Syria: Meetings on the Political, Humanitarian and Chemical Weapons Tracks
This morning (25 October), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, which will feature briefings from Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and OCHA Director of Operations and Advocacy Reena Ghelani, respectively. Consultations may follow. This afternoon, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu is expected to provide a briefing to the Council, possibly followed by consultations, on the Syria chemical weapons track.
Pedersen is likely to describe his office’s efforts to facilitate contacts among the parties to the Syria Constitutional Committee—the government side, the opposition, and civil society—with the aim of reconvening the committee in Geneva before the end of the year. In recent months, the government delegation to the Constitutional Committee has refused to participate in a new round of talks, apparently because of Russia’s stated concerns about the venue for the meetings, which have been held at UN premises in Geneva, Switzerland, since the committee’s launch in 2019. Russia has stated that it does not view Switzerland—which has supported EU sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February—as an impartial actor. At the 14 September Council meeting on Syria, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said that it was important for the Constitutional Committee to resume its work but added that the discussions should “not [be] tied to a specific location”, while the UK and the US accused Russia of stalling the convening of the committee.
Notwithstanding disagreements over the location of the committee’s meetings, at the 29 August Council briefing on Syria, Pedersen observed that the real problem with the committee is not the delay in convening it, but its “lack of progress on substance”. In previous sessions of the Constitutional Committee, the parties have not been able to engage in meaningful discussions about their amendments to proposals on constitutional principles.
Pedersen is also expected to update the Council on his efforts to promote what he has referred to as a “step-for-step” approach to the political process, whereby various stakeholders in the Syria conflict would agree on reciprocal confidence-building measures. In this regard, following a 17 October meeting in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, the Special Envoy told reporters that he had discussed with Mekdad his ideas for all parties to engage in a “step-for-step” process. While he did not specify their precise nature, Pedersen has previously noted that confidence-building measures could focus on such matters as abductees, detainees, and missing persons; humanitarian assistance and early recovery; conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees; and the restoration of better economic conditions. Council members may be interested in learning more about his discussions about “step-for-step” measures with Mekdad, as well as conversations on this issue that Pedersen had held with various government officials and diplomats in New York, Washington, Berlin and Amman in September and October.
The precarious security situation in Syria is an expected focus of today’s meeting. Ghelani may underscore that civilian casualties continue to result from airstrikes, shelling, gunfire, and the use of improvised explosive devices by the different conflict parties, particularly in the north-west, the north-east and the south of the country. She might also express concern about airstrikes in and around civilian sites, such as health facilities and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
Ghelani may note that the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate amid a shortage of funding to address this situation. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths noted in his 14 September Council briefing that 14.6 million people are in need of assistance—the highest number since the war’s outset. As at 30 September, the humanitarian response plan for Syria was 26.7 percent funded.
Members are likely to be interested in hearing an update from Ghelani on the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, both cross-line (that is, across domestic frontlines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control) and cross-border (through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border). Ghelani may note that the most recent cross-line delivery occurred on 22-23 October, with 18 trucks entering north-west Syria from Aleppo, carrying food, water, sanitation items, and other supplies that are expected to assist some 56,000 people.
Most Council members emphasise the importance of aid delivery through both cross-line and cross-border modalities in Syria, while underscoring that the cross-border aid mechanism, most recently renewed through resolution 2642 in July, is essential to saving lives in Syria. In contrast, China and Russia believe that cross-border deliveries are an extraordinary measure that undermines Syria’s sovereignty and should be supplanted by enhanced cross-line assistance. These differing perspectives are likely to be reiterated today.
Ghelani may also share with Council members the latest information on early recovery and livelihood projects in Syria. The Secretary-General’s most recent 60-day report on the humanitarian situation in Syria (S/2022/775), dated 19 October, notes that over 350 such projects were being implemented in Syria’s 14 governates by late August. These projects include the repair of essential civilian infrastructure, solid waste removal, and vocational training, among other areas.
Another issue that Ghelani may discuss is the rising incidence of cholera across the country. The outbreak of the disease was announced by Syria’s Ministry of Health on 10 September. As at 14 October, 68 deaths had been registered from cholera and 15,823 cases of the disease were suspected across the country, according to the World Health Organization. The Secretary-General’s 19 October report says that the source of the outbreak is likely tied to people drinking unhealthy water from the Euphrates River and irrigating their crops with contaminated water. It adds that the cholera crisis has been exacerbated by water scarcity in the country, which has limited access to safe water supplies and is due to factors such as inconsistent rainfall and damage to water infrastructure.
Council members are likely to express concern about the cholera outbreak in Syria. They may be interested in hearing more about the steps that are being taken by humanitarian actors on the ground to assist the government in curtailing the spread of the disease.
Chemical Weapons Track
This afternoon, Nakamitsu is expected to reiterate, as she has consistently for several years in her briefings to the Council, that gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies remain in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). She may note that the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) has been unable to hold its 25th round of consultations with Syrian authorities in Damascus, as the Syrian government has been unwilling to issue a visa to the DAT’s lead technical expert. Nakamitsu may further reiterate that the OPCW has not received information on “the unauthorised movement of the two cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident that took place in Douma on 7 April 2018”, as she most recently noted in her 29 September briefing to the Council.
Council members hold starkly different views on the chemical weapons track in Syria. Several members have expressed support for the OPCW’s work, maintaining that it is credible and essential, and have criticised Syria for not adhering to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia, on the other hand, claims that the OPCW’s work is biased and politicised. Other members tend to be less critical of either the OPCW or the Syrian authorities, emphasising the need for both sides to enhance their cooperation with one another.