Syria: Meetings on the Humanitarian and Political Situations via Videoconference
On Wednesday (16 September) and Friday (18 September), Security Council members will convene open videoconference meetings (VTC) on the situation in Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is expected to brief on the humanitarian situation on Wednesday, while Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief on the political situation on Friday.
As it has been only three weeks (27 August) since Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Council, Lowcock is likely to use Wednesday’s briefing to update the Council on several of the issues that Rajasingham raised. These include: the rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 cases; the effect of the pandemic on healthcare facilities, food insecurity and the economic situation; the protection of civilians; and access challenges that OCHA faces.
Lowcock is likely to raise concern about the worsening situation of COVID-19 in Syria. According to figures from the Syrian Ministry of Health, the number of COVID-19 cases in Syria still appears to be relatively small: officially, the number of confirmed cases has reached 2,830 (including 116 fatalities) as of 1 September. While this is a sharp increase over previous reporting periods, Rajasingham stated last month that reports of increasing numbers of patients arriving in health care facilities and increasing numbers of death notices and burials indicate that “actual cases far exceed official figures”. According to some estimates, including a recent investigative media report using excess deaths as a basis for determining the size of the possible outbreak, up to 85,000 people may have been infected with COVID-19 in the Damascus region alone.
Lowcock may note that COVID-19 is a countrywide problem, affecting all regions of Syria. Most notably, the pandemic is seriously affecting Syria’s overstretched healthcare capacity, as well as further damaging Syria’s fragile economy. He may note that Syria has poor COVID-19 testing capacity and limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Last month, Rajasingham highlighted the situation in the Al Hol refugee and internally displaced persons camp in north-east Syria, where health facilities had to cease operations due both to a lack of PPE and staff becoming infected.
In respect of Syria’s economic decline being exacerbated by COVID-19, according to OCHA, the unemployment rate increased from 42 percent in 2019 to nearly 50 percent in August. Lowcock is likely to reiterate Rajasingham’s point during last month’s briefing that COVID-19, coupled with damaged supply chains which resulted from the Beirut explosion on 4 August, has caused food prices to rise, increasing food insecurity. Rajasingham noted that in addressing the humanitarian crisis in the country, OCHA reaches 7.2 million people every month, including some 5.4 million in need of food assistance.
Stark lines have been drawn between Council members on the impact of bilateral sanctions on the humanitarian situation and the COVID-19 crisis: some, including China and Russia, consistently argue that sanctions should be lifted in order to address the country’s worsening economic situation and to improve its access to vital medical supplies. Others, including the Council’s European members, have regularly pointed out that sanctions offer exemptions for medical supplies. These positions are likely to be reiterated tomorrow.
On the situation in the north-west, Lowcock may point out that the ceasefire is generally holding, despite low-level violence and the occasional shelling of civilian areas in the Idlib and Aleppo Governorates. However, following on from last month’s briefing, Lowcock is likely to reiterate that there have been access challenges in the area since the adoption in July of resolution 2533, which left only one Council mandated border crossing point for the delivery of humanitarian assistance between Syria and Turkey. These challenges include lengthy delays in getting assistance into areas of the northern Aleppo Governate: in late July, a trip that previously took two hours from the now closed Bab al-Salam crossing now took over 11 hours from the remaining border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. Lowcock might reiterate the need for vital roadwork to be completed before winter in order to improve delivery times.
Several Council members will probably raise their concern about the situation in the north-west, arguing that the failure by the Council to re-authorise the Bab al-Salam border crossing is having a devastating effect on populations in the area and that the humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate more when winter arrives, absent improved access. Council members are also likely to address the situation in the north-east, where the Council’s authorisation of aid delivery through the al-Yarubiyah border crossing ended and where, they maintain, improvements in cross-line deliveries are needed for critical health supplies to reach vulnerable populations. In this regard, some members may emphasise that improved delivery is contingent upon OCHA working more closely with Syrian authorities.
During Friday’s briefing, Special Envoy Pedersen is likely to focus on last month’s meetings of the Constitutional Committee, which were held in person in Geneva on 24 August and 27-29 August. Despite the two-day hiatus, caused by three members of the Constitutional Committee testing positive for COVID-19, Pedersen is likely to inform the Council that the meetings were held in a generally positive atmosphere, though there were no concrete outcomes. He will also probably inform Council members that the Committee co-chairs have expressed willingness to meet again, although it is not certain when this may happen.
The Committee has been unable to agree on an agenda for a future meeting. In the past, 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. Pedersen may use the Council briefing to suggest possible dates in October or later for a next round of meetings. In any case, Council members will be keen to receive a detailed assessment of the August meeting and to hear more about how the Special Envoy intends to proceed with his efforts of facilitating the work of the Constitutional Committee.