What's In Blue

Posted Tue 14 Sep 2021

Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow (15 September), the Security Council will hold an in-person briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is expected to brief the Council via videoconference (VTC). A Syrian civil society representative may also brief. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.

Griffiths is expected to focus on his recent week-long visit to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, which took place from 28 August to 3 September. During his visit to Syria, Griffiths met with high-level officials in Damascus, including Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, as well as with international diplomats and humanitarian NGOs. According to an OCHA press release, Griffiths underlined in his meetings the need for an expansion of humanitarian access and improvements around protection of civilians.

Syrian media sources reported that Griffiths raised with al-Mekdad the issue of early recovery projects. Early recovery projects in Syria have garnered greater attention since the adoption of resolution 2585 on 9 July, which welcomed early recovery initiatives on water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter. The Secretary-General’s most recent report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, dated 18 August, notes that although early recovery projects make up only five percent of the total support requested in the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, they constitute an “important part of the humanitarian response, designed in a conflict-sensitive and consultative manner that supports and strengthens local ownership, capacities and resilience”. While in Syria, Griffiths also travelled to Aleppo, where he visited several projects funded by OCHA’s Syria Humanitarian Fund and spoke to the projects’ beneficiaries.

The issue of early recovery projects remains highly contentious in the Council. Some members argue that the funds which would be used for early recovery projects are a precursor to reconstruction funds, an area where there have been stark differences among Council members. At tomorrow’s meeting, some members may ask Griffiths about the details of his discussions in Damascus, especially regarding early recovery projects, and about his assessment of the projects he visited in Aleppo.

Griffiths is also likely to provide an overview of his visits to Lebanon and Turkey. In Lebanon, he discussed both Syria’s humanitarian crisis, as well as Lebanon’s own economic difficulties and ongoing fuel crisis. While in Turkey, he met with officials in Ankara to discuss the status of cross-border assistance to Syria from Turkey. Griffiths subsequently visited the UN’s operations hub in Hatay, where its regular humanitarian shipments utilising the cross-border mechanism originate. He also met with Syrian refugees living in Gaziantep.

During Griffiths’ last briefing to the Council on 24 August, he noted that violence, economic crisis, water shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic are causing humanitarian needs to reach “some of the highest levels that we have seen since the start of the conflict”. On 4 September, OCHA noted that 13.4 million people need assistance throughout Syria. Of these, some 3.3 million people in Syria’s northwest are considered acutely food insecure, and 2.2 million people need shelter assistance. Griffiths is likely to tell Council members that OCHA delivers critical food, medical and shelter provisions via approximately 1,000 trucks each month, all of which cross into Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border. In this context, Council members may want to hear Griffiths’ assessment of the cross-border mechanism’s operation, considering the adoption of resolution 2585 in July. They may also inquire whether his recent visit to the region helped him to identify areas where OCHA needs further assistance or resources given increasing humanitarian needs. Specifically, they may wish to hear about what steps are being undertaken in preparation for the winter.

Another issue that Griffiths is likely to address is the 30 August and 1 September shipments of humanitarian assistance from government-controlled territory in Aleppo into territory in northwest Syria controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed opposition group which is designated by the Security Council as a terrorist organisation. This cross-line shipment of humanitarian assistance, led by WFP, was the first cross-line shipment into northwest Syria since 2017. According to OCHA, over the course of two days, 14 trucks brought food rations that will assist approximately 50,000 people. At the time of writing, the food aid had only been shipped to a warehouse in the northwest and had not been distributed to those in need. Griffiths is likely to provide more details on the shipment, including on the distribution plan for the food aid. He may also highlight future expected cross-line shipments that are currently being planned or negotiated between the parties.

The issue of cross-line assistance has been a highly controversial one in the Council and a major sticking point in the context of deliberations on the cross-border mechanism. Resolution 2585 encourages “efforts to improve cross-line deliveries of humanitarian assistance” and refers to the need to improve all modalities of humanitarian deliveries inside Syria. As such, while all Council members are likely to welcome the WFP cross-line shipment, China and Russia, in line with their previously-stated positions, are likely to describe this as a highly positive step illustrating that cross-line deliveries should replace the cross-border mechanism. Other Council members, including France, the UK and the US, are likely to caution that while the delivery is a welcome outcome, cross-line assistance cannot replicate the scope and scale of cross-border deliveries. This is also in line with Secretary-General António Guterres’ assessment during a 23 June Council briefing, where he noted that member states “must recognize that [cross-line deliveries] will never be able to replace cross-border assistance at the present levels”.

The situation in Daraa is also likely to be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting. Daraa al-Balad—a neighbourhood in Daraa city, which is home to some 55,000 people, including many former members of the armed opposition—has witnessed high levels of fighting since late June. Syrian government forces, apparently supported by Iranian-backed militias, began a siege of the area in late July, cutting off access and critical services and supplies to Daraa al-Balad. However, since the signing of a Russian-facilitated ceasefire agreement between the government and the opposition on 1 September, the fighting has apparently subsided. Despite this, the latest violence has resulted in large-scale displacement and destruction of critical infrastructure, including healthcare and education facilities. Griffiths is likely to update the Council on the humanitarian effects of the violence in the area and offer an assessment of humanitarian actors’ ability to access the area since the ceasefire was announced.

Finally, Griffiths is also likely to update the Council on several recurring humanitarian issues, including Syria’s ongoing economic crisis and its effects on the humanitarian situation; the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, particularly in Syria’s northwest; and issues related to ongoing drought and attendant water shortages, which are affecting agricultural production, electricity generation and access to safe drinking water in Syria’s northeast.