What's In Blue

Posted Mon 2 Dec 2013

Briefing on Humanitarian Situation in Syria

Tomorrow (3 December), Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Valerie Amos will brief Council members in consultations on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

This will be her third briefing on the 2 October presidential statement on humanitarian access in Syria (S/PRST/2013/15). Council members will be keen to hear if there has been any significant improvement since 4 November, the last time she briefed. At that briefing, Amos forcefully conveyed her deep disappointment that access had not improved and there had been no major breakthrough in getting Syria to lift bureaucratic obstacles. She had indicated that OCHA had five areas it was targeting for implementation: the cessation of the assault on medical care; more predictable processing by Syria of visas for humanitarian workers; efficient customs clearance procedures for humanitarian supplies; facilitation of field missions; and authorisation for additional humanitarian hubs. She also said Syria should allow aid to directly reach those in need, i.e., not to require that all aid be centrally routed through Damascus for redistribution.

Since her last briefing, it seems Syria indicated approval for visas for UN humanitarian workers, additional humanitarian hubs, and procedures allowing some aid to clear customs at the border or at humanitarian hubs versus being centrally cleared in Damascus. However, Syria has not approved streamlined procedures for aid operations across the border with Turkey, where there is a great need, and also where the government does not control border crossings. Council members will be very interested in OCHA’s assessment of whether these developments reflect Syria’s serious engagement on improving humanitarian access or if they are simply small concessional gestures with limited impact.

Amos’s assessment of the effectiveness of the 2 October presidential statement will be a crucial factor in determining next steps for some members. If implementation remains sluggish then some Council members may want to move towards a humanitarian resolution. However, it is unlikely that the Council would be able to adopt such a resolution this year. Russia is unlikely to develop an appetite for a new Syria-focused resolution and the US, along with many other Council members, feel it is important to avoid contentious negotiations in the lead up to the Geneva II peace talks, which are currently scheduled for 22 January 2014.

Council members are also likely to be interested in Amos’s assessment of whether the Geneva-based contact group on humanitarian access—which met for the first time on 26 November—was constructive and how it can continue to be useful. This group was established to provide a practical mechanism through which OCHA could raise specific issues and to give it sustained political leverage with parties on the ground in persuading them to allow unhindered humanitarian access. The group is co-chaired by OCHA, Australia and Luxembourg and is comprised of approximately 20 member states including the P5, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The group plans to meet again in December.

The immediate focus for Council members is to see if they can continue to act on OCHA’s calls for the use of political leverage to improve access, both bilaterally and through the Geneva-based contact group. Council members also see a potential positive peace dividend if humanitarian conditions can be improved on the ground. Such improvement could be a significant confidence-building measure in advance of the Geneva II peace talks.

Council members are aware that the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, and the 24 November agreement between the P5+1 with Iran on its nuclear programme could ease regional tensions. However, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence will continue to have the potential to make progress on the Syrian situation difficult. In this context, the fact that both countries attended the 26 November inaugural meeting of the humanitarian contact group is viewed by Council members as a significant, positive development.

Council members will have an opportunity to discuss developments on the chemical weapons track later this month when Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag is expected to brief Council members in consultations on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verifiable destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

While not part of tomorrow’s discussions, Council members will also be closely following preparations for the 22 January Geneva II peace talks closely. Of interest to some members is how today’s statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay may impact these preparations. Pillay said that the UN Commission of Inquiry had produced massive evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed and indicated responsibility at the highest level, including the head of state. At press time, UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi was expected to convene trilateral meetings with Russia and the US in Geneva on 20 December when it is hoped there will be agreement on the composition of the opposition and government delegations and whether Iran and Saudi Arabia would participate. There remain major disagreements over the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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