What's In Blue

Posted Tue 22 Jun 2021

Syria: Meeting on Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow (23 June), the Security Council will hold its monthly meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief via videoconference (VTC). Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator will also brief the Council. At the time of writing, two civil society representatives are also expected to brief: Sherine Ibrahim, Turkey Director at CARE International, a non-governmental organisation that, amongst other activities, contributes to the cross-border operation in northwest and northeast Syria to deliver emergency assistance, and a representative of the Syria Trust for Development, a Syrian charity organisation which was founded by Asma al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife.

Tomorrow’s meeting will likely be the Council’s last meeting on Syria’s humanitarian situation before the expiry of resolution 2533 of 11 July 2020, which authorises cross-border humanitarian deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border. It may provide an opportunity for Council members to indicate their positions on the renewal of resolution 2533, which is set to expire on 10 July. While the focus of the meeting is likely to be Syria’s dire humanitarian situation overall, given the difficult situation in Syria’s northwest and northeast, most Council members are likely to emphasise the importance of the UN cross-border aid delivery mechanism originally established by the unanimous adoption of resolution 2165 on 14 July 2014. At the time of writing, the text of a draft resolution renewing the cross-border mechanism apparently had yet to be circulated to Council members. The penholders on the Syria humanitarian file, Ireland and Norway, are expected to circulate a zero draft of the resolution in the coming days and negotiations are likely to begin within the next week.

Guterres is likely to echo statements he has made throughout the spring calling for the continuation of the cross-border operation. He may reiterate his position that the Council should renew the cross-border mechanism for another 12 months. Speaking to the General Assembly on 30 March, Guterres stated that “despite the UN’s massive response in Syria and across the region, more humanitarian access is required to reach those most in need”. As such, he noted that “a large-scale cross-border response for an additional 12 months remains essential to save lives”. Guterres may also point out that the UN’s funds, programmes and specialised agencies are unified in their support for a continuation of cross-border deliveries. An 18 June joint statement by the heads of OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) called for the renewal of the cross-border operation for 12 months, stating that “a failure to do so would immediately stop UN delivery of food, COVID-19 vaccines, critical medical supplies, shelter, protection, clean water and sanitation, and other life-saving assistance to 3.4 million people, including 1 million children”.

During the latest Council meeting on the political and humanitarian developments in Syria, which took place via VTC on 26 May, many Council members—including the P3 (France, the UK and the US), Estonia, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—called for the continuation of the cross-border mechanism. The P3 also stressed the need to expand the mechanism by re-authorising the Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border and the Al-Yarubiyah crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which the Council failed to re-authorise in 2020.

At the 26 May meeting, other Council members, most notably Russia, questioned the need for cross-border deliveries, arguing that those Council members who support the renewal of the cross-border mechanism offer it as “the only possible solution to Idlib’s humanitarian problems”. Russia further stated that it “cannot support this hypocritical position” and would have to “take this into account when making a decision regarding the renewal” of resolution 2533. Russia has maintained that cross-line deliveries— namely aid that traverses a domestic frontline from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control in northwest or northeast Syria—can adequately provide assistance to those in need. It has also argued that the cross-border deliveries serve as cover for providing support to terrorists in Syria’s northwest.

On the issue of cross-line deliveries, Guterres is likely to repeat during tomorrow’s meeting his 30 March statement, which noted that “cross-line convoys, even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the size and scope of [the cross-border] operation”. OCHA has briefed the Council on several occasions about steps that it is undertaking with both the Syrian government and humanitarian actors in northwest Syria to facilitate the delivery of cross-line assistance. The 18 June joint statement by the heads of several UN funds, programmes and specialised agencies acknowledged that cross-line deliveries are “critical for the expansion of the overall response”, but echoed the Secretary-General’s view that these would remain insufficient in providing the level of humanitarian assistance offered by the cross-border operation. Along with the dual issues of which border crossings may be re-authorised and the length of the cross-border mechanism’s mandate, the status of cross-line deliveries is likely to be amongst the most contentious issues as Council members embark on negotiations to renew the cross-border authorisation.

Rajasingham is likely to describe the dire economic and humanitarian situations in Syria and focus on the difficult conditions in the northwest and northeast of the country. Syria continues to suffer from fuel shortages, which are having severe knock-on effects on the price of goods and energy production and consumption. These challenges have been compounded by fluctuations in the value of the Syrian pound and a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. OCHA noted in its 18 June Syria Situation Report that although the Syrian pound stabilised in May, “the [country’s] economic crisis continues to drive humanitarian needs”. Meanwhile, the WFP reported that 43 percent of surveyed households suffer from poor food consumption, which is double the figure registered one year ago. According to OCHA’s recent reporting, 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in northwest Syria, 1.7 million of whom live in IDP sites. In addition, 3.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in Syria’s northwest, including 3.1 million people who are in “extreme and catastrophic need”.

Rajasingham may also update the Council on the recent significant decreases in the flow of Euphrates River waters into Syria. Speaking to the Council on 26 May, former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock described the difficult conditions that have resulted from a 60 percent decline in water flowing from Turkey into Syria, including shortages for crop irrigation and constrained capacity of dams to generate electricity. He noted that the water shortages have the potential to decrease drinking water in northern and central parts of Syria, affecting over five million people.

Ibrahim, CARE International’s Turkey Director, is expected to brief on the humanitarian and economic crises in Syria and highlight their particularly devastating effect on women and girls. She may echo the key messages of a 21 June open letter to the Security Council signed by CARE International and 27 other leading global humanitarian civil society organisations, which noted that humanitarian needs continue to rise in Syria. Ibrahim might reiterate the letter’s request to the Council to not only re-authorise for 12 months the current border crossing at Bab al-Hawa, but to expand the number of crossings from one to three (including Bab al-Salam and Al-Yarubiyah). She is likely to tell the Council that an expansion of the cross-border mechanism would be critical both to meeting increased humanitarian needs and to providing equitable and rapid access to the COVID-19 vaccine.