Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Political and Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow (24 August), the Security Council will hold an in-person briefing, followed by consultations, on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths are expected to brief the Council via videoconference (VTC). A Syrian civil society representative may also brief.
Pedersen is expected to brief on his efforts to reinvigorate the political process, which has apparently not made progress in recent months. In April, he disseminated a bridging proposal to the government and the opposition, which set out a series of goals for the Constitutional Committee’s work, including an agreed methodology and work plan for a possible sixth round of the committee’s meetings. Pedersen may discuss his engagement with the committee’s co-chairs in an effort to bridge their differences on his proposal; however, it does not appear that his efforts have been successful. While the opposition accepted the proposal, the government has issued amendments, which the opposition does not accept. The Constitutional Committee last convened in Geneva in late January.
On 17 July, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a fourth term as president, after winning an election in May, which his opponents say was fraudulent. At the swearing-in ceremony, Assad said that the elections had “discredited the declarations of Western officials on the legitimacy of the state, the constitution and the homeland”.
Pedersen is also likely to update Council members on his recent efforts to promote his initiative for an international forum on Syria. In his 25 June briefing to the Council, he noted that this platform aims to put forth “concrete steps…that should be reciprocal and mutual, defined with realism and precision, implemented in parallel and verifiable”. Pedersen said at the time that while much of the Council’s focus on Syria centred on the renewal of the cross-border mechanism for humanitarian aid, he would “deepen exploratory substantive consultations that [will] help identify the very first steps that Syrian and international players could deliver”. Council members are likely to seek further details on Pedersen’s engagement with the Syrian parties, Russia, Turkey, the US, and other key actors to promote an international forum.
Pedersen is further expected to express concern about the recent rise in violence in northwest and southwest Syria. In a 12 August statement, he noted that the increased violence underscores the need for a nationwide ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict—points he is likely to reiterate at tomorrow’s meeting. In addition, he may call for action on detainees, abductees, and missing persons, in line with resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which outlines the steps for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Griffiths is expected to provide an overview of the humanitarian situation in Syria, including on the effects of the escalating violence in northwest and southwest Syria. He is likely to address the humanitarian crisis in Daraa al-Balad, where some 55,000 people, including many former members of the armed opposition, are located. In late June, Syrian government forces, apparently supported by Iranian-backed militias, began a siege of Darra al-Balad, following several weeks of tensions and low-level violence after residents from the area rejected the results of Syria’s 26 May presidential elections. On 28 July, government forces, having cut off access and critical services and supplies to Daraa al-Balad, began shelling the area, where ground fighting was subsequently reported. The Daraa National Hospital reportedly sustained damage from shelling on 28 July. As at 2 August, the fighting had displaced up to 24,000 people in Daraa-al Balad.
Griffiths may also reference the uptick in fighting, including shelling and airstrikes, in Idlib in the northwest of Syria since June. Military targets belonging to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Security Council-designated terrorist group, have apparently been hit. There have also been reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure as a result of aerial bombardments and shelling in the area. Mark Cutts, the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, was quoted in a 23 August Al Jazeera article as saying that Idlib is experiencing the most “serious escalation in bombing” since the March 2020 ceasefire. According to the Secretary-General’s 18 August report on the humanitarian situation in Syria (S/2021/735), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified the deaths of 35 civilians from the conflict in Idlib governate in June and July.
Griffiths may emphasise the importance of protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure in the fighting in Darra al-Balad and in northwest Syria and stress the need for unhindered and safe humanitarian access in these areas. Several Council members are expected to echo these calls.
Griffiths is also expected to provide an overview of the humanitarian effects of COVID-19 in Syria and efforts by the UN to mitigate the spread of the virus. As at 29 July, Syria’s Ministry of Health reported 25,942 cases of COVID-19 and 1,912 deaths from the virus. In addition, 26,382 cases (including 722 deaths) and 18,660 cases (including 764 deaths) of the virus had been reported in the northwest and the northeast, respectively, in areas outside of government control, also as at 29 July. According to the Secretary-General’s recent report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the country has received 256,800 vaccine doses through the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, which have largely been disseminated in the country. The delivery of a second tranche of roughly the same amount is expected in the coming weeks. In his report, the Secretary-General observed that these two tranches “are sufficient to only cover approximately one per cent of the population in Syria” and that without a “dramatic increase in the scale and pace of vaccinations, the pandemic will continue to take a devastating toll on Syrians for the foreseeable future”.
Another concern that may be addressed by Griffiths, as well as some Council members, is the diminished level of water in the Euphrates River in northeast Syria. The lower water level of the Euphrates—which provides electricity to some 3 million people and drinking water to more than 5 million people in northeast Syria— was caused by lower-than-normal precipitation and diminished reserves and has contributed to power outages and reduced access to clean drinking water. In his report, the Secretary-General estimates that if the water challenges in the northeast are not addressed, they could have a negative effect on food security, livelihoods, and public health.
Griffiths may also provide an update on the status of cross-border access through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northern Syria, which was renewed when the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2585 on 9 July. Members may be interested in learning more about the challenges to the delivery of cross-line aid to the northwest of Syria, with the Secretary-General noting in his recent report that “agreement has not yet been reached on the operational details, including on the distribution modality”.
Agreeing on humanitarian issues in Syria has been challenging for Council members in recent years. While Council members found compromise language in resolution 2585 on matters that have divided the Council on the humanitarian situation— including the number of border crossings to be authorised and the length of the mandate—issues such as the effectiveness of cross-line deliveries, the effects of unilateral sanctions, funding of early recovery projects, and reporting requirements were subject to difficult discussions during the negotiations in July. These issues may again become sticking points in future Council engagement on Syria.