What's In Blue

Posted Fri 18 Aug 2023

Syria: Private Meeting and Closed Consultations

On Monday afternoon (21 August), 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 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 was last authorised by resolution 2672 of 9 January until 10 July. The mechanism had allowed for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to north-west Syria from Türkiye through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing 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, see our 11 July What’s in Blue story and the In Hindsight in our August Monthly Forecast.)

In a 13 July letter, the Syrian government announced its decision to grant the UN and its specialised agencies permission to use the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to deliver humanitarian aid for a period of six months, starting that day. On 17 July, the Security Council held a private meeting, followed by closed consultations, to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria. Griffiths, who briefed the Council, apparently reiterated concerns shared by OCHA in a 14 July note to Council members about conditions outlined in the Syrian government’s 13 July letter, namely that the UN should not communicate with entities designated as “terrorist”, and that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) should supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid in “areas controlled by terrorist organizations in northwest Syria”. It seems that Griffiths also said that he will engage further with the Syrian authorities in a bid to clarify the provisions of the letter. (For background, see our 16 July What’s in Blue story.)

Council members last discussed the humanitarian situation in Syria in a 24 July meeting, during which OCHA’s Director of the Coordination Division Ramesh Rajasingham briefed. At that meeting, he took note of the Syrian government’s 13 July letter and said that OCHA “continue[s] to engage on the terms outlined in that letter and the modalities that are fundamental to [its] principled operations”. Rajasingham reported that while humanitarian personnel, relief supplies, and protection assistance continue to enter north-west Syria through the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings, most UN agencies “are currently using the humanitarian aid items that had been strategically prepositioned inside north-west Syria prior to 10 July to ensure continuity of the humanitarian assistance”.

Following weeks of bilateral engagement, the UN and the Syrian government reached an understanding on the continued use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to deliver humanitarian aid into north-west Syria, which was formalised through an exchange of letters (S/2023/603). In a 5 August letter addressed to Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Griffiths noted that the Syrian government’s permission “forms a basis for the UN to lawfully conduct cross-border humanitarian operations through Bab al-Hawa crossing”. The letter added that “[c]ooperation and coordination with the Syrian government to facilitate cross-border assistance can be undertaken in a manner consistent with the core principles and current structure and practice that comprise the UN’s humanitarian response in Syria”.

Griffiths’ letter stated that a version of the UN Monitoring Mechanism (UNMM) should operate to monitor UN humanitarian assistance prior to its entry into Syria. (The UNMM, established by resolution 2165 of 14 July 2014 and most recently renewed by resolution 2672, monitored the UN and implementing partners’ cross-border consignments flowing through Council-authorised border crossings. The UNMM’s mandate at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing expired along with resolution 2672.) The letter added that “[t]hese arrangements can be reviewed or enhanced through the involvement of others, in close coordination between the relevant sides”. In response to the Syrian government’s demand, contained in its 13 July letter, to allow the ICRC and the SARC to supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, Griffiths’ 5 August letter stated that, although neither organisation has a presence in north-west Syria, “their involvement in this process may be explored when circumstances permit”. The letter also said that the UN and its partners may need to engage with different actors in north-west Syria to ensure safe, rapid, and unimpeded humanitarian operations.

Sabbagh responded with a letter the next day announcing the Syrian government’s decision to extend its authorisation for the use of the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings for a period of three months, until 13 November. It also approved the use of the Sarmada and Saraqib crossings for cross-line operations—that is, across domestic conflict lines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control—for a six-month period, until 1 February 2024. Sabbagh’s letter took note of the UN’s desire to “use a version of the stringent and independent monitoring arrangements for aid consignments at the borders”. It also expressed appreciation for OCHA’s pledge, contained in its 5 August letter, to appeal to donors to provide necessary funding for humanitarian activities. It further said that the Syrian government will continue to engage with the UN about the possible involvement of the ICRC and the SARC in the ongoing humanitarian operations.

In an 8 August statement, Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the understanding reached by the UN and the Syrian government on the continued use, for a six-month period, of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to provide cross-border humanitarian assistance.

At Monday’s meeting, Council members may wish to engage in a frank exchange with Griffiths on the modalities for facilitating the continued flow of cross-border humanitarian aid into north-west Syria. They are likely to be interested in gaining detailed knowledge of the terms of the understanding reached between OCHA and the Syrian government and the impediments, if any, that may hinder the humanitarian operations of the UN and its implementing partners. Council members may also be interested in hearing more about OCHA’s engagement with the other stakeholders in north-west Syria about the delivery of humanitarian aid. More than two weeks have passed since the understanding was reached, but at the time of writing, humanitarian aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing have yet to recommence.

Council members continue to hold divergent views about the future course of action in the aftermath of the Syrian government’s decision to open the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Some members, including China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have welcomed the Syrian government’s decision. These members now view the delivery of aid into north-west Syria as a bilateral matter between the UN and the Syrian government and have encouraged the international community to support such cooperation. The understanding reached between OCHA and the Syrian government is expected to allow some countries to strengthen their call for permanently closing the Council-authorised mechanism. The P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded member states, however, would prefer to have a Council authorisation for cross-border delivery of aid into north-west Syria in order to facilitate a predictable and unhindered flow of humanitarian assistance.

Council members also hold differing opinions on whether the provision for monthly Council briefings on humanitarian developments in Syria and the reporting requirements set out by resolution 2672 remain in effect. It appears that Russia takes the position that the absence of a resolution reauthorising the cross-border aid mechanism negates all Council engagement on humanitarian issues in Syria and nullifies the effect of all provisions contained in previous resolutions, including the reporting requirements. Some other Council members apparently take the view that the provision reauthorising the cross-border mechanism, and the remainder of resolution 2672, are mutually exclusive—that all provisions except the cross-border mechanism are open-ended, and thus still applicable.

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