Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow (16 December), Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are scheduled to brief the Security Council on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively, in an open videoconference (VTC). A closed VTC is scheduled to follow.
Pedersen is likely to focus his briefing on the fourth session of the Constitutional Committee, which convened in person in Geneva from 30 November to 4 December. At the insistence of the Syrian government, the agenda of the meeting centred on “national foundations and principles” such as countering terrorism and sanctions relief, while the opposition had argued that the agenda should move onto discussing constitutional principles, rights and freedoms, or the structure of the constitution. Before the fourth session started, the parties reached an agreement, stating that the agenda would revolve around “national foundations and principles”, while the next round will transition to a discussion of constitutional issues.
Pedersen is likely to tell the Council that progress on the political track is still slow, but that continued dialogue must continue and be built upon. Briefing the media at the conclusion of the fourth round on 4 December, Pedersen noted that while there were “very strong, different narratives”, the parties “were listening attentively to each other, they were listening with respect, and… they were addressing each other”. However, both the Syrian government and the opposition apparently disseminated separate documents during the meeting, strongly stating their respective positions. According to media sources, the Syrian government document laid out details “rejecting all forms of terrorism”, including terrorist organisations as well as “economic terrorism and unilateral measures”, a reference to sanctions. The paper also sets out in detail the government’s positions on: “foreign occupation of Syrian territory by Turkey, Israel and the US”, the rejection of all forms of “the separatist or semi-separatist agenda”, and “national identity” and the protection of cultural diversity. It also “encourage[es] refugees to return home”, while rejecting the “obstruction” of those returning and linking refugee return to “political agendas”. The High Negotiating Committee (HNC), which represents the opposition in the talks, responded to the government’s document with their own document, highlighting a number of principles that they argue should be part of the next constitution-drafting phase of the process.
While welcoming what Pedersen described at his 4 December press briefing “as some common ground”, he had observed as well as positions he believed could be built upon, Council members will be interested in hearing more of his assessment of the tone and the substance of the fourth round meetings, and areas where convergence between the sides might be found. They may also press the Constitutional Committee to show commitment to the next rounds of meetings.
Council members are also likely to enquire about Pedersen’s plans for the next round of Constitutional Committee meetings, currently scheduled to be conducted in person in Geneva during the week of 25 January. On 4 December, Pedersen sounded a cautiously optimistic note that the meeting would go ahead despite possible COVID-19 travel restrictions. The agreed agenda—discussion of constitutional principles—may result in the beginning of a drafting phase; Pedersen recently expressed hope that “with the next few rounds of discussions, it will be possible to start that drafting process”.
Council members may also ask for Pedersen’s assessment of the security situation in Syria. During several monthly Council briefings, Pedersen has noted that there is relative calm throughout Syria, although the situation is complex and there are a number of exceptions. The 5 March ceasefire agreed by Russia and Turkey in Syria’s north-west is generally holding, despite numerous incidents of shelling and aerial attacks. The security situation remains tenuous in Syria’s south-west. In the Deraa governate, local media have reported that there have been nearly 800 attacks since June on government officials, former opposition members and Syrian and Russian military personnel, including through targeted assassinations, landmines and improvised explosive devices, with over 500 civilians also reportedly killed.
Despite an overall reduction in violence and civilian deaths, Pedersen is likely to echo his long-standing call for a nation-wide ceasefire.
Lowcock is likely to update the Council on issues he has briefed on over the past several months, namely, the ongoing challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Syria’s continuing economic decline and rising food insecurity. Lowcock may tell Council members that the number of COVID-19 cases in Syria continues to rise rapidly and is having far-reaching effects on the country. OCHA has regularly pointed out that getting an accurate number of Syria’s COVID-19 cases is difficult: according to their 9 December COVID Response Update, “the number of confirmed cases does not provide an accurate reflection of infection prevalence”. Amongst other reasons, testing capacity is low and there is significant community spread of the disease.
There seems to be a particularly high level of COVID-19 infections in Syria’s north-east and north-west. The growing number of cases continues to further degrade Syria’s damaged health care system: by 9 December, some 1,618 of all COVID-19 recorded cases in Syria’s north-west were healthcare workers, an increase from the 693 reported on 9 November.
On Syria’s dire economic situation, Lowcock may 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 was already perilous. The World Food Programme (WFP) regularly assesses the number of Syrians considered food insecure, which it now estimates at over 9.3 million. According to a 23 November WFP assessment, 51 percent of Syrian households surveyed reported a loss in income, resulting in poor food consumption, up from nine percent of Syrian households reporting these conditions in June.