Syria: Briefing on Political Developments
Tomorrow (23 July), Security Council members will convene for an open videoconference (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC session, on Syria. Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to update members on political, socio-economic and security developments. The Council will also be briefed by Wafa Mustafa, a representative of Families for Freedom, a Syrian civil society organisation comprised of families and relatives of those who have suffered enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention during the Syrian conflict, who is likely to focus on the situation of detainees in Syria.
Since Pedersen last briefed the Council on 16 June, Syria’s economic, security and humanitarian situations all appear to have suffered setbacks. Syria’s already precarious economic condition has continued to deteriorate, and the security situation in the country’s north-west has worsened, while the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing to UN cross-border humanitarian assistance and the announcement of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the north-west have made the humanitarian situation in and around Idlib more tenuous.
Pedersen is likely to express concern about the emergence of COVID-19 in the country’s north-west in the context of the potentially destabilising effects of the pandemic. On 9 July, the first COVID-19 case in the country was confirmed. Three additional cases were subsequently identified. According to OCHA, the initial four confirmed cases were all health professionals, and steps to mitigate the spread of the virus have resulted in restrictions of movement as well as suspension of routine clinical work in hospitals in the area. At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases in the north-west stands at 20. Council members may ask about the impact that steps to mitigate the spread of the virus could have on the provision of medical care and whether restrictions on movement could affect the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The first COVID-19 cases in the north-west also come in the wake of the adoption of Security Council resolution 2533 on 11 July. The resolution re-authorised the Bab al-Hawa crossing for 12 months but did not re-authorise the Bab al-Salam border crossing, thus potentially limiting the UN’s aid delivery capacity. Pedersen is likely to reiterate the “importance of full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, using all modalities, including scaled-up cross line and cross border access”, a view that he had expressed at his 16 June Council briefing. The humanitarian situation has also been exacerbated by Syria’s recent economic downturn, which has seen the country’s currency lose nearly half of its value since the start of May, resulting in significantly higher prices for necessary goods. On 26 June, the World Food Programme announced that some 9.3 million Syrians are food insecure.
Some Council members may focus on the issue of unilateral sanctions on Syria at tomorrow’s meeting. During his 16 June briefing to the Council, Pedersen acknowledged that among the “real and substantive differences” among both international and Syrian parties to the conflict “the depth of these differences” is evident in “discussions around sanctions”. The issue has been raised regularly during both the monthly political and humanitarian briefings on Syria: China and Russia, on one hand, have called for the lifting of all unilateral sanctions to help Syria obtain the necessary resources to address COVID-19, while the European Union members of the Council, the UK and US have noted that humanitarian goods are exempt from any sanctions. Council members may be interested in an assessment from Pedersen on the potential impact of sanctions on the country’s rapid economic decline as well as if they have had any influence on the political track.
Pedersen is also likely to discuss his efforts to convene the third session of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. In June, Pedersen announced that he hoped to convene an in-person meeting of the Committee, perhaps by the end of August. Council members will be keen to hear what steps have been taken to move this process forward and whether an in-person meeting can be organised given travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19. They may also be interested to hear what substantive issues may be discussed by the Committee if the meeting takes place.
Finally, Pedersen may address the situation of detainees in Syria. While the Special Envoy has regularly called on the Syrian government to carry out “large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees”, especially in light of COVID-19, and for “meaningful actions on missing persons”, there has been very little progress to date on this issue.
In her briefing, Mustafa is likely to call on the Council to prioritise the issue of detainees and to describe the difficult conditions the detainees face, including being regularly deprived of adequate food, water, sanitation, and medical care, particularly in light of COVID-19 and the immediate risks inside Syria. She is also likely to call for Council action to support the immediate release of the names, locations and conditions of those detained and to help facilitate the routine contact of detainees with their families.
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 “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”, while noting that the UN is unable to verify these reports independently.
The issue of detainees, abductees and the missing persons in Syria remains a divisive issue for the Council. During last month’s political briefing, the Council heard 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. Her briefing addressed the suffering of the thousands of families of the missing and detained in Syria. In particular, she focused on the situation of women and children, informing the Council that “there are thousands of innocent women and children in detention centres, hundreds of mothers arrested with their children, and children born inside detention centres”. While some Council members have questioned the reliability of information about detainees, abductees and missing persons in the past, most Council members have called for a range of actions, including the release of detainees as well as provision of information about the missing to their families and adequate medical care for those detained.