Syria: Political and Humanitarian Informal Meetings via Videoconferencing
On Monday (18 May) and Tuesday (19 May), Security Council members will convene two separate open videoconferencing (VTC) meetings, followed by closed VTC sessions, on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria, respectively. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief on the political situation Monday morning, while Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is scheduled to brief on the humanitarian situation on Tuesday afternoon. According to changes to the Council’s working methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meetings will be webcast, and after the meeting, members may choose to circulate their statements, which will be published in a Council document.
While there have been reports of artillery shelling in the north-west of Syria, despite the 5 March ceasefire agreed by the Russian Federation and Turkey, aerial bombardments seem to have stopped and the ceasefire appears largely to be holding. Russian and Turkish forces have now conducted 11 joint patrols of the M4 Highway corridor. During his last briefing to the Council on 29 April, Special Envoy Pedersen reiterated that a calm was prevailing in the region since the ceasefire agreement. Council members are likely to want an update on the north-west and to enquire about the impact of that situation on the Special Envoy’s 24 March call for a Syria-wide ceasefire. Pedersen has frequently reminded Council members and the parties in Syria that a nationwide ceasefire is necessary to provide Syrians not only with a “sustained calm”, but also to allow the country to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the numbers of reported COVID-19 cases remain low in Syria (as of 13 May, the Syrian Ministry of Health has reported 47 total confirmed cases with none reported in the north-west of the country), the Special Envoy has assessed the country to be at high risk of an outbreak.
Council members may also be interested in learning more about the security situation in other parts of Syria. On 8 May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a statement saying that while the ceasefire in Idlib province was “mostly holding”, the situation in other parts of the country was “a ticking time-bomb that must not be ignored”. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) killed 35 civilians in April and residential neighbourhoods and markets have been targeted, mostly in northern and eastern parts of the country under the control of Turkish armed forces and affiliated armed groups, or Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Echoing the Special Envoy’s 29 April briefing regarding the situation in southern Syria, Bachelet noted in her 8 May statement that, since early March, the UN had documented 52 targeted killings in Syrian government-controlled Deraa Governorate. Council members are likely to ask the Special Envoy to update them on the situation in and around Deraa as well as on reports of a resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in eastern and central Syria.
The Special Envoy is also likely to address the situation of detainees in Syria. At his last briefing to the Council, Pedersen again called for the “large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees” and for “meaningful actions on missing persons”. The risks posed to detainees have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and their release is “more urgent than ever”, according to the Special Envoy. Council members will want to hear about any progress on detainees and what steps the Syrian government has taken to heed the Special Envoy’s call.
Finally, on 29 April the Special Envoy noted that a Constitutional Committee meeting would be held as soon as the situation allowed for the in-person participation of the Syria government, opposition and civil society. Council members are likely to want to learn about any progress with regard to a third Constitutional Committee meeting or wider political processes over the last three weeks.
On Tuesday, Mark Lowcock is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s report “Review of the UN’s Humanitarian Cross-line and Cross-border Operations”, which was requested in resolution 2504. 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 but did not reauthorise the Al Yarubiyah border crossing between Syria and Iraq or the Al Ramtha border crossing between Syria and Jordan. Lowcock is also likely to brief the Council on the impact of COVID-19 in Syria and the humanitarian situation in both Syria’s north-west and north-east.
The Secretary-General’s 13 May report was submitted several weeks ahead of schedule “to allow the Security Council to take a timely decision so as to ensure that there is no disruption in the provision of aid to people in need”; it highlights the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, noting that 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. According to the report, 6.2 million people live in areas not under Syrian government control. Of these, 4.2 million people – mostly concentrated in Syria’s north-east and north-west – have acute humanitarian needs.
The report also explains that while “cross-line deliveries to parts of the north-east constitute a crucial component of humanitarian response operations”, the “cross-line modality on its own is clearly not sufficient to meet current needs” and that “gaps in medical supplies have widened”. As such, the report, echoing the Secretary-General’s 21 February report on “Alternative Modalities for the Border Crossing of Al Yarubiyah”, concludes that “a combination of more cross-border and cross-line access is required to sustain recent levels of, and preferably increase, humanitarian assistance”. For north-west Syria, the Secretary-General further argues that there is “no alternative that can match the scale and scope of the current cross-border operations”.
This report comes as some Council members are seeking ways to reauthorise the reopening of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing, given their views about the inadequacy of cross-line deliveries and especially in light of the risk posed by COVID-19. However, speaking during the 29 April Council briefing, Russia’s Permanent Representative expressed scepticism of the need for such a reauthorisation, urging Council members “not to waste their time on looking for a way to advocate, explicitly or implicitly for getting Al Yarubiah back and saying that this [is] the ‘only solution’”. Resolution 2504 expires on 10 July and members are anticipating the upcoming negotiations on its renewal.
Lowcock may elaborate further on the impact that the closure in January of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing has had on the delivery of aid into Syria from Iraq. Despite some cross-line air shipments of health supplies since January 2020, as well as the first cross-line land shipment of 30 tonnes of medical supplies from the World Health Organization into the north-east, the Secretary-General’s 60-day report on the implementation of humanitarian resolutions in Syria states that “supplies reached only 31 per cent of the medical facilities that had previously been supported by cross-border deliveries from Al Yarubiyah”. The report highlights a series of administrative steps that appear to be preventing more, and necessary, aid from reaching the intended destinations. Council members may ask for more clarity on this issue.
Lowcock is expected to brief the Council on the preparedness and response planning that OCHA has been engaged in to develop a country-wide response to COVID-19. He is likely to reiterate the message from his briefing on 29 April: that displaced populations are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and that with camps for displaced persons remaining overwhelmed and overcrowded, an outbreak could severely strain an already stretched humanitarian response.
In respect of the north-west, Lowcock is likely to update the Council on the ceasefire: in the past, he has noted that the calm that has resulted from the ceasefire, though much needed, is not enough to address the alarming humanitarian situation. Members may want to know how effectively aid is being delivered through the two remaining authorised crossings in the north-west, 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.