What's In Blue

Posted Tue 24 Nov 2020

Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow (25 November), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar are expected to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian and political situations in Syria, respectively, in an open videoconference (VTC). A closed VTC is scheduled to follow.

Political Briefing

During tomorrow’s briefing, Deputy Special Envoy Matar is likely to focus her briefing on progress that has been made on organising the next round of meetings of the Constitutional Committee. The committee has held three rounds of talks since being launched over twelve months ago, though progress has been minimal. The most recent round was in August.

From 24 to 26 October, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen travelled to Damascus to meet with officials in an effort to narrow divisions on a potential fourth and fifth round of meetings of the committee. Briefing the Council on 27 October, Pedersen noted that constitutional reform alone would not resolve Syria’s conflict, but that it could be a “door opener to a deeper and wider process”. If an agreement between the co-chairs could be found in short order, he noted, it would still be possible to organise the fourth round of talks in-person in Geneva in November.

Matar is likely to describe what subsequent steps have been taken to bring the parties back together and to bridge differences over the agenda, which has remained a main point of contention in the committee’s work. The Syrian government has insisted that the next session’s agenda be centred on “national foundations and principles” such as countering terrorism and sanctions relief prior to discussing constitutional matters, while the opposition has maintained that the agenda should focus on constitutional principles, rights and freedoms, or the structure of the constitution. It appears that an agreement has been reached on the agenda of the fourth and fifth rounds of meetings: for the fourth round, the agenda will revolve around “national foundations and principles”, while the fifth round will transition to a discussion of constitutional issues.

While members are expected to welcome progress on the Constitutional Committee, they will be interested to learn more details of the timeline of the upcoming meetings. Initial proposals suggested that the end of November and early December would be a viable option for a fourth round, and early January for a proposed fifth round, of in-person meetings in Geneva. The death of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, which was announced on 16 November, does not appear to have affected these plans. However, it is possible that travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the relatively high coronavirus caseload in Switzerland may cause the timeline to shift.  (There was a two-day hiatus during the third round of Geneva meetings in August, after three members of the Constitutional Committee tested positive for COVID-19.)

Council members are also likely to want an update from the Special Envoy’s office on the security situation in the country. Briefing the Council on 27 October, Pedersen noted that there was renewed attention to the political process, as “some key stakeholders have signaled that they see the military phase of the conflict as ending”. Frontlines, he highlighted, have not shifted since March 2020 and civilian casualties are at their lowest levels since 2011. However, the Syrian military shelled several areas around Idlib on 4 November, killing at least eight civilians, according to media reports. This incident follows a period of several weeks in which OCHA reported an increase in shelling and airstrikes in the area.

Humanitarian Briefing

Lowcock may focus his briefing on several aspects of the difficult humanitarian situation: namely, the effect of COVID-19 on the healthcare and education systems; the impact of Syria’s continuing economic decline; and concerns over the onset of winter. The number of cases of COVID-19 in Syria continues to rise sharply, further degrading Syria’s damaged health care system. According to Syria’s Ministry of Health, as at 9 November, there were 6,215 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in areas controlled by the Syrian government, while OCHA reported on 18 November that there were 13,179 confirmed cases in Syria’s opposition-controlled north-west. Of these cases, 80 percent were identified in the last month alone. Though there have been recent improvements in testing capacity throughout Syria, reports of inadequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for Syria’s healthcare workers and educators persist. According to OCHA, current cases among healthcare workers now stand at 15 percent, while there has also been a significant increase of positive cases among students and teachers, who regularly attend school in overcrowded facilities.

On Syria’s dire economic situation, Lowcock is likely to brief Council members on the recent decline of the Syrian pound and its effect on the price of goods. After stabilising and gaining back some of its value in the late summer, the currency has again been devalued by some 15 percent over the last several weeks. This has led to further increases in the price of basic goods for families whose economic situation already remains perilous. The World Food Programme regularly assesses the number of Syrians considered food insecure, which it now estimates at over 9.3 million. Another 2.2 million people are considered at risk of food insecurity. OCHA’s 29 October COVID-19 online humanitarian update notes that Syria’s current socioeconomic situation “represents some of the most challenging humanitarian conditions experienced in the past ten years of [the] crisis”.

Lowcock is also likely to raise the continuing challenges that OCHA faces in delivering humanitarian assistance into Syria’s north-west. In the Council last month, Lowcock described steps OCHA had taken to address logistical and operational difficulties since the adoption of resolution 2533 in July, which left open only one Council-mandated border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for this purpose. These steps included the expansion of the transhipment hub at the Bab al-Hawa crossing, as well as the repair and widening of roads in the area. Member states will be keen to hear more from Lowcock on OCHA’s latest winterisation efforts, which include a plan to reach some 3.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are affected by colder temperatures and winter conditions. Of these, 1.5 million people live in camps and makeshift shelters in the north-west and are likely to suffer from inadequate housing, a lack of heating or proper winter attire.  OCHA has also made efforts to repair widespread damage to IDP sites caused by recent heavy rainfall. According to OCHA, dozens of such sites were affected by heavy flooding, destroyed tents and sewage overflows.