Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow (28 April), Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are scheduled to brief the Council on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively, in an open videoconference (VTC) meeting. A closed VTC is scheduled to follow.
Pedersen is likely to focus on developments in the political process in Syria, including on the Constitutional Committee on Syria. Pedersen has raised alarm about the political process after the Constitutional Committee’s last round of talks, which was held from 25 to 29 January, failed to achieve any progress towards the drafting of a new constitution. He noted during his latest briefing to the Council, which took place on 15 March, that the Syrian parties involved in the talks and the international community need to change the current dynamics if any political process is to succeed. At that meeting, he reminded members that “all Syrians have seen that the international community has been divided, trapped in geopolitical competition, caught in their own competing narratives and often focused on supporting one side in the conflict”. Pedersen is likely to reiterate this point, appealing to various parties, both within Syria as well as the Security Council’s five permanent members, Iran, Turkey, Arab states, and the EU, to break this cycle and call on them to help facilitate a Syrian-led solution to the crisis.
Pedersen is also likely to describe steps that he has taken to advance the political process since his last briefing. According to media reports, Pedersen has been working closely with the Syrian government and opposition representatives to set out a series of goals for the Constitutional Committee’s work as well as an agreed methodology and workplan. On 15 April, Pedersen reportedly shared a confidential proposal outlining his vision and sought feedback from the parties, requesting a written agreement on the envisioned next steps. Speaking to the Council in March, Pedersen stated unequivocally that another round of meetings of the drafting body of the Constitutional Committee needed careful preparations and that “assurances should be in place to ensure that it implements the terms of reference and core rules of procedure, restores and builds some trust and confidence, and makes progress on the Committee’s mandate”. Pedersen may address in his briefing whether he received adequate assurances, which will allow him to move forward with a sixth round of talks. In such a case, Council members may be interested to hear when the next round can be organised.
Council members are likely to raise the upcoming presidential elections in Syria at tomorrow’s meeting. On 18 April, the speaker of Syria’s parliament announced that the country would hold presidential elections on 26 May. At the time of writing, seven candidates have announced that they are running in the elections, including President Bashar al-Assad. Potential candidates were required to fulfil numerous criteria, many of which have automatically disqualified prominent opposition figures from running. The 2012 constitution does not apply retroactively, thus allowing al-Assad—who has led Syria since July 2000 but was elected in 2014 with 88 percent of the vote under the current constitution—to run for another term.
Several Council members, including the P3 (France, the UK and US) and other European members, are likely to voice opposition to the organisation of the elections. However, other Council members, such as China, Russia and Viet Nam, are likely to maintain that the elections are being held in conformity with Syria’s laws and are an internal matter for Syria. Speaking at the Council meeting in March, France noted that it would “remain steadfast in [its] position on reconstruction, normalization and sanctions” and that the “sham presidential elections” would not alter this.
Some members would also want to hear Pedersen’s assessment of the elections and what impact they may have on the next round of the Constitutional Committee, including the timing of the next meeting. Despite the upcoming elections, most Council members are likely to voice support for the implementation of resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted in 2015 and calls for “free and fair elections, pursuant to [a] new constitution, to be…administered under supervision of the UN”. Pedersen has previously noted that the Constitutional Committee’s work alone cannot resolve Syria’s crisis but could “be a door opener to a broader process that could create…conditions…for the conduct of free and fair elections, administered under United Nations supervision”.
Lowcock is likely to focus on the impact of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing economic decline in Syria. While the Syrian Ministry of Health indicated that there were 19,404 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Syria as at 5 April, Lowcock is likely to raise concern that the number of cases far exceeds the official count. He may update Council members on the negative impact that the pandemic has had on the country’s fragile healthcare system. In addition to draining the severely damaged healthcare infrastructure in Syria’s northwest, for example, the Syrian government recently announced that public hospitals in Damascus—including intensive care units—were at full capacity due to the coronavirus. At the same time, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine continues apace: according to OCHA, some 203,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Damascus for further distribution, while another 53,000 have arrived in Syria’s northwest under the COVAX plan.
Lowcock is also likely to brief on the effect of Syria’s economic downturn on the humanitarian situation in the country. According to the World Food Programme, the exchange rate for the Syrian pound recorded a new low of 4,700 pounds to one US dollar in mid-March, before stabilising at 3,700 pounds to one US dollar. This has led to further steep rises in the prices of basic goods and food, thereby worsening food insecurity in Syria. Meanwhile, there are ongoing reports of bread and fuel shortages in both government- and non-government-controlled areas. According to the Secretary-General’s most recent humanitarian report, fuel shortages have further burdened the country’s public transit system, resulting in fewer and more crowded public buses, thus increasing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmissions.
Given that resolution 2533, which authorises cross-border humanitarian deliveries, is due to expire on 11 July, Lowcock may brief Council members on the current situation of cross-border humanitarian deliveries. He is likely to urge the Council to find consensus on the matter, echoing the Secretary-General, whose recent report reminds the Council that “a failure to extend the UN cross-border authorization would not only disrupt life-saving aid to millions” but would also disrupt the UN COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.
Lowcock may note that progress on organising cross-line deliveries to Syria’s northwest has been slow. The Secretary-General’s report states that even if cross-line deliveries are organised regularly to the northwest, they “[can] not replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operation”. Lowcock is likely to tell the Council that humanitarian needs remain high in Syria’s northeast. According to the Secretary-General’s report, “the situation has worsened following the removal of Al-Yarubiyah as a Security Council-authorized UN crossing last year”. The UN, he is likely to note, continued to increase cross-line deliveries to the region, but that this “represents a modest proportion of total needs”.