Syria: Briefing and Consultations on the Political Situation
Tomorrow (28 September), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the political situation in Syria. Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief. A Syrian civil society representative may also brief.
During Council briefings over the past year, Pedersen has consistently said that the security situation in Syria remains relatively calm, with conflict lines staying “largely frozen”. At tomorrow’s meeting, he is likely to point out, however, that the security situation is fragile, with the threat of wider conflict ever present. Pedersen may highlight the situation in Daraa, in Syria’s southwest, where a ceasefire was announced on 1 September, allowing most residents of Daraa al-Balad—a neighbourhood in Daraa city where some 55,000 people, including many former members of the armed opposition, reside—to return to their homes. In July, Syrian government forces, apparently supported by Iranian-backed militias, began a siege of the area by cutting off access, critical services and supplies to Daraa al-Balad, which resulted in large-scale displacement and the destruction of critical infrastructure. Council members may want to hear Pedersen’s assessment of the Daraa ceasefire. They might also ask for updates on Pedersen’s request to the Syrian government to grant access for his team to the Daraa area, a point he raised during his last Council briefing on 24 August. Building on the announcement and implementation of the ceasefire in Daraa, Pedersen may underscore the need for a nationwide ceasefire.
Pedersen is also likely to reference the recent uptick in violence in Syria’s northwest. According to OCHA’s 13 September situation report, some areas in northwest Syria have seen the largest escalation of hostilities since the Russian-Turkish ceasefire of March 2020, resulting in 86 civilian deaths since June. Syrian government shelling caused 20 deaths in August alone. Daily shelling persists in areas south of Idlib, and at least 29 airstrikes in August hit areas that are part of the de-escalation zone established by the March 2020 ceasefire. International media sources reported that another series of airstrikes in northwest Syria, apparently led by Russian forces, killed or injured over 20 opposition fighters near the town of Afrin this past weekend.
Against the backdrop of escalating violence and the mounting death toll, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report on 24 September which explores the extent of civilian casualties in Syria during the past decade of conflict, upon the request of the Human Rights Council. In presenting the report’s findings, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted that the work had been done using a “strict methodology” and that OHCHR’s numbers include only people identifiable by full name, an established date of death, and who died in an identified governorate. As a result, OHCHR was able to compile a list of 350,209 identified individuals who were killed between March 2011 and March 2021. This figure, Bachelet said, is “certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings”. In response to the report, Pedersen called the loss of life an “appalling human cost of the Syrian conflict” and a reminder that a political solution “is desperately needed”.
Finally, Pedersen may update Council members on his recent diplomatic efforts aimed at reinvigorating the political process, including his initiative for an international forum on Syria. In his 24 August Council briefing, he noted that he had requested key states to work with him on “exploratory discussions on a package of concrete, mutual and reciprocal steps that are to be defined with realism and precision, implemented in parallel and verifiable”. Council members may seek further details on Pedersen’s engagement with the Syrian parties, Russia, Turkey, the US, and other key actors to promote this initiative. On 9 September, speaking at the Mediterranean Dialogues (MED), an annual initiative organised by the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Pedersen acknowledged that the initiative for an international forum on Syria was “still a work in progress” and that it was essential to overcome mistrust. He told the MED that “the time has come for the key interlocutors to decide what they really want to do [in Syria]”, cautioning that, barring action, the conflict could “continue for another ten years”.
Also on the diplomatic front, Pedersen is expected to apprise the Council of his intention to organise another round of the Constitutional Committee. On 11 September, Pedersen visited Damascus, where he met with, among others, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad. It seems that Pedersen raised the future of the Constitutional Committee with al-Mekdad. Eight months have passed since the Constitutional Committee last convened in Geneva in late January, and it is five months since Pedersen disseminated a bridging proposal to the government and the opposition in April. That proposal outlined a series of goals for the Constitutional Committee’s work, including an agreed methodology and workplan, and sought assurances that the parties would seek a productive approach to future meetings. While the opposition has agreed with the contents of the bridging proposal, Pedersen has been awaiting a commitment from the Syrian government. It appears that his diplomatic efforts, including his recent visit to Damascus, have resulted in an agreement between the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee. As such, it seems that Pedersen is likely to announce during tomorrow’s meeting that he intends to convene a sixth round of the Constitutional Committee in the second half of October.