Syria: Meeting on the Political Situation via Videoconference
Tomorrow (19 August), Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen will brief Security Council members in an open videoconference (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC session, on political as well as socio-economic and security developments in Syria.
Pedersen is likely to focus his briefing on recent efforts to convene a third session of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. In June, Pedersen announced that he hoped to convene an in-person meeting of the committee by the end of August. Barring unforeseen logistical challenges or travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the meeting is now expected to take place on 24-28 August and will be attended by the smaller drafting body rather than all 150 members of the committee.
This will be the first Constitutional Committee meeting since it convened in Geneva on 25-29 November 2019 for the second round of discussions. There was no progress then, as the co-chairs from the government and opposition sides were unable to agree on an agenda for the meeting. The government side wanted to discuss “national constants” such as terrorism and sanctions relief prior to discussing constitutional matters. The opposition maintained that these issues could be addressed, but not outside the context of the constitution.
During his briefing to the Council on 30 March, Pedersen said that while the Committee had not been able to meet in person due to the COVID-19 global pandemic he had been able to facilitate an agreement between the two co-chairs that the next session would focus on “national foundations and principles”. In announcing the agenda, Pedersen noted that he had been clear throughout his facilitation that “agreement during a next session of the Constitutional Committee on national foundations and principles is not a precondition to moving to other items”.
The Council is likely to welcome the upcoming meeting of the Constitutional Committee and offer support for the Special Envoy’s efforts. On 8 October 2019, the Council adopted a presidential statement welcoming the Secretary-General’s 23 September announcement of the agreement by the Syrian government and opposition for “a credible, balanced, and inclusive Constitutional Committee facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva”. While there appears to be agreement among Council members that the formation and continuing work of the Constitutional Committee is a positive development, some members have noted that this is only the first step in a political process that should lead to free and fair elections under UN supervision.
Pedersen is also likely to brief the Council on the socio-economic situation in Syria. Since he last briefed the Council on 23 July, Syria’s economic, security and humanitarian situations have continued to deteriorate. There have been reports of attacks in several parts of the country, including in the north-west, where a joint Turkish-Russian patrol monitoring the M4 highway security corridor came under attack by unknown assailants, causing damage to a Turkish military vehicle, although there were no injuries.. This was the 25th joint patrol since March, and such attacks on the patrols, as well as road blockages, occur regularly. Given this development, and reports of a build-up of Syrian forces in the Idlib area as well as reports of rocket attacks by Syrian forces, Council members may ask Pedersen to offer an assessment of the status and sustainability of the 5 March ceasefire. Some members may address reports of an attack by two US helicopters on a Syrian army checkpoint in Syria’s northeast near Qamishli on 17 August, as well as an Israeli military strike against Syrian military targets on 3 August which killed three Syrian soldiers.
Pedersen may express concern about Syria’s economic collapse and the impact of COVID-19 on the Syrian economy. Briefing the Council on 29 July, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted that COVID-19 was now a countrywide problem, with cases reported in all but one of Syria’s governorates. According to OCHA, COVID-19 is causing the economy to contract even further, reducing remittances from abroad and increasing unemployment from 42 percent in 2019 to nearly 50 percent today. As has been the case during recent Council sessions on Syria, some Council members are likely to focus on the issue of unilateral sanctions: China and Russia, on the one hand, have argued that Syria’s economic collapse and humanitarian crisis are partly due to unilateral sanctions and have called for the lifting of all unilateral sanctions to help Syria obtain the necessary resources to address COVID-19, while the UK, US and European Union members of the Council have noted that humanitarian goods are exempt from any sanctions.
Finally, Pedersen is likely to address the situation of detainees in Syria, reiterating his message to the Syrian government to carry out the “large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees”, especially in light of COVID-19, and for “meaningful actions on missing persons”. During Pedersen’s briefings in June and July, Council members also heard from two Syrian civil society briefers – Noura Ghazi and Wafa Mustafa – who discussed the plight of detainees in Syria. However, despite the Council’s focus on the issue and the Special Envoy’s call for large-scale releases, there has been very little progress on this issue. Pedersen may reiterate that the release of detainees is a necessary confidence-building measure in light of the upcoming constitutional committee meeting.