What's In Blue

Posted Mon 26 Feb 2024

Syria: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (27 February), UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen (via videoconference) and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths are expected to brief the Council on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.

Political 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 convened since June 2022. He may describe his engagement with the parties aimed at resuming these meetings, while reiterating that the Constitutional Committee has not reconvened largely because of a dispute over the venue. Russia, a close ally of Syria, has objected to Geneva as the site for these meetings since Switzerland imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. In his 21 December 2023 briefing to the Council, Pedersen appealed to all parties “to act in a manner that enables the Constitutional Committee to resume, at least initially in Geneva, and for reciprocal, verifiable and parallel confidence-building measures to be agreed and implemented”. He also emphasised the need to respect the Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, and UN-facilitated nature of the Constitutional Committee. Pedersen may echo these points at tomorrow’s meeting.

The Special Envoy may also describe efforts to promote 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.

Pedersen may reiterate his concern about spillover of other regional crises into Syria, as he has done repeatedly, including at a 14 February meeting in Geneva of the Ceasefire Task Force (CTF) of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). (The CTF, which comprises 27 ISSG members and is co-chaired by Russia and the US, aims to secure the support of all parties to the conflict for a cessation of hostilities.) During the meeting, Pedersen appealed to all key stakeholders to exercise restraint, to adhere to international humanitarian law, and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, according to a post on X (formerly Twitter).

Humanitarian Briefing

Griffiths is expected to describe the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria. He is likely to reiterate the need for unhindered humanitarian access through all modalities, including cross-border and cross-line—that is, across domestic conflict lines from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control. Griffiths may welcome the Syrian government’s decision on 10 February to extend for three months, until 13 May, its consent for the delivery of humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings at the Syria-Türkiye border by UN humanitarian agencies and their partners. This follows the Syrian government’s 11 January decision to extend authorisation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syria-Türkiye border for six months, until 13 July. Griffiths may echo OCHA’s announcement earlier this month that these “extensions are crucial, as the UN’s cross-border operations remain a vital support system for people in north-west Syria”. In the past year, some 5,000 trucks carrying humanitarian aid have crossed from Türkiye into north-west Syria through the Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salam, and Al Ra’ee crossings.

Griffiths may appeal for enhanced international support to address the grave humanitarian situation in Syria. He might note that fighting during the past several months, particularly in the north of the country, has killed civilians, damaged civilian infrastructure, and curtailed access to safe water, electricity, and education services. He may caution that the humanitarian plight faced by the Syrian people should not be forgotten, amid heightened international attention to other major crises. OCHA estimates that 15.3 million of Syria’s 23.2 million people need humanitarian assistance, with its Humanitarian Response Plan for the country calling for $4.4 billion in 2024.

Both Griffiths and Pedersen may reference the recent one-year anniversary of the 6 February 2023 earthquake in Türkiye and Syria, which claimed the lives of over 56,000 people, including over 5,900 in Syria. They may pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the earthquake, note that this disaster has exacerbated the already grave humanitarian needs facing Syrians, and underscore that these needs continue to be enormous.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate their shared concerns about the stalemate in the political situation in Syria, as well as regarding the difficult humanitarian and security situations in the country. Longstanding differences of view about the Syria conflict will once again be evident, however.  China and Russia might emphasise the need to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and draw connections between unilateral coercive measures on Syria and the challenging humanitarian situation in the country. In contrast, the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded members may criticise the Syrian government for violating international humanitarian law and human rights law, arbitrarily detaining people, and not engaging meaningfully in political dialogue. The US might also argue that airstrikes that Washington and its allies have conducted in Syria and other nearby countries are designed to curtail the harmful influence of Iran and its proxies in the region. (For more information, see our 5 February What’s in Blue story.)

Although there is widespread support for reconvening the Constitutional Committee, Russia may reiterate its calls for a new setting for the committee’s meetings. In this respect, at the Council’s 21 December 2023 meeting, Russia called on Pedersen to “provide assistance to the Syrian parties to find a new, mutually acceptable platform for the Constitutional Committee”.

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