Syria: Briefing on Developments in the North-East*
Today (16 October) Security Council members are expected to discuss the situation in Syria under “any other business”, following consultations on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The Council’s EU members—Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK—requested the meeting, given the recent developments on the ground in north-eastern Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari are expected to brief.
The security and humanitarian situation in north-eastern Syria remains highly fluid. On 13 October— facing Turkish aerial bombardments, artillery fire and ground forces—the Kurdish forces struck a deal with the Syrian government to allow its troops to enter the north-east to combat Turkish forces, as the US had announced that its troops were leaving north-eastern Syria. Meanwhile, media reports indicated that Russia had moved troops into Manbij district in north-eastern Syria, serving as a buffer between Syrian and Turkish troops. OCHA has estimated that over 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the Turkish offensive began on 9 October, while civilian casualties continue to be reported.
Several members have noted the importance of maintaining the Council’s focus on the impact of the Turkish incursion in north-eastern Syria, which began last week. Council members last met on this issue in an “any other business” meeting on 10 October, also requested by the five European members of the Council. Khiari and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller briefed, apparently noting that Turkey’s incursion was not a limited action and expressing concerns about its impact on the humanitarian, security and political situation in Syria. Members expressed varying levels of criticism of the fighting, ranging from condemnation of Turkey’s action and calling on it to exercise restraint to calling for all parties to exercise restraint.
The US proposed press elements—an informal product that requires unanimity and is generally issued immediately after a closed meeting to provide information to the press – that would have apparently expressed concern about the humanitarian and security impact of the fighting. It was unable to get agreement during the meeting. At the stakeout, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said that a product “should take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis, not just the Turkish operation”. Over the following day, efforts were made to convert the “press elements” into a “press statement”—also an informal document that requires unanimous support. However, these efforts to issue a timely product soon after the meeting were unsuccessful as Russia wanted changes to the draft that were unacceptable to the penholder and others.
In today’s meeting, the briefers are expected to give an overview of the security and humanitarian situation in north-eastern Syria. Members are likely to express concern about the impact of the recent hostilities on the safety of civilian populations and call for Turkey to halt its operation. Some members may want to know how the recent hostilities have impeded humanitarian assistance in the region and what measures can be taken to address this challenge. There may also be questions about whether OCHA or other humanitarian actors have conducted a needs assessment for the displaced population.
Another issue that may be raised is the possibility that ISIL could regain its influence in north-eastern Syria, as a result of the instability caused by the fighting and the possibility that Kurdish troops may not have the capacity to guard detention facilities adequately if they are engaged in heavy combat. Media reports indicate that some 12,000 ISIL fighters are detained in northern Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists largely of Kurdish fighters. Members may be interested in any information that DPPA may have on reports that ISIL prisoners escaped from Ain Issa, a detention camp in northeastern Syria. The potential for the resurgence of ISIL to become a threat to regional and international security was highlighted in the recently adopted EU Council conclusions and LAS Council resolution.
The potential impact of the fighting on the political process in Syria may be raised as well, especially considering that the recently formed Constitutional Committee is scheduled to convene for the first time in Geneva on 30 October. On 14 October, Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen in a meeting with EU foreign ministers expressed his deep alarm at developments in north-eastern Syria. He urged the concerned parties to refrain from actions that would further endanger civilians, destabilise the fragile situation and undermine political efforts.
Although there have been widespread calls for Council action, it remains unclear whether Council members will attempt to pursue press elements or a stronger outcome on the dire security and humanitarian impact of the recent fighting in north-eastern Syria.
Reactions to Turkey’s Military Operation
In recent days, various UN and other actors have made statements about the urgency of the situation in north-eastern Syria and its impact on civilian populations. On 14 October, in a statement attributable to his spokesman, Secretary-General António Guterres expressed grave concern about military developments in the area, noting that they had led to at least 160,000 displaced persons. He called for “immediate de-escalation” and “emphasize[d] that civilians not taking part in hostilities must be protected at all times”. He added that he was seriously concerned that “the current military operations could lead to the unintended release of individuals associated with ISIL”.
Yesterday (15 October), the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng and the UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect Karen Smith issued a joint statement in which they stressed that “Turkish authorities and all parties to the conflict in Syria need to ensure strict adherence to the legal obligation to protect civilians”. They further “urged the international community, and the Security Council, in particular, to do more to uphold the responsibility to protect civilians in the Syrian conflict”.
On 12 October, the Council of the League of Arab States (LAS) adopted a resolution “condemn[ing] the Turkish aggression against Syrian territories” and emphasising that “Syrian efforts to confront this aggression” are consistent with the right of legitimate self-defence in keeping with article 51 of the UN Charter. The resolution goes on to urge the Security Council “to take the necessary measures to put an end to the Turkish aggression” and mandates the LAS Secretary-General “to consider, in coordination with the Arab member of the Security Council [that is, Kuwait], arranging a visit for an open-ended Arab ministerial delegation to the Council to follow up on the matter and act to halt the Turkish aggression against Syrian territories”.
On 14 October, the European Union Council urged Turkey to “cease its unilateral military action in North-East Syria and to withdraw its forces”; it also stated that the “efforts of the international community, including the UN Security Council…to stop this…unilateral action are urgently needed”.
*Post-Script (17 October 2019): Following yesterday’s meeting, Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila of South Africa, Council president for October 2019, read elements to the press that had been agreed by Council members. In the press elements, members expressed deep concern over the risk of the dispersion of terrorists from UN-designated groups including ISIL, while also indicating that they were very concerned over the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria.