Syria: Political Informal Meeting via Videoconferencing
Tomorrow (16 June), Security Council members will convene an open videoconferencing (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC session, on the political situation in Syria. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief on the political situation. Noura Ghazi, a civil society representative, may brief the Council as well; if she does, she is likely to focus on the situation of detainees in Syria.
Despite three months of relative calm since the 5 March ceasefire agreed by Russia and Turkey in Syria’s north-west, the situation in Syria remains volatile. Instability persists due to a series of ongoing crises, including recent ceasefire violations in Idlib province; the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in the country, including the sudden and precipitous depreciation of the national currency (the Syrian pound); and the ongoing threat of COVID-19 to Syria’s healthcare system.
During his briefing to the Council on 18 May, Pedersen noted that calm had been prevailing in the north-west. However, in recent weeks the situation appears to have grown less stable. In addition to reports of sporadic shelling in the north-west despite the ceasefire—as well as the deployment of reinforcements by both Turkish and Syrian forces around the de-escalation zone—media sources reported that Russian air strikes on 8 June in Idlib province had led to multiple civilian deaths and caused hundreds of civilians to flee their villages. Russia has denied involvement in the airstrikes.
On 10 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed the situation in the north-west, with Russian media reporting that an “emphasis was put on a need to boost efforts towards the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreements on the Idlib de-escalation zone”. The two countries have now undertaken 15 joint patrols of the M4 highway corridor. Council members are likely to ask for an update on the situation in the zone.
Council members may also want to know about the security situation in other parts of the country. In and around Deraa in the south-west, the Syrian opposition has attacked government facilities and, more recently, anti-government demonstrations have occurred in Suwayda, a majority Druze city in the south-west, due to the deteriorating economic situation. There have also been reports of a resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in eastern and central Syria.
Syria’s recent economic difficulties are also likely to be a focus of the meeting: over the last several weeks, the Syrian pound has largely collapsed. On 8 June, the currency traded at 3,000 pounds against the US dollar, having fallen from 2,000 pounds to the US dollar only a week before. (Before the civil war started in 2011 the pound had traded at 47 to the US dollar.) This has resulted in a steep rise in the price of food, medicine and other goods. According to the World Food Programme data from April 2020, prices have risen 111 percent over the past 12 months with 7.9 million people unable to meet their food needs and a further 1.9 million people at risk of food insecurity. The Syrian economy has been severely weakened by nine years of conflict. Its recent decline, however, is due in large part to the combined effects of concern over EU sanctions and new unilateral US sanctions that will take effect on 17 June under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act; infighting between the Syrian government and Rami Makhlouf (President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and the head of Syriatel, a major telecommunications firm that provides a vital source of revenue to the government); and the spill-over effects of the economic crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.
During Pedersen’s last briefing to the Council on 18 May, Russia and China called for the lifting of all unilateral sanctions to help Syria muster the necessary resources to address COVID-19. Pedersen, for his part, noted that there had been “public assurances by relevant States that their sanctions programmes relating to Syria neither ban the flow of humanitarian supplies nor target medicine and medical devices” in line with the Secretary-General’s global call for the waiver of sanctions that could harm countries’ capacities to provide access to food, essential health supplies and medical support to respond to the pandemic. Council members may be interested to receive an update on the impact of the economic difficulties on Syria, in particular on its engagement on the political track, its ability to address a potential outbreak of COVID-19, and on the hardships already facing ordinary citizens.
Though there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Syria’s north-west (with the Syrian Ministry of Health officially confirming 177 cases of COVID-19, including six fatalities, throughout the entire country), Pedersen is likely to raise concerns about the pandemic, notably the persistent risk that a serious outbreak could occur at any moment. Given Syria’s worsening economic situation, fragile healthcare system (particularly in the north-west) and low testing capacity, some Council members may ask about the need for sustained provision of humanitarian assistance, including through continued cross-border deliveries.
The Special Envoy may reiterate his view that a Constitutional Committee meeting can only be held once the situation allows for the in-person participation of the Syria government, opposition and civil society. The Constitutional Committee last convened in late November 2019.
Finally, the Special Envoy is also likely to address the situation of detainees in Syria. On 24 March, Pedersen called on the Syrian government for the “large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees”, especially in light of COVID-19, and for “meaningful actions on missing persons”. While Pedersen has reiterated this call on several occasions—maintaining that it could be a useful confidence-building measure to generate momentum on the political front—there has been very little progress to date on this issue.
The Council may also hear from Noura Ghazi, founder of Nophotozone, a Syrian civil society organisation providing legal advice and assistance to families of Syrian detainees and those forcibly disappeared during the conflict. The organisation also aims to raise awareness of the situation of detainees in Syria, highlighting the plight of those who have been detained and allegedly tortured and documenting their whereabouts. Although more than 10,000 cases of missing persons have been opened by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Syrian conflict, the total number of people arbitrarily detained and missing is believed to be much higher. According to a 27 November 2018 report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, while arbitrary detention throughout Syria has been perpetrated by all parties on the ground, “nowhere has the phenomenon been more pervasive than in areas under government control”. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, speaking to the Council on 7 August 2019, stated that “while the United Nations is not able to verify, reports suggest that more than 100,000 people have so far been detained, abducted, disappeared or gone missing, largely, but not only, at the hands of the Syrian Government”.
There are stark divisions in the Council regarding the issue of detainees, abductees and the missing in Syria, and it is likely that these will be visible tomorrow. The Council held a session on 7 August 2019 devoted to this matter. Some Council members questioned the reliability of information about detainees, abductees and missing persons, while other members called for the implementation of resolution 2474 of 11 June 2019. Resolution 2474, which was adopted unanimously, emphasised that addressing the situation of missing persons as a result of armed conflict “can contribute to the process of confidence-building between parties to armed conflict, expediting peace negotiations and settlement, transitional justice processes, reconciliation, peacebuilding and sustaining peace”.