Syria: Meeting on Humanitarian Developments
On Monday (29 March), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is scheduled to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria in an open videoconference (VTC). UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore will also brief. A civil society representative may participate as well. A closed VTC is scheduled to follow. With the United States holding the presidency in March, Monday’s meeting will be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. At the time of writing, several other ministers are confirmed to attend the meeting.
Monday’s Council session comes in the context of the tenth anniversary of conflict in Syria, and it is likely that Lowcock, Fore and Council members will reflect on the dire humanitarian situation in the country after a decade of war, economic decline and ongoing insecurity. High-level UN officials and Council members have reiterated the devastating impact of the last decade of conflict—including during the 15 March Council meeting on the political situation in the country—which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and 13 million Syrians, more than 60 percent of the country’s population, fleeing their homes.
Given the increasing humanitarian challenges that Syria faces, the issue of access is likely to be a focus of both Lowcock’s briefing and Council members’ interventions. Lowcock is likely to echo the findings of the Secretary-General’s 18 February report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, which noted that “even with the massive cross-border operation underway, we are still far short of meeting people’s needs” and that “more access is needed”. The question of access also comes in the context of an increasing focus among Council members on the upcoming renewal of the cross-border humanitarian aid mechanism under resolution 2533, which is due to expire on 11 July. As such, Lowcock is likely to brief the Council on OCHA’s ongoing operations in the north-west of Syria, focussing not only on cross-border operations through the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria, but also on what progress, if any, has been made on facilitating cross-line deliveries from Damascus into Syria’s north-west and north-east.
This issue of cross-border and cross-line access has deeply divided the Council. Some members, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States argue that renewal of the cross-border mechanism into Syria’s north-west is essential to guarantee the flow of humanitarian deliveries. They also maintain that cross-line delivery of humanitarian aid is falling short of what is required to reach vulnerable communities, especially in a period of heightened needs, due to logistical difficulties, delays and bureaucratic impediments put in place by the Syrian government. Russia, on the other hand, has suggested that the cross-border mechanism is no longer necessary, that cross-line assistance could replace cross-border deliveries, and that OCHA must work more closely with Syrian authorities. Addressing the Council on 25 February, Russia’s Permanent Representative, Vassily Nebenzia, noted that “we must say in all seriousness that if we were to decide on the cross-border mechanism renewal tomorrow, we are afraid we would be having no compelling reasons to keep it”, concluding that “it is vital…to give a start to domestic Syrian deliveries of humanitarian assistance” to Syria’s north-west. In a 26 March U.S. Department of State press statement on Secretary Blinken’s virtual travels to New York, the department’s spokesperson that Blinken would, amongst other things, “reinforce the United States’ support for…unhindered access that will allow humanitarian assistance to reach vulnerable communities throughout the country”.
Lowcock may also focus attention on the ongoing economic decline which continues to exacerbate the humanitarian situation in the country. Syria’s currency continues to weaken, raising the price of goods throughout the country, including food. According to a 19 March World Food Programme report, food security in Syria “remain[s] at critical levels”. The report also noted that food prices reached a record high in January, with the price of basic food items increasing year-on-year from 2020 by 236 percent; the price of oil has increased five-fold over the past year.
Lowcock is also expected to highlight the recent escalation of violence in Syria’s north-west. On 21 March, a Syrian military artillery attack on Al Atareb Surgical Hospital in Aleppo governorate killed six patients and injured 16 civilians, including five medical staff. Several aerial attacks also took place near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border and within a few hundred meters of where a number of humanitarian organisations have offices, striking a gas facility and subsequently setting fire to trucks deployed to deliver humanitarian assistance. The UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria told the media that approximately one million people live in refugee camps in the area and “are highly vulnerable when airstrikes and shelling happen”. Further artillery and aerial attacks were reported over the weekend of 20 March, which affected over 30 communities in the area, according to the Secretary-General’s spokesperson. In discussing such attacks, Lowcock may echo the views of the Secretary-General, who said that “attacks on hospitals have seriously impeded access to healthcare” and are prohibited under international humanitarian law.
Fore is expected to update Council members on the harmful effects that the conflict has had on children in Syria, warning that the country could suffer a lost generation from its decade of war. In a statement made on the anniversary of the conflict, Fore said that the commemoration “cannot be just another grim milestone, passing by in the world’s peripheral vision as children and families in Syria continue to struggle”. Fore is likely to expand on several areas where children have been adversely affected by the war, including with regard to their humanitarian needs, and access to education and health care. According to UNICEF, approximately 12,000 children have been killed or injured since the start of the conflict and over six million Syrian children—nearly 90 percent of all of Syria’s children—are in need of humanitarian assistance, which represents a 20 percent increase in the past year. On 16 March, UNICEF’s Middle East regional director indicated that one-third of Syrian schools are now unusable due to damage, serving as shelters for displaced families, or being used for military purposes. Children’s health and nutrition have also been severely harmed by the conflict and attendant economic decline: UNICEF estimates that over 500,000 children under the age of five in Syria suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition.