2023/1065
|Letters dated 29 December 2023 from the Chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Permanent Mission of Syria to the UN addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council.
|Security Council Meeting Records
|21 December 2023S/PV.9517
|This was a briefing on the political process and the humanitarian situation in Syria.
|Sanctions Committee Documents
|29 January 2024S/2024/92
|This was the 33rd report of the monitoring team assisting the 1267/1989/2253 Sanctions Committee.