What's In Blue

Posted Wed 20 Dec 2023

Syria: Meetings on the Political, Humanitarian, and Chemical Weapons Tracks*

Tomorrow morning (21 December), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria. Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and OCHA’s Director of the Humanitarian Financing and Resource Mobilization Division Lisa Doughten are expected to brief on political and humanitarian developments, respectively.* Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.

On Friday morning (22 December), the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing on the Syria chemical weapons track. Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Adedeji Ebo is expected to brief.

Joint Meeting on Political and Humanitarian Developments

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 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 return. Pedersen may emphasise that the spillover effects of the crisis in Israel and Gaza may further exacerbate the situation in Syria, which is already untenable.

On 11 December, Pedersen met with representatives of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), which represents the political opposition to the government. On 14 December, Pedersen met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin in Geneva. According to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by the Special Envoy’s office, Pedersen stressed that all stakeholders must prioritise de-escalation and recommit to a genuine political process in line with resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which focused on finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, including through the reconvening of the Constitutional Committee.

Also on 14 December, Pedersen met with the Director General of the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Nagaoka Kansuke. According to a post on X by the Special Envoy’s office, both officials emphasised the significance of a renewed commitment from all parties to advance implementation of resolution 2254 and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of all Syrians. Later that day, Pedersen also met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon’s caretaker government, Abdallah Bou Habib. At the meeting, Pedersen noted the dire situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and emphasised the need for urgent action and funding to address humanitarian needs. On the following day (15 December), Pedersen met with Syrian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Bassam Sabbagh in Geneva, where he emphasised the importance of de-escalating violence in Syria and the region.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Doughten is expected to highlight the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the country. She is also likely to express concern about the recent escalation of hostilities in Syria, while calling on the relevant parties to agree to a ceasefire immediately and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Following a 5 October drone attack on a Syrian military academy in Homs that reportedly killed at least 100 people, north-west Syria has witnessed a steep rise in hostilities, representing the most significant escalation in violence in the area since 2019. In the latest round of attacks between 15 and 17 December, residential neighbourhoods in Idlib and western Aleppo were struck by shelling that killed at least seven people and injured 24 others, according to a 19 December OCHA press release. Hostilities since 5 October have resulted in over 99 civilian casualties, nearly 40 percent of whom have been children, and have injured more than 400 people, as at 19 December. (For more, see the briefs on Syria in our November and December Monthly Forecasts.)

The situation in north-east Syria, particularly in the Deir-ez-Zor governorate, also remains volatile. On 27 August, fighting erupted in the governorate between Arab tribal groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish group opposing the Syrian government. 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 12 December OCHA press release said that heavy clashes in Deir-ez-Zor continue to result in civilian casualties and damage to critical civilian infrastructure, including water stations and schools. The press release added that approximately 27,000 people have been displaced since the onset of fighting. (For more information, see our 27 September What’s in Blue story.)

In a 1 December press statement, the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria ad interim, Sudipto Mukerjee, expressed alarm about the “current militarization” of a water facility in Ebreha town in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Access to the Ebreha facility has been severely restricted since 23 November, he said, due to the facility reportedly being used as a military outpost during nighttime hours. Mukerjee added that the military use of the Ebreha water station has prevented workers from operating or repairing it, thereby depriving at least 45,000 people in the area of a safe drinking water source. He further highlighted that deprivation of access to safe drinking water exacerbates the spread of water-borne diseases and a cholera outbreak.

Doughten is expected to emphasise the need for unhindered humanitarian access through all modalities, including cross-border from Türkiye and cross-line—that is, across domestic conflict lines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control. Doughten and some Council members may call on the Syrian government to extend its authorisation for the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syria-Türkiye border—which is used by UN agencies and partners to conduct humanitarian operations and is set to expire on 13 January. At the same time, China and Russia might emphasise 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. On 4 December, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it will terminate its general food assistance programme in Syria because of funding shortages, starting from January 2024. Media reports, however, suggest that the WFP will continue to support families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through smaller, more targeted emergency interventions. In July, WFP cut its assistance by almost 40 percent, ending food assistance for 2.5 million people, because of lack of resources. In light of these developments, Doughten and some Council members may raise concerns about rising food insecurity and cases of malnutrition in the country at tomorrow’s meeting. The briefers and several Council members are also likely to call for enhanced and sustainable 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 33.1 percent funded.

Briefing on the Chemical Weapons Track

On Friday morning (22 December), the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing on the Syria chemical weapons track. Resolution 2118 of 27 September 2013, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, requested the Council to hold monthly meetings to discuss the resolution’s implementation. However, the Council presidents of the past two months (Brazil and China) did not schedule a meeting on the issue. It appears that Friday’s meeting was included in this month’s programme of work following a request from some members, including Japan, the UK, and the US.

The monthly report of the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the implementation of resolution 2118, dated 24 November, noted that the Syrian government welcomed the 25th round of consultations with the Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) in a 9 October note verbale, without outlining any conditions. Following this development, the OPCW Secretariat deployed “all DAT experts as it deemed required” to Syria, and consultations were held from 30 October to 5 November in Damascus for the first time after a gap of two and a half years. The report said that during this round of consultations, the DAT conducted daily technical meetings, revisited the status of all outstanding issues, and discussed the means of their resolution. At Friday’s meeting, several Council members may be interested in gaining detailed information about this round of consultations.

Ebo is expected to reiterate that gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies remain in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW. He may note that the OPCW Secretariat has continued its efforts to clarify all outstanding issues regarding the initial and subsequent declarations submitted by Syria in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

On 30 November, the Conference of the States Parties (CSP) to the CWC, during its 28th session, adopted a decision titled “Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapons Use and the Threat of Future Use”. The CSP decided that the continued possession and use of chemical weapons by Syria, and its failures to submit an accurate and complete declaration and to destroy all its undeclared chemical weapons and production facilities, have caused serious damage to the object and purpose of the CWC. In this regard, the CSP recommended that states parties take the following collective measures:

  • to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer to Syria of certain chemical precursors, as well as dual-use chemical manufacturing facilities and equipment and related technology;
  • to put in place appropriate measures related to the transfer to Syria of toxic chemicals and their precursors as well as potential means of delivery and related materials that may contribute to the development, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, retention, transfer, and use or threat of use of chemical weapons;
  • to provide assistance to criminal investigations or criminal proceedings relating to chemical weapons attacks in Syria; and
  • to provide appropriate support to relevant national and international accountability efforts, including the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) established by the UN General Assembly through resolution A/71/248 of 21 December 2016.

The Council’s long-standing divisions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria are likely to be reflected in Council members’ interventions at Friday’s meeting. Over the years, Council members have displayed starkly different views on a range of related issues, including responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the credibility of the OPCW’s work, and numerous procedural aspects of the OPCW’s decision-making bodies. While several members have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work, maintaining that it is credible and essential, other members, such as China and Russia, maintain that its work is biased and politicised.


Post-script (20 December 5 pm): An earlier version of this story indicated that OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu is expected to brief on humanitarian developments. The story was amended to reflect that OCHA’s Director of the Humanitarian Financing and Resource Mobilization Division Lisa Doughten is now expected to brief the Council.

Sign up for What's In Blue emails

Subscribe to receive SCR publications