Syria: Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments via VTC
Tomorrow (26 May), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen are scheduled to brief the Council on the humanitarian and political situations in Syria, respectively, in an open videoconference (VTC) meeting. A closed VTC is scheduled to follow.
As the authorisation for cross-border humanitarian deliveries under resolution 2533 is due to expire on 11 July, Council members are likely to follow closely Lowcock’s assessment of the humanitarian situation in Syria’s north-west. He may note that the humanitarian situation there is worse than it was a year ago: according to OCHA, there are 3.4 million people in need of assistance in the north-west, a 20 percent increase from April 2020. This includes 3.1 million people considered in “extreme and catastrophic need”. OCHA is able to deliver assistance to approximately 70 percent of those in need on a monthly basis. However, Lowcock is likely to reiterate a view expressed during his 28 April briefing to the Council, when he stated that “a failure to extend the cross-border authorization would sever [a] lifeline” for those in need.
Cross-line delivery of humanitarian assistance, namely aid that traverses a domestic frontline, is another important issue for Council members. Lowcock is likely to update on OCHA’s ongoing efforts to deploy a cross-line humanitarian convoy from Damascus to Atareb, in rural Aleppo. Despite these efforts, the Secretary-General’s 12 April report on the humanitarian situation in Syria states that even if cross-line deliveries are organised regularly to the north-west, they “[can] not replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operation”. As for cross-line deliveries into Syria’s north-east, Lowcock is likely to echo his 28 April position that despite the fact that the OCHA has scaled up its deliveries into the region, “needs continue to outstrip [OCHA’s] ability to respond”. According to the Secretary-General’s 12 April report, “the situation has worsened following the removal of Al-Yarubiyah as a Security Council-authorized UN crossing last year”.
Council members are likely to be interested to hear about the impact of Syria’s deteriorating economic environment on the humanitarian situation in the country. Reports of ongoing fuel shortages and fluctuations in the value of the Syrian pound have resulted in rising prices, especially for food and basic goods. In this context, 43 percent of households surveyed by the World Food Programme reported that they suffer from poor food consumption, constituting double the figure reported one year ago.
Another factor contributing to the country’s harsh humanitarian conditions relates to recent significant decreases in the flow of Euphrates River waters into Syria. Lowcock may also raise this issue. According to recent international media reports, water flowing from Turkey into Syria has declined by 60 percent; this has reportedly caused shortages of water for irrigation of crops, constrained the capacity of dams to generate electricity, and has the potential to decrease drinking water in northern and central parts of Syria, affecting over five million people. Although the reason for the decline in the flow of water is unclear, the Syrian government has publicly accused Turkey of reducing the flow.
Council members may also want to hear more about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Lowcock is likely to tell Council members that Syria is in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases: as at 19 May, OCHA has recorded 63,000 cases country-wide, an increase of over 5,000 since April. As at 5 May, 203,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Damascus for further distribution, while another 53,000 doses have arrived in Syria’s north-west under the COVAX plan led by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The Secretary-General’s 12 April report maintains that any disruption to cross-border delivery of assistance would also negatively affect the UN COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan in Syria’s north-west.
Pedersen is likely to focus his briefing on the status of a potential sixth round of meetings of the Constitutional Committee. Speaking to the Council on 28 April, Pedersen said that he is still aiming to organise a sixth round of meetings as soon as “logistically possible” and that he has been working closely with government and opposition representatives to set out a series of clear goals for the committee’s work, an agreed methodology and a workplan. To that end, Pedersen noted that he had shared a “bridging proposal” with the parties. Council members will want to hear more about his proposal—and his interlocutors’ responses to it—as well as any steps that have been taken since last month to move the political process forward.
Some Council members may also discuss the Syrian presidential elections, which are set to take place tomorrow (26 May). President Bashar al-Assad, who has led Syria since July 2000, is running against Abdallah Salloum Abdallah, a former Syrian minister from 2016 to 2020, and Mahmoud Marei of the Democratic National Opposition Front, an entity that includes political opposition figures allowed to operate by the Syrian government. On 3 May, Syria’s Constitutional Court announced that it had approved the candidacies of Abdallah and Marei, as well as Assad, although it rejected 48 other candidates for “failing to meet constitutional and legal requirements”.
During last month’s meeting on Syria, some Council members—including France, the UK and the US—criticised the upcoming elections, noting that they failed to conform with 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”. Other Council members, such as China, Russia and Viet Nam argued that the elections were being held according to Syria’s current constitution and were an internal matter. Pedersen is likely to argue, as he did during his April briefing, that he does not have a mandate to become involved in the electoral process as it “has been called under the auspices of the current constitution and is not part of the political process established by Security Council resolution 2254”. He further stated that “resolution 2254 mandates the UN to facilitate a political process that culminates in the holding of free and fair elections in accordance with a new constitution”. Council members may, nonetheless, be interested to hear Pedersen’s analysis of how the elections could affect his work on the political track.
Finally, international media has reported that in anticipation of tomorrow’s presidential elections, over 400 people, mostly those detained for engaging in online criticism of the Syrian government, were released from prison on 11 May. Additionally, there are media reports of a 2 May presidential decree which apparently resulted in pardons being granted to undisclosed numbers of Syrians found guilty of crimes such as smuggling, drug abuse and foreign currency trading. Council members may be interested to hear Pedersen’s assessment of these developments as well as any updates on his own initiative seeking the release of political detainees, including whether the Syrian government has responded to his request for the “large-scale and unilateral release of detainees and abductees”, especially in light of COVID-19.