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Syria: Briefing on Humanitarian Situation

On Thursday (29 September), OCHA head Stephen O’Brien will brief the Security Council, via VTC from Geneva, on the most recent report on the humanitarian situation in Syria (S/2016/796). Most Council members anticipate that the briefing and the following consultations will be dominated by the humanitarian consequences of the unparalleled levels of violence in Aleppo following the collapse of the cessation of hostilities agreement. During the consultations following the briefing, Council members may also want to discuss possible options following what appears to be a breakdown in the bilateral contacts between Russia and the US over Syria.

Council members have been closely following developments over the course of September centered on the negotiation, agreement, initial implementation and rupturing of a renewed cessation of hostilities agreement between Russia and the US, followed by a massive military escalation by the Syrian government and Russia against opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

Since 21 September, rebel-held Aleppo has suffered some of the heaviest aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces since the Syrian crisis began, with media reports of the use of incendiary bombs, cluster bombs and bunker busters. The pace of the strikes has continued for days, and last night the government and its allied militias began a significant ground offensive. Council members expect that O’Brien will emphasise that, by all accounts, the humanitarian consequences for the 250,000 civilians that remain trapped in eastern Aleppo have been devastating.

Targeting medical facilities and first responder capabilities, and removing medical supplies from aid convoys, have been consistent characteristics of the Syrian conflict. O’Brien is likely to highlight how this tragic hallmark has reached new depths in the context of the current Aleppo offensive. At the Council briefing this morning on healthcare in armed conflict, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the attacks on two more hospitals in Aleppo, saying “Let us be clear. Those using ever more destructive weapons know exactly what they are doing. They know they are committing war crimes.”

Last Sunday, the P3 called for an emergency meeting on Aleppo where Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura described the strikes as unprecedented and posing the greatest threat to civilians. He also reported the use of hellfire rockets by armed opposition groups. He added that the presence of Al Nusra in Aleppo was no justification for the heavy bombardment of densely populated areas. Some Council members anticipate that O’Brien may echo many of de Mistura’s calls on the Council to press for:
• a cessation of violence, particularly aerial bombardment, and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, particularly in Aleppo;
• weekly 48-hour pauses to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid;
• medical evacuations; and
• a political solution to the crisis.

Council members expect O’Brien to address the 19 September incident when a UN/Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) humanitarian convoy and a SARC warehouse were attacked by sustained airstrikes, resulting in 20 deaths and the destruction of 18 of the 31 convoy trucks. The UN described the attack as a possible war crime and the Secretary-General called for an immediate, impartial and independent investigation. On 21 September, the US announced that it had reached the preliminary conclusion that Russian jets carried out the attack. Russia has said neither it nor Syria carried out these airstrikes and has expressed support for an investigation.

During consultations, some Council members may ask O’Brien if there is any planning underway for the UN to establish such an investigation. However, he is unlikely to be in a position to provide information prior to the Secretary-General making a public announcement about whether and how he might establish an investigation, and how wide its terms of reference might be. It is unclear whether Council members would be able to agree to express support if the Secretary-General decided to establish an investigation, or whether there would be agreement for the findings to be reported back to the Security Council.

Finally, O’Brien is expected to inform Council members that on 13 September, when the cessation of hostilities was still holding, UN aid convoys en route to eastern Aleppo were held up in the zone between the Turkish and Syrian borders. If allowed to proceed, the convoys would have been the first aid delivery to reach the opposition enclave since 7 July, when Syrian government forces and allied militias—backed by Russian air strikes—took control of Castello Road, severing the opposition’s final supply route and setting the stage for a siege. O’Brien will probably reiterate that food supplies in Aleppo are running out and that the convoys remain stalled at the border. Humanitarian access to other areas remains difficult, with only five deliveries made in September.

The quick collapse of the cessation of hostilities agreement has led Council members to conclude that the chances for a near-term political solution have been severely diminished. Many Council members are of the view that the government’s offensive in eastern Aleppo confirms the regime’s preference for prolonged armed conflict over a negotiated settlement. O’Brien is likely to remind the Council of its responsibility to maintain international peace and security and reiterate what was conveyed in the Secretary-General’s report: the world is watching.

Council members have been sensitive to not affecting the bilateral negotiations between Russia and the US. Today, however, the US threatened to cut off contact with Russia over Syria unless it took steps to end the Aleppo offensive, and with the clear rupture in relations, some members may begin thinking about other options for addressing the crisis.

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