What's In Blue

Syria: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (25 April), UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and OCHA Head in Geneva and Director of the Coordination Division Ramesh Rajasingham are expected to brief the Council on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively. A civil society representative 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 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 of these meetings, following Switzerland’s imposition of sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In his remarks at the 21 March Council meeting, Pedersen said that the political track remains “blocked and dormant” and urged the Syrian government to “engage in a deepened and concrete dialogue”. He informed the Council about his proposal to hold the ninth session of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva in April, which he said had been accepted by the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC)—which represents the Syrian opposition—but was rejected by the Syrian government. Pedersen expressed his readiness to explore an alternative venue that garners consensus from the Syrian parties and the host country. In the meantime, he appealed to the parties to reconvene in Geneva in a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process. At the meeting tomorrow, he may remind the parties of their obligation to allow the process to take place without any foreign interference, as agreed in the terms of reference of the Constitutional Committee. (For background and more information, see our Syria brief in our April 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

The Special Envoy may describe his efforts in furtherance of the “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 25 March, Pedersen spoke by telephone with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. They discussed the latest developments on the situation in Syria and the efforts being made to resolve the impasse. According to local media reports, the SNC has proposed Riyadh as a possible alternative venue for the resumption of the Constitutional Committee. On 5 April, Pedersen held discussions with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Ankara, covering various aspects of the crisis in Syria. He also met with the US Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Michele Sison on 22 April in Geneva. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Sison said that the discussions focused on the impact of escalating regional tensions on Syria and expressed support for Pedersen’s efforts to advance the implementation of resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015.

Rajasingham is expected to highlight the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the country. With Syria now in its 14th year of civil war, approximately 16.7 million people—nearly 70 percent of Syria’s population—remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. This is the highest recorded number of people requiring humanitarian assistance at any time during Syria’s civil war. Since 2011, over 14 million Syrians have been displaced, including 7.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to UNHCR.

The briefers are expected to bring to the Council’s attention the funding challenges that the humanitarian agencies face in Syria, highlighting the rising needs throughout the country. They are expected to call for enhanced funding from the international community to support the humanitarian response. Syria’s 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), which called for $5.41 billion, was only 38.5 percent funded ($2.04 billion).

Rajasingham may refer to the 17 April OCHA report that outlined the critical funding gaps in humanitarian response in Syria for the period April-September. The report estimates that underfunding may threaten the well-being of over two million displaced Syrians, exacerbating humanitarian needs and protection risks amidst an economic decline. It says that only 63 percent of hospitals and 52 percent of primary health care facilities are currently functional in the country, adding that hundreds of health facilities and mobile medical teams face the threat of immediate closure because of funding shortages. The report also states that the humanitarian agencies require $1.9 billion over the next six months to assist 10.8 million people in need.

Briefers and some Council members may also take note of the upcoming EU-sponsored eighth Brussels Conference, titled “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, which is scheduled to be held at ministerial level on 27 May. The conference aims to deepen the engagement among the relevant stakeholders in the Syrian conflict and garner financial support for Syrians in need inside Syria as well as in neighbouring countries as refugees.

Rajasingham 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. Rajasingham and some Council members may call on the Syrian government to extend its authorisation, set to expire on 13 May, for the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee border crossings at the Syria-Türkiye border, which are used by UN agencies and their partners to conduct humanitarian operations. 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.

The briefers and several members are likely to express concern about the continuing hostilities on multiple fronts in Syria, particularly in the north of the country, while calling on the relevant parties to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to agree to an immediate nationwide ceasefire.

They are also expected to reiterate their concerns about the escalating regional tensions and their spillover effects on Syria and call upon the relevant actors to respect and uphold international humanitarian law. Russia may use this opportunity to criticise the presence of US forces in Syria, accusing them of destablising the country. Washington maintains that its deployment of forces in the country remains focused on fighting Da’esh (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on 7 October 2023, Israel has allegedly increased its attacks against sites in Syria that it claims are associated with Iranian forces and affiliated militants. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)—a UK-based monitoring group with a presence in the country—Israel has conducted 35 attacks in Syria since the beginning of this year, as at 19 April.

In a 1 April letter, Iran informed Council members that earlier the same day Iran’s diplomatic premises in Damascus were “intentionally targeted by missile air strikes” launched by Israel from the Golan Heights. The attack reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least four Syrian soldiers and seven Iranian personnel, including Mohamad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, and his deputy. Israel says that the premises were being used for military purposes, while Iran asserts that it maintains military advisers in the country with the consent of the Syrian government.

The next day (2 April), the Council convened a briefing to discuss Israel’s attack against the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Briefing the Council, Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari expressed concern about escalating tensions and warned that any “miscalculation could lead to broader conflict in an already volatile region with devastating consequences for civilians” in Syria and the Middle East.

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