Syria: Private Meeting and Closed Consultations
Tomorrow morning (17 July), the Security Council will convene for a private meeting followed by closed consultations to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria. Brazil and Switzerland, the co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file, requested the closed consultations; afterwards, Russia asked that the Council also hold a private meeting. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is expected to brief. Türkiye and Syria are expected to participate in the private meeting.
On 11 July, the Security Council failed to reauthorise the Syria cross-border humanitarian aid delivery mechanism, which expired on 10 July and had allowed for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Syria from Türkiye without requiring the consent of the Syrian government. A draft resolution (S/2023/506) proposed by the penholders on the Syria humanitarian file, which received 13 votes in favour and one abstention (China), was vetoed by Russia. Another draft initiated by Russia (S/2023/507) failed to be adopted because it did not receive the requisite votes. Two members voted in favour (China and Russia), three against (France, the UK, and the US) and the remaining ten members abstained. (For background on the negotiations, see our 11 July What’s in Blue story). In the ensuing days, the penholders continued to engage with other Council members in a bid to find a compromise on the divisive issues, which could lead to a Council resolution reauthorising the Syria cross-border aid mechanism.
Following the votes, Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted that “it’s disappointing that the Security Council was not able to reach agreement on extending the authorization of [the] UN cross-border relief operations in Syria” and called on all Council members to redouble efforts to support the delivery of cross-border assistance to millions in need.
Later that day, the President of the General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, circulated a letter indicating that a plenary session of the General Assembly will be convened on 19 July to discuss Syria. This is in accordance with General Assembly resolution A/RES/76/262, which states that the General Assembly is expected to convene “within 10 working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council…a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast”.
On 13 July, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh (Syria) sent a note verbale to the President of the Security Council, transmitting a letter announcing the Syrian government’s decision to grant the UN and its specialised agencies permission to use the Bab al-Hawa crossing to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in need in northwest Syria, “in full cooperation and coordination with the Syrian Government”, for a period of six months, starting from 13 July 2023. The letter stressed that the UN, its representatives, and staff should not communicate with “terrorist organizations”, along with “groups and their affiliated illegal administrative entities in northwestern Syria”. It reiterated the Syrian government’s demand that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) be allowed to supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid in “areas controlled by terrorist organizations in northwest Syria”.
The letter said that the government looked forward to international donors “fulfiling their commitments and providing the required funding for the activities and programs of the United Nations to allow the implementation of projects included in the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) and the Strategic Framework for Cooperation between Syria and the UN”. In addition, it noted that the Syrian government will continue to work with the UN and its partners, “in a way that contributes to supporting the efforts of the Syrian state and its institutions in the relief and development fields, achieving early recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and civilian facilities, primarily homes, schools, health centers, roads, power stations, and demining activities”.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to engage in a frank exchange with Griffiths on how to facilitate most effectively the continued flow of humanitarian aid to those in need in Syria. They may be interested in gaining a detailed understanding of the implications of using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for aid delivery in northwest Syria with the Syrian government’s permission, rather than with Security Council authorisation.
On 14 July, OCHA circulated a note to Council members that responded to the Syrian government’s 13 July letter allowing the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to remain open for the delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN for a period of six months. The OCHA note stated that the “Syrian Government’s permission can be a basis for the [UN] to lawfully conduct cross-border humanitarian operations via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for the specified duration”. However, it also said that the Syrian government’s letter contained two unacceptable conditions: that the UN should not communicate with entities designated as “terrorist”, and that the ICRC and the SARC should supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid in northwest Syria. In this regard, the OCHA note said that the UN and its implementing partners must continue to engage with relevant state and non-state parties as operationally necessary to carry out safe and unimpeded humanitarian operations, in line with the mandate of the Emergency Relief Coordinator under General Assembly Resolution 46/182. It added that the demand that the ICRC and the SARC supervise and facilitate aid is neither consistent with the independence of the UN, nor practical, as the ICRC and SARC are not present in northwest Syria.
The note further stated that the UN would need to clarify any additional modalities for the delivery of humanitarian aid in northwest Syria, which must not infringe on the impartiality, neutrality, and independence of the UN’s humanitarian operations. The future of the UN Monitoring Mechanism (UNMM) is currently being examined, it said. (UNMM was established by resolution 2165 of July 2014 and most recently renewed by resolution 2672. The UNMM monitored the UN’s and implementing partners’ cross-border consignments flowing through authorised border crossings. The mandate for the UNMM at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing expired along with resolution 2672).
Tomorrow’s meetings are expected to be coloured by the differences among Council members over the cross-border aid mechanism. Most Council members support the cross-border aid mechanism as an essential humanitarian tool in Syria. In a 13 July statement, Ambassador Barbara Woodward (UK) noted that “under the UN mandate, Bab al-Hawa had gold standard aid monitoring, to ensure aid was not misused”. She pointed out that without UN monitoring, control of the cross-border mechanism remains in the hands of the Syrian government. The priority, she said, needed to be “getting aid flowing again, fast, to the people who need it—and then getting certainty over its future”, adding that the UK will not hesitate to bring this matter back to the Security Council.
In contrast, China and Russia have repeatedly expressed reservations about the cross-border aid mechanism, believing it to be an extraordinary measure that undermined Syria’s sovereignty, and which should be supplanted as soon as possible by enhanced cross-line assistance (that is, delivery of aid across domestic frontlines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control).
In a 13 July tweet, Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said that, following the Syrian government’s permission for the UN to use the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, there is no need for a Council resolution. He noted that, “efforts to put another draft to vote will constitute nothing but political games”. In addition, he said that the “cross-border mechanism which violated sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria is officially dead”.