Syria: Joint Political and Humanitarian Informal Meeting via Videoconferencing
On Monday morning (30 March), Security Council members will convene an informal videoconference meeting on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are expected to brief. This is the third informal videoconference meeting of Council members since measures announced by the Secretary-General to address COVID-19 included a partial closure of UN headquarters that began on 16 March. Monday’s meeting was initially planned as two separate meetings: a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria that was originally scheduled for Wednesday (25 March), and a briefing on the political situation scheduled for Monday (30 March).
Tensions between Turkey on one side and Syria and the Russian Federation on the other escalated further after an attack on Turkish forces on 27 February and subsequent counter-attacks by the Turkish military on Syrian government forces. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Moscow on 5 March, agreeing to a cessation of all military actions effective 6 March. The agreement also included the establishment of a security corridor along the strategic M4 highway, with joint Russian-Turkish patrols.
The Council held closed consultations on 6 March to discuss the agreement. The Russian Federation proposed press elements for the President of the Council to read out, which included the Council’s welcoming the establishment of a ceasefire and encouraging all parties to comply. Some member states objected to the lack of language on the humanitarian situation in the text while others felt that the Council would be acting prematurely in welcoming the previous day’s agreement. On 15 March, both Russian and Turkish officials announced that joint patrols of the M4 security corridor had begun; media sources, however, noted that some patrolling had been cut short because Syrian opposition forces blocked the roadway. The ceasefire continues to be holding, despite some reports of breaches and continued difficulties with the joint patrolling of the M4 security corridor.
On Sunday, 22 March, Syria announced its first case of COVID-19, with Syrian state media noting that “necessary measures” had been taken to quarantine the individual identified as having the virus. By 27 March, OCHA and the Syrian Ministry of Health confirmed six COVID-19 cases. In light of the escalating global COVID-19 crisis and concern that the virus could spread in Syria—and echoing the Secretary-General’s 23 March call for “an immediate global ceasefire“—Special Envoy Pedersen called for a “complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out effort to suppress COVID-19 in Syria” on 24 March. Syrians remain “acutely vulnerable to COVID-19”, he noted, and need a “sustained period of calm throughout the country respected by all parties” so that the necessary measures can be taken.
Lowcock is likely to brief the Council about the situation in north-western Syria, including the findings of the inter-agency UN mission there in early March. On 2 March, this mission crossed from Turkey into north-west Syria to assess first-hand the deteriorating humanitarian situation and determine the feasibility of “a sustained UN presence in Idlib”.
He may also discuss his recent visit to the region. In this regard, on 3 March Lowcock travelled to the border area near Hatay in Turkey, where he described a situation in which traumatised people—up to 2.8 million in north-western Syria—were living in open-air conditions, despite cold temperatures. Despite March seeing the highest number of UN shipments of humanitarian assistance since cross-border operations began, the operating environment remains challenging; this includes security challenges such as the 14 March temporary occupation of Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) offices—including detention and harassment of SARC staff and destruction of property—by a non-state armed group in the Idlib governate.
Efforts to implement resolution 2504—which renewed the cross-border aid delivery mechanism on 10 January—are also likely to be addressed in the meeting. The resolution reauthorised the delivery of aid through two border crossings (Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam on Syria’s border with Turkey) for six months. This was a departure from past practice, as the reauthorisations in the past had included the Ya‘rubiyah (Syria/Iraq border) and al-Ramtha (Syria/Jordan border) crossings and had been for one-year periods since late 2014. Members may want to know how effectively aid is being delivered through the two remaining authorised crossings, what challenges are encountered during the aid delivery, and what efforts are being made to address these challenges.
Members may also ask about reports that Turkey has ceased operations of the Alok water pumping station, which supplies water to nearly half a million people in north-eastern Syria.
The potential impact that COVID-19 could have on vulnerable communities in Syria, particularly in the country’s north-west, is another matter that is likely to be addressed by the briefers and Council members. Lowcock is likely to emphasise Syria’s overall unpreparedness for a COVID-19 outbreak. After nine years of conflict, Syria’s health infrastructure is severely depleted: there are shortages of medical supplies and health care workers as well as a lack of intensive care units. Though there were no reports of COVID-19 infection in north-west Syria at the time of writing, displaced populations are especially vulnerable to the virus, with camps for displaced persons remaining overwhelmed; an outbreak there could severely challenge an already stretched humanitarian response.
Members may also be interested in hearing from Pedersen on any progress in the political process, including whether any steps have been taken by the warring parties on his 24 March nationwide ceasefire call. The UN spokesperson welcomed an announcement by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it would commit to “avoid engaging in military action” in support of the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call to facilitate the response to COVID-19. Council members may ask about progress on the situation of detainees; in his 24 March statement, and in the context of COVID-19, Pedersen called for the “large-scale release” of detainees on humanitarian grounds and for immediate access for humanitarian organizations to detention facilities.
Pedersen may also brief Council members on progress regarding the organization of a third Constitutional Committee meeting. In addition, members may want Pedersen to offer an assessment of the 6 March ceasefire agreement reached between Turkey and the Russian Federation. At the time of writing, the situation remains mostly calm with no aerial bombardment, though there have been some reports of sporadic fighting. Council members may also want to know whether the Special Envoy has taken any steps to support that agreement.