Arria-Formula Meeting on the Indiscriminate Use of Weapons against Civilians in Syria
On Friday morning (26 June), Security Council members France and Spain have organised an Arria-formula meeting on the issue of the indiscriminate use of weapons, including barrel bombs, against civilians in Syria. The Arria was organised so that Council members could hear about the impact of barrel bombs from Bassam Alahmad of the Violations Documentation Center, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, and Raed Saleh of Syria Civil Defence (or the “White Helmets”).
While barrel bombs targeting crowded urban areas have been consistently employed by the Syrian government since late 2013, May and June have reportedly been among the deadliest months on record. Council members will be interested in hearing more about what is driving the recent upsurge in indiscriminate attacks, and who is responsible. Alahmad of the Violations Documentation Center, which has documented violations of human rights in Syria since April 2011, is expected to report that 1,331 civilians have been killed in this period due to indiscriminate attacks by all parties, with government airstrikes accounting for 74 percent of the deaths.
Some Council members may also be interested in the briefers’ assessment of recent allegations by opposition groups that the government is supporting ISIS expansion in Syria, versus other arguments that this may only seem to be the case because the Syrian regime has prioritised rebel defeat. In this regard, some Council members will be particularly interested in Human Rights Watch’s satellite imagery documenting the geographic distribution of the government’s barrel bomb attacks. Most Council members expect Saleh to reiterate the Syrian Civil Defense’s assessment that barrel bombs pose the greatest threat to civilians in Syria today. He is also expected to call for the Council to authorise a no-fly zone that will provide civilians with an area safe from the bombs. Members of the “White Helmets” met informally with some Council members in May to call for a no-fly zone and to clarify that they are not advocating an offensive operation against the government’s military assets (like that in Libya) but rather an air-patrol operation to deter the government’s use of its air force (like those in Iraq and in Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Many Council members are aware that tomorrow’s Arria-formula meeting comes at a time of increasing pressure on the Security Council to address concretely the protection of civilians in Syria.
On 4 June, OCHA Operations Director John Ging briefed Security Council members under “any other business” on the 30 May barrel bomb attacks by government helicopters targeting civilians in an Aleppo market. The same day, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura issued an unusually strong statement, saying that it was “totally unacceptable that the Syrian air force attacks its own territory in an indiscriminate way, killing its own citizens, as brutally happened today in Aleppo”. De Mistura condemned ongoing government attacks again on 8 June and rebel shelling of government-held Aleppo on 15 June.
Council members issued a press statement on 5 June expressing outrage at indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including those involving shelling and aerial bombardment (SC/11921). Using previously agreed language, the press statement reaffirmed the primary responsibility of the Syrian authorities to protect civilians without directly attributing any specific blame to the government for its attacks on civilians. Some Council members have also raised the issue of aerial bombardment during their consultations on the Syria chemical weapons track as chlorine attacks have allegedly been carried out via barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters.
On 18 June, 71 UN member states that strongly believe the protection situation in Syria is getting worse sent a letter to the Council expressing outrage at the continued indiscriminate use of weapons, such as barrel bombs (S/2015/454). The letter called on the Security Council to ensure implementation of resolutions 2118 and 2209 on chemical weapons and 2139, 2165 and 2191 on the humanitarian situation, as well as to prevent future aerial bombardment by the Syrian government (without specifying how). The signatories included Council members France, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US; member states from the region including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar; and Australia and Luxembourg—former elected Council members who were the humanitarian leads on Syria during their term on the Council.
On 23 June, the head of the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, reported that civilians are the main victims of an accelerating cycle of violence and that all parties deliberately attack civilians. He added that the government’s superior firepower and control of the skies inflicts the most damage. The Commission of Inquiry’s June update said that the Council has nourished a deeply entrenched culture of impunity and called for it to open a path to justice for victims and refer the situation in Syria to the ICC (A/HRC/29/CRP.3).
On 25 June, 81 NGOs that form a coalition of organisations working to protect and assist civilians in Syria —including the three NGOs that will brief Council members tomorrow—called on the Council to take immediate action to end attacks against civilians, saying that expressing “deep concern” in press statements was an inadequate response while civilians are attacked on a daily basis in violation of international humanitarian law.
Despite the building momentum and overwhelming indications that various resolutions threatening consequences for lack of implementation have continually been breached, it is unlikely that Council members will push for follow-up measures, such as targeted sanctions or another attempt at an ICC referral. The assumption that Russia would block any effort specific to the government remains a deterrent. Any discussion of a Council-authorised no-fly zone is also a non-starter, due to Russia’s expected veto, but also because of the lack of US interest in pursuing this course of action.
Some Council members have observed that real pressure from the Council in the form of sanctions, an ICC referral, or a no-fly zone might be the leverage required to shift the Syrian parties’ priorities towards a negotiated solution. However, the Council is unlikely to escalate pressure in the midst of other sensitive processes, such as the P5+1 negotiations on the Iran nuclear file.
While the stronger options appear to be off the table, there are several nascent initiatives by various Council members to address the issues of chlorine bombs, violations of medical neutrality, besieged communities and aerial bombardment that are being discussed. However, it is unclear which, if any, of these would gain traction in the coming weeks and months.
Looking ahead, Deputy Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang will brief the Council on 29 June, underscoring many of the points that will be presented to Council members at tomorrow’s Arria-formula meeting. She is also likely to deliver the Secretary-General’s call for the Security Council to act in the face of the continuing atrocities taking place in Syria on a daily basis.