Syria: Political and Humanitarian Informal Meetings via Videoconferencing
Tomorrow (29 April), Security Council members will convene two separate videoconferencing meetings on the Syria political and humanitarian situations, respectively. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief on the political situation in the morning, while Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is scheduled to brief on the humanitarian situation in the afternoon. Both meetings are scheduled to have open and closed portions. According to changes to the Council’s working methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the open portions will be webcast, and after the meeting, members may choose to circulate their statements, which will be published in a Council document.
On the political situation, Pedersen is expected to update Council members on the status of both the Secretary-General’s 23 March global ceasefire call and the Special Envoy’s own subsequent 24 March call for a Syria-wide ceasefire. The Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal came in the broader context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Special Envoy’s call coming as concern grew that the pandemic would spread to Syria, which remains largely unprepared for an outbreak given the damage to the country’s health infrastructure after nine years of conflict.
Council members may ask for the Special Envoy to assess the ceasefire agreed on 5 March between the Russian Federation and Turkey, which appears to have reduced violence in Syria’s north-west. While sporadic ceasefire violations have been reported, there have been no reports of aerial bombardment. The Turkish Defence Ministry announced on 21 April that five joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 security corridor had now taken place, although they have been blocked on several occasions by members of the Syrian opposition. According to media reports, Turkish troops killed at least two people on 26 April when they fired on protesters who were again blocking part of the M4 highway near the village of Nairab in Idlib province. Improvements in the security situation in the area have been overshadowed by concerns about a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Fearing such an outbreak, over 100,000 people have left overcrowded camps to return to damaged homes around Idlib, according to media reports. Council members may also ask Pedersen to update how his 24 March ceasefire plea – and the overall reduction in violence in the north-west – could be used as a first step toward achieving a sustainable, nationwide ceasefire.
Council members are also likely to ask about progress in organising a third Constitutional Committee meeting. During his last briefing to Council members on 30 March, Pedersen noted that an agenda item – “discussion of national foundations and principles” – had been agreed between the parties, breaking the impasse that had prevented them from meeting since November 2019, as they could not agree on the agenda for the meeting. COVID-19, he noted, makes organisation of another in-person meeting difficult; as such, he announced that he would work with the parties to see what preparations can usefully be made until a meeting can be held, or perhaps organise a virtual meeting.
As part of his 24 March nationwide ceasefire statement, Pedersen called for the “large-scale release” of detainees on humanitarian grounds and for immediate access for humanitarian organisations to detention facilities. Pedersen is likely to update the Council on his offer to engage with the Syrian authorities on this. Council members will want to know what steps, if any, the Syrian government has taken on the release of detainees in light of Syrian President Assad’s 22 March decree on amnesties and sentence reductions for some types of detainees. Pedersen has consistently called for the release of detainees as a confidence-building measure that could enhance the political space for negotiations between the parties.
Lowcock is expected to brief on the impact of COVID-19 in Syria, as well as the humanitarian situations in both Syria’s north-west and north-east. Challenges related to the virus, including how restrictions put in place by the Syrian government could impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance, were a key element of Lowcock’s 30 March briefing to the Council. They have continued to be serious concerns for OCHA. On 30 March, Lowcock emphasised that displaced populations are especially vulnerable to COVID-19; with camps for displaced persons remaining overwhelmed, an outbreak could severely strain an already stretched humanitarian response. Council members will want to learn how OCHA is planning for the possible spread of the pandemic in Syria and how the virus would affect the humanitarian situation in the country.
Lowcock may also express concern about the low levels of – and low capacity for – testing for the infection, with approximately two dozen or so tests conducted in Syria’s north-east and some 250 in the country’s north-west to date. As of 27 April, Syrian authorities had reported 43 confirmed cases of COVID-19, none of which were in the north-west and at least one of which was in the country’s north-east.
OCHA’s efforts to implement resolution 2504 are also expected to be raised during the meeting. In January, resolution 2504 renewed the authorisation of cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria through two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months. Two other border crossings that had been authorised in previous resolutions – Ya‘rubiyah and Al-Ramtha – were not renewed. In this regard, Lowcock is likely to elaborate on the impact that the closure in January of the Ya‘rubiyah border crossing (on the Iraq-Syria border) has had on the delivery of aid into Syria from Iraq. Members may further 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, especially in light of difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Council members may also inquire about the status of an “independent written review” of the crossline and cross-border operations and recommendations, required by resolution 2504.
More broadly, the ongoing humanitarian situation in north-western and north-eastern Syria will be a topic of discussion. OCHA assessed on 24 April that “while violence has significantly reduced in north-west Syria following the announcement of a ceasefire on 6 March, the humanitarian situation remains alarming as short-term needs are increasingly compounded by longer-term issues, such as malnutrition and lack of education”.
Another issue that may come up is the Board of Inquiry (BOI) report into attacks on sites in north-west Syria that had been included on a “deconfliction” list. According to OCHA, deconfliction is “the exchange of information by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to…avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel”. On 6 April, the Secretary-General transmitted a summary of the report to the Security Council, and released this summary to the public. The report analysed seven attacks on hospitals, schools and camps for internally displaced persons, and offered conclusions on six of these attacks; the BOI determined that it did not have a mandate to review and investigate one of the sites as it was “unable to establish that the [As-Suqylabiyah] Hospital received support from the UN” despite the World Health Organization’s provision of “material support to the Hospital around the time of the incident”. Regarding the six attacks that it did investigate, it found that it was “highly probable” that they were “carried out by the Government of Syria and/or its allies” in four of the incidents, by the “Government of Syria” in one incident, and by an “armed opposition group” in another.
Some Council members may want to use the report’s release to highlight questions of accountability in Syria, while others may take the opportunity to raise concerns about the report’s findings and methodology. It is possible that Council members may request the Secretariat to provide a separate briefing on the board’s findings in a closed format to allow for a frank dialogue and exchange of views. As the report also recommends that OCHA undertake to improve the “deconfliction mechanism”, some Council members may want to hear from Lowcock on what steps OCHA intends to take to implement the report’s recommendations.