Syria: Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation and Political Developments
Tomorrow (18 September), the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the humanitarian situation and political developments in Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will brief the Council. The meeting is expected to focus particularly on the situation in Idlib.
This will be the fourth meeting this month on the situation in Idlib, after a briefing and an Arria-formula meeting on 7 September, and a briefing on 11 September at the request of Russia on discussions among the guarantors of the Astana process (Iran, Russia and Turkey).
The meeting takes place after the announcement earlier today by Russia and Turkey of the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Idlib. International engagement over this issue has sought to avert the negative humanitarian impact of any major military operation by the Syrian government and its allies to gain control of the area, currently held by armed groups. Idlib hosts 1.4 million civilians displaced by the conflict and a total of 2.9 million people, including 1 million children. Despite constituting the last de-escalation zone agreed to in May 2017, Idlib has been targeted by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. According to OCHA, between 1-12 September, a sharp increase in hostilities and fears of further escalation led to the displacement of over 38,300 people in northwest Syria.
Lowcock is expected to highlight the dire humanitarian situation in Idlib. The UN has repeatedly warned about the possibility of a humanitarian emergency on a scale not yet seen in the Syrian conflict in case of an escalation of military activity in and around Idlib. On 10 September, Lowcock told reporters that “there need to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century”. The presence in Idlib of around 10,000 fighters of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (the latest iteration of Al-Nusra Front, a Council-designated terrorist group) continues to be used to justify military operations, as has been the case in other parts of Syria.
As during his 7 September briefing to the Council, de Mistura may underscore the need to separate designated terrorist groups from civilians and other combatants. He is likely to reiterate that the pressure exerted by Turkey could continue to be useful in this regard. In the 11 September briefing, Turkey advocated a ceasefire in order for such a separation to take place, with guarantees that civilians and moderate opposition groups would subsequently not be targeted. Turkish pressure led to the creation in May of the National Liberation Front, an umbrella organisation for most armed opposition groups.
In tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to welcome the announcement of a demilitarised zone in Idlib, enquire how it will be enforced, and raise questions about the impact of this decision in other areas of Idlib, particularly for civilians. Council members could discuss in more detail what the UN, the Astana guarantors and others could do to promote the separation of forces and to prioritise the protection of civilians.
De Mistura is also expected to brief Council members on several meetings he held last week with regional and international stakeholders on the establishment of a constitutional committee. Council members may question whether any efforts on the political process are likely to yield results, given the Syrian government’s emphasis on regaining and consolidating control of territory. De Mistura has repeatedly highlighted the challenges he faces in facilitating that process, such as fostering agreement on the committee’s purpose, its membership, and its rules of procedure, including decision-making mechanisms. Some Council members are likely to reiterate calls on the Syrian parties to engage with the Special Envoy constructively, in good faith and without preconditions over the constitutional committee.
Given the high percentage of civilians displaced in Idlib, and the potential for their fresh displacement, some Council members may want to address some of the recommendations of the 9 August report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (A/HRC/39/65) on issues affecting civilians displaced by conflict, including with regard to housing, land and property rights.
Although the meeting is expected to take place in public initially, one or more Council members could propose to continue the discussion in consultations, given the sensitive nature of the issues under discussion.