MIDDLE EAST – Syria
In June, the Security Council expects to hold its monthly meetings on political issues, the humanitarian situation and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Notwithstanding the relative calm in Syria’s north-west as a result of the 5 March ceasefire agreed by Russia and Turkey, tensions remain because of continued reports of instability in the country’s south-west, concerns about COVID-19 and the dire humanitarian situation. In this context, Council members held an informal interactive dialogue (IID) on chemical weapons in Syria on 12 May with Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Fernando Arias, Coordinator of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) Santiago Oñate, and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu. That meeting, conducted through videoconferencing (VTC), focused on the first report of the OPCW IIT, which, according to Oñate’s public remarks at the report’s 8 April public release, “concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Ltamenah on 24 and 30 March 2017, and the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March 2017 were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force”.
The closed, informal format of the IID apparently offered members the opportunity to speak frankly with Arias and ask Oñate about the IIT’s findings. However, neither Russia nor China attended the meeting, and Syria, which was invited, also did not attend. During the meeting, several members apparently reiterated positions expressed during April’s VTC on chemical weapons; a number of Council members published their statements on their respective missions’ websites after the April meeting. The UK and Estonia underscored the need for accountability for those deemed responsible for the attacks, and Germany said that “accountability is essential and impunity for these heinous crimes is not an option”. South Africa “took note” of the report and expressed its wish to work with the Executive Council of the OPCW and the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to further examine the report. Following the IID, Russia’s Permanent Representative, Vassily Nebenzia, held a press briefing at which he called into question the IIT’s legitimacy, questioned its methodology, and said its investigation was a “flagrant violation of the CWC”. In a letter dated 12 May and sent to the Secretary-General and Security Council on 13 May, the Russian Federation announced that it “object[ed] to the practice of interaction with the OPCW Director-General behind the backs of the vast majority of the OPCW membership”, and would not take part in the “’ informal informal’ interactive dialogue”. The letter also relayed a series of questions it had intended to ask Arias in an “open setting”.
The Council met again on 18 and 19 May for separate VTC meetings on the political and humanitarian situations in Syria, respectively. Briefing on the political situation, Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen noted that aerial bombardments had stopped and that the ceasefire appeared to be holding in Syria’s north-west despite reports of artillery shelling and crossline skirmishes. He urged all parties to take advantage of the “calm” to seek a nationwide ceasefire and to allow the country to address COVID-19.
Despite the calm in the north-west, the security situation in other parts of Syria remains tense. On 8 May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that while the ceasefire in Idlib province was “mostly holding”, the situation in other parts of the country was “a ticking time-bomb that must not be ignored”. Since early March, Bachelet noted, the UN had documented 52 targeted killings in Syrian government-controlled Daraa Governorate. Pedersen echoed these findings and raised concern about a resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria’s eastern desert. Pedersen also announced that an agreement had been reached to organise a third session of the Constitutional Committee as soon as an in-person meeting could be convened.
Despite official reports of only 64 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease continues to affect the country. According to Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock’s 19 May briefing, low testing capacity and a shortage of medical supplies and personal protective equipment persist, and the economic impact of COVID-19 is taking a toll.
Rising prices for food staples and a devaluation of the Syrian pound in some parts of the country are driving food insecurity to levels not previously seen.
On 13 May, the Secretary-General submitted his review of the UN’s humanitarian cross-line and cross-border operations, which was requested in resolution 2504. The resolution renewed the authorisation for cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria through two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months but did not reauthorise the Al Yarubiyah border crossing between Syria and Iraq or the Al Ramtha border crossing between Syria and Jordan. The report noted that 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria. Of the 6.2 million people living in areas not under Syrian government control, 4.2 million concentrated in Syria’s north-east and north-west have acute humanitarian needs.
In his 19 May Council briefing, Lowcock was unequivocal on cross-border assistance in the north-west, saying:
Meeting the enormous humanitarian needs in the north-west requires a renewal of the cross-border authorisation for the Bab al-Salaam and Bab Al Hawa border crossings for an additional 12 months… This decision cannot be left to the last minute. Too many lives are at stake.”
In the north-east, cross-line air shipments of health supplies have been ongoing, and the World Health Organization delivered 30 tonnes of medical supplies to the area on 10 May. According to Lowcock, however, “supplies reached only 31 percent of the medical facilities that had previously been supported by cross-border deliveries from Al Yarubiyah”. This, he argued, meant that a “combination of more cross-border and cross-line access is required to sustain, and preferably increase humanitarian assistance” and that alternatives to Al Yarubiyah have comparatively more limitations.
Key Issues and Options
The cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance remains a contentious issue. Several Council members are seeking ways to authorise the reopening of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing, given their views about the inadequacy of current cross-line deliveries and especially in light of the risk posed by COVID-19. Some Council members, however, have expressed scepticism about the need for such an authorisation: speaking during the 29 April Council briefing, Russia’s Permanent Representative urged Council members “not to waste their time on looking for a way to advocate, explicitly or implicitly for getting Al Yarubiyah back…”. Resolution 2504 expires on 10 July, and members are anticipating difficult negotiations.
During the April and May briefings, some Council members cited the Secretary-General’s call for the global waiver of sanctions that could undermine the capacity of countries to ensure access to food, health supplies and medical support to respond to COVID-19 as a reason for lifting unilateral sanctions on Syria. Other members, including the P3 (France, the UK and the US), have argued that goods and medical supplies used for humanitarian purposes are not subject to sanctions and that exemptions exist for humanitarian activities.
Despite the Council’s discussion of the OPCW IIT report in April and May, this issue could also feature on the agenda in June, with some members considering a possible Council product to highlight the IIT’s findings and push for accountability.
Member states continue to hold starkly different views on Council engagement on Syria. The P3 and others tend to condemn attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by the Syrian government and its allies and raise concerns about accountability while China, Russia, and some elected members often emphasise the importance of eliminating the threat of terrorism in Syria.
Belgium and Germany are the humanitarian co-penholders on Syria.