Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Humanitarian and Political Developments
On Monday (20 December), the Security Council will hold a briefing, followed by consultations, on humanitarian and political developments in Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths will brief the Council in person on the humanitarian situation, while Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief via videoconference (VTC) on the political track.
In addition to providing an overview of the overall humanitarian situation in Syria, Griffiths is also expected to focus his briefing on the status of the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country. Griffiths is likely to reiterate his warning that the humanitarian situation in Syria is worsening and that it will be exacerbated by winter’s arrival. He may highlight a series of ongoing humanitarian challenges that Syria faces, including the country’s rising food insecurity, which the World Food Programme (WFP) recently assessed to be at its worst level in over a year. Increasing poverty, growing unemployment and the high cost of goods are also worsening the situation. Griffiths may also reference the continued detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria. According to the Secretary-General’s latest regular 60-day report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, which was issued on 14 December, only 2.9 percent of the country’s population has been vaccinated and the number of COVID-19 cases has increased, further straining Syria’s fragile health care system.
Council members will be interested in learning more about the status of humanitarian access in Syria, especially in the northwest. Differing views persist among Council members regarding the appropriate modalities for aid delivery in Syria, which include cross-border humanitarian assistance from Turkey to Syria (as mandated by several Council resolutions, including resolution 2585 of 9 July) and cross-line deliveries (that is, humanitarian assistance that crosses a domestic frontline from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control). Russia has regularly maintained that cross-line deliveries into Syria’s northwest can adequately provide assistance to those in need. However, most other Council members, echoing the position of the Secretary-General, OCHA and other UN bodies, contend that even regular cross-line deliveries would remain insufficient in providing the level of humanitarian assistance offered by the cross-border operation. These members support the cross-border mechanism, while also espousing “all modalities” for humanitarian aid delivery in Syria, including the additional cross-line delivery of assistance.
Griffiths is likely to describe the WFP’s recent delivery of humanitarian assistance from government-controlled territory in Aleppo into opposition-held territory in northwest Syria. The delivery, which took place over the course of two days on 9 and 10 December, consisted of 17 trucks that provided food and nutrition assistance for 43,500 people. This was the second such delivery since the adoption of resolution 2585, following an initial cross-line delivery of humanitarian assistance on 30 August. Griffiths may also inform Council members of OCHA’s work to develop a six-month plan that would offer more predictable cross-line operations. He is likely to echo the Secretary-General’s 14 December regular report, which noted that, at this time, cross-line convoys are insufficient to meet the northwest’s humanitarian needs.
Finally, Griffiths is expected to brief Council members on the content of the Secretary-General’s “substantive report”, which was issued concurrently with his regular 60-day report on 14 December. Resolution 2585 renewed the cross-border mechanism’s mandate until 10 January 2022, with another six-month extension (to 10 July 2022) “subject to the issuance of the Secretary-General’s substantive report focussing on transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs”. The report addresses the issue of transparency of both cross-border and cross-line operations, as well as progress on the cross-line operations in Syria’s northeast and northwest. It also contains information and data on the UN’s “early recovery” work. While Russia pushed for—and succeeded in including—enhanced language on early recovery projects during the negotiations on resolution 2585, some Council members have argued that this work is a prelude to funding Syria’s reconstruction, a fraught issue amongst Council members.
Griffiths is likely to inform Council members that the UN has seen its access improve since July. He may also reaffirm the substantive report’s finding that the UN’s cross-border operation is “one of the most closely monitored operations in the world”, and thus offers a high degree of transparency. On cross-line operations, he is likely to highlight the progress made in a highly complex environment, but may argue that only by resolving issues such as timely permissions and security guarantees can these deliveries become sustainable and meet the needs of Syrians living in the northwest. He might reiterate the view expressed in the Secretary-General’s report, that early recovery projects are “critical to the continued success of the humanitarian response in Syria”.
The apparently stalled work of the Constitutional Committee, which last met during the week of 18 October, is a possible focus of Pedersen’s briefing. At the conclusion of that round of meetings, Pedersen said that while there had been both positive and negative developments throughout the week, the final day was a “big disappointment”. He noted that although “there are possibilities” for the delegations to reach a compromise, the committee lacked both “a proper understanding on how to move [the] process forward” and a vision for how to develop a “substantial drafting process”.
Pedersen is likely to brief Council members on his diplomatic efforts to reinvigorate the committee’s work. As part of these efforts, Pedersen visited Damascus on 12 December, where he met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad. Mekdad noted after the meeting that there should be no “external interference” in the committee’s work. Although Pedersen said that there may be opportunities to relaunch the political process, no agreement was apparently reached in Damascus to move it forward. No date has been set for another round, as there is still a lack of agreement on the methodology of the committee’s future work.
Some Council members may be interested in hearing more details about Pedersen’s efforts to establish a new diplomatic initiative that would allow key states to take “concrete, mutual and reciprocal steps…that are implemented in parallel and are verifiable” to help resolve Syria’s conflict and implement resolution 2254. That resolution, which was unanimously adopted in 2015, calls for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition”, the drafting of a new constitution, and for free and fair elections to be administered under UN supervision. After his meeting with Mekdad, Pedersen told the media that he had held several meetings with representatives from the US, the EU and several Arab countries, adding that “there is a serious opportunity to discuss the possibility of implementing a step-by-step approach, to build trust”. Council members may seek more details from Pedersen on the content of those meetings to gain a deeper understanding of what opportunities exist as part of these efforts. They might also be interesting in hearing Pedersen’s plans to advance his initiative.