What's In Blue

Posted Mon 26 Oct 2020

Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow (27 October), Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are expected to brief the Security Council, on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively. A closed session is expected to follow. At press time, it was unclear whether the meeting would be held in-person or via videoconference.

Political Briefing

During tomorrow’s briefing, Special Envoy Pedersen is likely to focus on his 24 to 26 October visit to Syria. Pedersen travelled to Damascus to meet with Syrian officials to discuss, among other issues, progress on the political process (as called for in resolution 2254), including the Constitutional Committee. The Constitutional Committee, which next month will mark one year since it began its work, has held three rounds of talks over the past twelve months, most recently in August. Progress has been minimal, however, as there has been strong disagreement on the agenda for the meetings.

Speaking to the media on 24 October after his meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Pedersen did not indicate any concrete outcomes at that point in his visit.  However, he noted that he would soon meet with the political opposition, stating that his meetings with both the government and opposition “could be the beginning of something new” and that he hoped to “find more common ground on how to move this process forward”. Council members will be interested in hearing a more detailed assessment from Pedersen on the outcomes of his visit to Damascus. Briefing the Council on 18 September, Pedersen noted that “very real differences on substance even at the quite general level” persist with regard to the Constitutional Committee. Council members will want to hear whether any of these differences have been overcome in light of the visit to Damascus and, if so, if there are grounds for the Special Envoy to organise a fourth round of the Constitutional Committee.

The Special Envoy may also brief on the security situation in Syria, especially as it relates to the north-west. On 24 October, the Special Envoy again echoed previous calls for a nation-wide ceasefire, remarking that Syrians need a “sustained calm” and “relief of their continued suffering”. On 26 October, Russian airstrikes reportedly killed 78 members of the armed opposition in Idlib province. The attack, which resulted in the largest single-day death toll since a 5 March ceasefire in the north-west was agreed between Russia and Turkey, comes after a spate of violence in the area, which has seen regular shelling and airstrikes. While airstrikes have been ongoing over the last several weeks, OCHA reported that there were more airstrikes on 20 September than any other day since the 5 March ceasefire went into effect, with 28 airstrikes in the Idlib area. Incidents involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs, as well as attacks by armed groups on civilians and humanitarian workers, also appear to be on the rise in the area. Syria analysts have recently noted that the increase in violence could imperil the 5 March ceasefire agreement. Some Council members may enquire about the continued viability of the ceasefire and the impact that the continuing violence is having on civilians in the area.

Humanitarian Briefing

Lowcock may focus his briefing on the effects of COVID-19 on Syria, as well as how the deteriorating economic situation in the country has exacerbated Syria’s humanitarian crisis. He is also likely to brief on the challenges that OCHA faces in delivering humanitarian assistance into Syria’s north-west, especially since the adoption in July of resolution 2533, which reduced the previous two to one single border crossing through which aid can be delivered without the Syrian government’s consent. Lowcock may refer as well to efforts to deliver cross-line humanitarian assistance in Syria’s north-east.

Lowcock is likely to describe how the COVID pandemic is taking an increasingly alarming toll on Syria. Since Lowcock’s last briefing to the Council on 16 September, there has been a rapid rise in cases of COVID-19. Though the Syrian Ministry of Health reported only 4,826 cases of COVID-19 as of 13 October, the country has seen a significant increase in official cases since the summer. The Secretary-General, in his 20 October report to the Security Council, noted that Syria’s limited testing and high community transmission rate (92 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are not traceable to a known source) suggests that the “actual number of cases may far exceed the official count”. Council members are likely to ask about how the pandemic is affecting OCHA’s work and its ability to provide humanitarian assistance. Lowcock may specifically highlight the worsening situation in Syria’s north-west as it relates to COVID-19. According to OCHA, the number of COVID-19 cases there has increased twenty-fold from early September to 20 October, with some 2,865 COVID-19 cases confirmed in that time period. Council members may ask what steps OCHA has taken to improve access to medical facilities, increase testing capacity, and provide personal protective equipment (PPE)—three persistent issues that have hampered the response to the pandemic in the north-east.

Lowcock is likely to describe how Syria’s economic difficulties have led to a sharp rise in food insecurity. The Secretary-General’s 20 October report states that “food prices are 22 times their pre-crisis level, meaning that many families are unable to afford staple goods”. According to OCHA, as of August, Syria has had an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent, while 80 percent of Syria’s population now lives in poverty.

The impact of bilateral sanctions on Syria’s humanitarian situation remains a contentious issue. Some Council members may ask Lowcock for his assessment of this issue. While some members, including Russia and China, have continually reiterated the Secretary-General’s call in March for the “waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support”, others, such as Germany, the UK and the US, maintain that critical humanitarian goods and medical supplies are not subject to sanctions in Syria.

Efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria’s north-west and north-east regions are also expected to be a key focus of the meeting. In the north-west, Lowcock is expected to update the Council on steps OCHA has taken to address logistical and operational challenges since the adoption of resolution 2533 in July, which left open only one Council-mandated border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for this purpose. According to the Secretary-General’s recent report, the World Food Programme has led an expansion of the transhipment hub at the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which now handles humanitarian assistance for 1.3 million people, including 800,000 internally displaced persons living in the northern Aleppo Governate. OCHA also reported on 20 October that work to repair and widen roads in the area was beginning, especially in anticipation of inclement weather with the imminent arrival of winter.

In regard to Syria’s north-east, Lowcock may brief the Council on OCHA’s efforts to maintain access to parts of the Hassakeh governate; while OCHA faces hurdles in gaining access to some parts of the region due to insecurity, deliveries to Qamishli have been delayed due to bureaucratic procedures. As the Secretary-General’s report notes, UN agencies have experienced delays in delivering shipments beyond Qamishli, owing to “significant delays in obtaining government approvals” needed to provide assistance into areas outside of government control.

Lowcock may also brief on the gaps that persist in the provision of medical supplies to the north-east since the closure of the al-Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq in January; as of 20 October, only 36 percent of medical facilities that received medical supplies through the al-Yarubiyah crossing are gaining access to such deliveries via cross-line deliveries. Some Council members are likely to argue that improvements in cross-line deliveries are needed for critical health supplies to reach vulnerable populations, placing the onus on the Syrian government not to obstruct their delivery. Other members may emphasise that improved delivery is contingent upon OCHA working more closely with Syrian authorities.