What's In Blue

Posted Wed 27 Sep 2023

Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Political and Humanitarian Developments

This afternoon (27 September), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu are expected to brief on political and humanitarian developments, respectively. Regional Vice President (Middle East and North Africa) at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Su’ad Jarbawi is also expected to brief. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.

Pedersen is likely to report that the political track in Syria remains at a standstill, highlighting in this regard that the Syrian Constitutional Committee has not met since June 2022. Council members are expected to express support for Pedersen’s efforts to advance the Syrian political process. They may be interested in learning more about his recent engagement with regional stakeholders aimed at reconvening the Constitutional Committee and promoting his “step-for-step” initiative. Through this initiative, Pedersen is asking the Syrian government, the opposition, regional states, and other stakeholders what concessions they are willing to make in exchange for reciprocal actions from others on such matters as abductees, detainees, and missing persons; humanitarian assistance and early recovery projects; and conditions for dignified, safe, and voluntary refugee returns.

On 4 September, Pedersen met with Bader Jamous, the president of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), which represents the political opposition to the government. According to a Twitter post by the Special Envoy’s office, the meeting focused on the latest developments related to the Syrian crisis and efforts to advance the political process in line with resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015. On 10 September, Pedersen met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Damascus. According to a 10 September Associated Press article, following the meeting Pedersen told reporters that the situation in Syria “has become even worse than it was economically during the height of the conflict”. He reportedly added that “without addressing the political consequences of this crisis, the deep economic crisis and humanitarian suffering will also continue”.

On the sidelines of the high-level segment of the 78th session of the General Assembly, Pedersen met with ministers and senior officials of Bahrain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the US. In a 21 September tweet describing these meetings, the Special Envoy’s office said that the situation in Syria is worsening on several fronts and that it remains vital for the Syrian-led and owned political process to move forward, supported by constructive international diplomacy.

Council members may also be interested in hearing Pedersen’s assessment of his most recent meeting with the members of the configuration referred to as the Astana guarantors (Iran, Russia, and Türkiye), held on 22 September.

On 22 September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in China, in his first known trip to the country since 2004, to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the meeting, the two leaders announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership”, which Xi said “will become an important milestone in the history of bilateral ties”. He added that “China supports Syria in conducting reconstruction, enhancing counter-terrorism capacity building, and promoting a political settlement of the Syrian issue”.

At today’s meeting, the briefers and several Council members are likely to welcome the resumption of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to north-west Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing at the Syria-Türkiye border—which is used by UN agencies and partners for conducting humanitarian operations. The humanitarian operations at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing had come to a halt following Russia’s 11 July veto on a Security Council resolution that would have reauthorised the cross-border aid mechanism, which expired on 10 July. The mechanism had allowed the delivery of humanitarian assistance into non-government-controlled parts of Syria without requiring the consent of the Syrian government. (For background, see the Syria brief in our September Monthly Forecast and the In Hindsight in our August Monthly Forecast.)

According to OCHA data, at the time of writing, a total of 3,998 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies from seven UN agencies had crossed into north-west Syria from Türkiye since 9 February through three border crossings: Bab al-Hawa (3,144), Bab al-Salam (759), and Al Ra’ee (95).

At today’s meeting, Wosornu is expected to provide an overview of the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the country. The Secretary-General’s most recent report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, dated 24 August, notes that conditions continue to worsen, with needs reaching their highest level since the conflict’s outset amid dwindling resources, a cholera outbreak, ongoing violence and insecurity, displacement and related vulnerabilities, and deteriorating economic conditions. The report highlights that the depreciation of the Syrian pound and chronic fuel shortages have severely affected people’s ability to meet their immediate food needs and maintain their livelihoods.

Wosornu and several Council members are expected to emphasise the need for unhindered humanitarian access through all modalities, including cross-border and cross-line access—that is, across domestic conflict lines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control. China and Russia might say that there has been a lack of progress in the cross-line delivery of aid and may also draw connections between unilateral sanctions imposed by some member states on Syria and the challenging humanitarian situation in the country.

In recent months, securing funding to address the myriad new and ongoing humanitarian challenges in Syria has continued to be difficult. The Secretary-General’s 24 August report notes that owing to funding shortfalls, the World Food Programme (WFP) had to discontinue food assistance to 2.5 million people in Syria starting from July. At today’s meeting, the briefers and several Council members are likely to call for enhanced funding from the international community to support the humanitarian response. At the time of writing, Syria’s 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan, requiring $5.41 billion, was only 28.8 percent funded.

The briefers and Council members are expected to express concern about the recent escalation of hostilities in Syria and call on the relevant parties to agree to a ceasefire immediately. According to a 6 September OCHA flash update, an uptick in shelling was reported starting on 1 September across Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates. On 23 September, at least two civilians were killed, and two others injured, following rocket attacks launched by the Syrian government which struck an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of the city of Sarmin in eastern Idlib, according to a tweet by the “Syria Civil Defence” (also known as the White Helmets). Syrian government forces also reportedly carried out artillery shelling on 25 September in the city of Jisr al-Shughour in western Idlib, injuring ten civilians, including two children and four women.

The situation in north-east Syria is another issue of concern for Council members. According to a 31 August Reuters article, fighting erupted on 27 August between Arab tribal groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish group opposing the Syrian government, in the Deir-ez-Zor governorate in north-east Syria. The clashes reportedly broke out after the SDF apprehended Ahmed al-Khubail, also known as Abu Khawla, the Arab leader of the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council, a local SDF affiliate, accusing him of involvement in several crimes. A 14 September OCHA situation report noted that approximately 6,500 families had been displaced to government-held areas since the outbreak of fighting. It added that, according to local sources, 96 people had been killed and 106 injured since 27 August.

Yesterday (26 September), Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Najat Rochdi convened the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Humanitarian Task Force (HTF) in Geneva. In a tweet, Rochdi noted that during the meeting, strong concerns were raised about the escalation in hostilities and its impact on civilians. She noted that the civilian casualties, as well as the displacement of tens of thousands of persons due to the latest escalation, have increased the protection and humanitarian needs. Rochdi further called on member states to support efforts for sustained funding as well as predictable and consistent delivery of cross-border and cross-line assistance to all people in need across the country.

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