Syria Humanitarian Briefing
Tomorrow (27 February) Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller is expected to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, is also expected to brief. While the discussion is expected to cover humanitarian challenges throughout Syria, the recent report of the Secretary-General on alternative modalities to the al-Yarubiyah crossing in north-eastern Syria (S/2020/139) and the grave situation in the north-west of the country are likely to be a focus of the meeting.
Mueller will most likely give an overview of the report on alternative modalities to the al-Yarubiyah crossing (Iraq/Syria border) for the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria. This had been one of four Council-authorised crossings for the delivery of aid into Syria; however, the Council was unable to reach agreement on maintaining the al-Yarubiya and al-Ramtha crossings (Syria/Jordan border) when it renewed the cross-border aid delivery mechanism on 10 January through resolution 2504. Resolution 2504—adopted after difficult negotiations and following vetoes by China and Russia on 20 December 2019 on an earlier draft resolution—re-authorised two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months. This represented a departure from past practice, as renewals of this mandate since late 2014 had authorised four border crossings for approximately one year.
The report on alternative modalities to al-Yarubiya, released on 21 February, says that several of the other routes would present challenges; among other concerns, using them would require aid to pass through insecure areas or to cross conflict lines (meaning that efforts would have to be made to secure safe, unhindered and consistent access from different parties). The report maintains that the Tal Abiyad crossing on Syria’s north-eastern border with Turkey would “from a security and logistical perspective…constitute the most feasible alternative”. Although using this crossing would require aid to cross conflict lines, Tal Abiyad can support significant traffic as it is linked by paved roads on both sides of the border and has a large area for customs and monitoring, according to the report.
When the Council was negotiating the cross-border aid delivery mechanism in December 2019, Turkey requested that Tal-Abiyad be added as one of the Council-authorised crossings. This was not supported by all Council members, however, and the proposal was not incorporated into resolution 2504.
In tomorrow’s meeting, Mueller and/or some Council members may discuss how the Syrian government can play an improved role in facilitating humanitarian access, an issue that is addressed in the report. The report maintains that “for all humanitarian needs to be met, the Syrian Government would need to facilitate greater crossline access to north-east Syria particularly for medical assistance”. It also says that for these needs to be met the Syrian government would have to consent to cross-border assistance in the north-east of the country “via safe and logistically feasible border crossings, using the most direct routes”. It outlines four measures needed for cross-line assistance to be effective: the Syrian government’s “timely approval” of the import of medical supplies into Syria; a “simplified, expedited and reliable approval process” by the government for the shipment of aid from Damascus over land to the north-east; government approval for assistance to areas and facilities in the north-east to reach “all people in need, impartially and without discrimination”; and the “facilitation of deliveries by local authorities in north-east Syria to all locations without delay”.
Members are keen to receive the Secretariat’s analysis of the report’s findings before determining whether and how to act on them. Members will probably express a range of views about the report. Some may express the view that, based on the Secretary-General’s analysis, al-Yarubiyah remains the best route for delivering humanitarian assistance, including medicine and medical supplies, to north-east Syria, and that it should not have been omitted from the cross-border aid mechanism. Some members may also emphasise the need for all parties to the conflict to provide assurances that aid is delivered across borders and conflict lines in a sustainable and needs-based manner, with varying levels of criticism of the Syrian government for not doing so. In contrast, a minority of members may take a more sympathetic view of the government and refer to efforts that it has made to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria.
The deterioration of the humanitarian and security situation in Idlib continues to be of widespread concern in the Council. The Syrian government and its allies are engaged in a military offensive to retake control of Idlib, and the Council-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham remains a major presence in the area. In recent weeks, there have also been deadly clashes in Idlib between Syrian government forces and the Turkish army, which has been in Idlib since it was established as a “de-escalation zone” through the Astana process in September 2018. In recent weeks, Turkey has reinforced its troop presence in Idlib. Briefing the Council on 6 February, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen expressed strong concern about clashes between Syria and Turkey inside Syria, saying that this “suggest(s) the very real prospect of conflagration in the immediate region, as well as far beyond”. Fighting has led to widespread displacement in the north-west, where OCHA estimates that almost 900,000 people were displaced between 1 December 2019 and 20 February 2020.
As in past meetings on Syria, there are likely to be contrasting views about the conflict in the north-west. China and Russia may reiterate the importance of eliminating the threat of terrorism in Syria. In this regard, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said at the 6 February Council meeting that “Syrian citizens…have been taken hostage by the terrorists running rampant” in Idlib and noted that resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which focused on a political solution to the civil war in Syria, “directly states that there is a need to combat terrorism”. In contrast, while supporting the fight against terrorist groups, the P3 (France, the UK and the US) and others are likely to condemn attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by the Syrian government and its allies. Several members will probably reiterate their call for a ceasefire in Idlib while encouraging efforts by Russia and Turkey to de-escalate the situation there; these messages were conveyed earlier today in an op-ed on Idlib drafted by the foreign ministers of 14 European countries—including Council members France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia—and published on the German news site t-online.de. In addition, also earlier today, nine Council members—Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger, Tunisia, the UK, and the US—carried out a demarche today to Secretary-General António Guterres requesting him to step up his efforts to secure a ceasefire in Idlib.
Fore will most likely describe the toll that the conflict in Syria has taken on children. The negative impact that attacks on schools and hospitals in Syria have had on the welfare of children may be addressed during the meeting. Children have also been subjected to torture, beatings, sexual violence, and forced recruitment as combatants during the civil war; these and other abuses may also be discussed.
There could also be a focus on how children have been affected by the recent escalation of fighting in the north-west. In this respect, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that 35 of the 100 civilians killed in attacks in the north-west between 1 and 16 February were children. In addition, of the nearly 900,000 people displaced between 1 December 2019 and 20 February 2020, OCHA estimates that more than 500,000 are children.
Fore will also probably describe the work of UNICEF and partnering organisations in Syria. Among other services, UNICEF and its partners provide children with vaccinations, access to psychosocial support, and improved sanitation.