Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow (20 January), 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 highlight developments he anticipates in the upcoming fifth session of the Constitutional Committee, which is currently scheduled to be conducted in-person in Geneva during the week of 25 January, barring any COVID-19-related travel constraints. The meeting is expected to be the first time the Committee discusses constitutional principles, and it is possible that the Committee will begin its drafting phase. Speaking to the press on 4 December, Pedersen expressed hope that “with the next few rounds of discussions, it will be possible to start th[e] drafting process”.
Despite the upcoming Constitutional Committee meeting, Pedersen is likely to tell the Council that overall progress on the political track is still slow. Briefing the Council on 16 December, Pedersen struck a cautious tone, noting that regional and broader international divisions on Syria had made “forging a consensus on exactly how to bring about…a truly constructive diplomacy…very difficult”. Nonetheless, Pedersen said that the parties of the Constitutional Committee may share common ground. He is likely to underline that dialogue must continue.
Most Council members agree that the political track has yielded few results: some members have become openly concerned about this after more than a year of Constitutional Committee meetings. It is unclear whether Council members will use tomorrow’s meeting to take stock of the Committee’s work. Members may prefer to wait for next week’s round of meetings in Geneva before determining how they will approach the Committee’s future work. EU members on the Security Council have tended to emphasise that reconstruction aid to Syria will not be forthcoming without tangible progress on the political front. Pedersen is expected to call on the parties to arrive in Geneva ready to work in a constructive spirit.
Pedersen is also likely to address the tenuous security situation in Syria. During several of his previous regular monthly Council briefings, Pedersen has noted that there is relative calm throughout Syria, although a spate of violent acts continues to affect the country. He has also expressed concerns about the broader international security implications of the conflict in Syria. Pedersen reminded the Council on 16 December that “with five international armies operating in Syria, the country remains a tinderbox for a major international incident, with potential implications across the region”.
Against this backdrop, Pedersen may offer an update on the situation in both eastern and northern Syria, where there has been a notable uptick in violence. On 12 January, Israeli airstrikes in and around Deir al-Zour in the eastern part of the country reportedly targeted Syrian military sites, killing 57 Syrian government soldiers and, according to international media, members of Iranian-backed militias. On 30 December, international media and Syria’s official state news agency, SANA, reported that Islamic State militants attacked a bus on a road outside Deir al-Zour. While SANA reported that the attack resulted in the deaths of 25 civilians, international media sources claimed that 38 government soldiers had been killed. The incident has led to increasing concerns that the Islamic State is again resurgent in some parts of Syria.
In northern Syria, a series of car bombs has inflicted harm on civilians and on Turkish military forces. On 11 December, a car bomb killed 16 people at a checkpoint in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkish gendarmes were among those killed in the attack. On 2 January, two car bombs were detonated in northern Syria, one in a market in Ras al-Ain, killing two children and injuring several others, and another in Jinderis, near Aleppo, outside a bakery, killing one person and injuring two children. The UN’s Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria and the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis issued a joint statement condemning the acts and highlighting the ongoing harm caused to civilians by the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices.
Lowcock is likely to tell the Council that Syria’s humanitarian situation has not seen improvement since he last briefed the Council on 16 December, noting that increased food prices, fuel costs and increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections are all contributing to an already fragile humanitarian situation. According to a 28 December World Food Programme (WFP) report, Syria has suffered from another increase in the price of its “standard reference food basket” (which measures a range of foods providing approximately 2,000 calories per person a day for a family of five over one month). The standard food basket increased by 251 percent in the year to November 2020—a month-to-month increase of 13 percent that brought the basket to its highest recorded price since WFP started monitoring prices in 2013. In addition, according to a 22 December report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Syrian government doubled the price of a subsidised pack of bread, while also reducing the size of bread packs and imposing limits on the amount of subsidised bread a family can purchase. The rise in food prices comes amidst reports that Syria is also suffering from a bread shortage: despite a bumper crop in 2020, Syria’s wheat production is at less than 60 percent of pre-conflict levels.
Lowcock may describe how fuel shortages have also contributed to the declining economic situation. On 10 January, Syria’s petroleum ministry announced that it would cut its fuel distribution by 24 percent due to delays in the arrival of needed supplies, causing further hardship for many Syrians. While a number of factors may have exacerbated fuel shortages, including decreases in petroleum production in Syria’s north-east, the need for increased heating fuel in the winter and the use of fuel for military purposes, the petroleum ministry attributed the cuts to unilateral sanctions. China and Russia have repeatedly argued that unilateral sanctions have created hardship for the Syrian people.
Finally, Lowcock is likely to 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 count of COVID-19 cases is difficult; however, its 12 January COVID Response Update noted that the “epidemiological situation in Syria has rapidly evolved and community transmission is widespread in the past months”, indicating that there is now a second wave of infections in the country. Lowcock is likely to reiterate OCHA’s position that Syria’s strained health care system has been compromised by the virus, while also noting that stopping community spread within educational facilities has proven challenging.