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Syria: Resolution on Cross-border Humanitarian Access and Political and Humanitarian Briefings*

Tomorrow (19 December), the Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution prepared by Egypt, Japan and Sweden renewing the authorisation for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access to Syria. There were two rounds of negotiations with all Council members, as well as further negotiations with Russia and the P3. The draft went into blue this morning.

In addition, the Security Council will receive a briefing tomorrow from Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, on the humanitarian situation in Syria and from Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura regarding the last round of intra-Syrian talks that just concluded in Geneva.

Draft Resolution

The draft renews the authorisation to use routes across conflict lines and four border crossings in order to ensure humanitarian assistance with notification to the Syrian authorities. Through this authorisation, first established by the Council in resolution 2165 in July 2014, UN actors and implementing partners have been able to deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance to millions of people in north-west and southern Syria through Turkey and Jordan respectively.

Ahead of the negotiations, there were concerns about how difficult it would be to get agreement on the draft. Russia had expressed its preference for rolling back the authorisation for UN cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid, highlighting the establishment of de-escalation areas and the need to work with the Syrian government. However, it seems that all Council members have been constructive in the negotiation of the draft, which made possible a compromise. Among the relevant factors are the efforts by the penholders (which are elected members of the Council) to facilitate and reach a compromise between the P3 and Russian positions. The role played by neighboring countries in support of the renewal, particularly Turkey, which is a co-guarantor along with Iran and Russia of the Astana process, is worth noting as well. Even though Russia pushed for a six month renewal of the authorisation, the rest of Council members supported the penholders’ proposal for a one-year renewal, which is the duration of the reauthorisation in the text in blue.

Among the areas Russia focused on in the lead-up to the negotiations of this draft was the need to increase monitoring and transparency of the mechanisms to deliver cross-border aid. Russia requested a briefing on this particular issue by Lowcock, under “any other business” on 5 December. Even though Lowcock described in detail the high standards of monitoring, in order to address some of the concerns expressed by Russia and others, the draft requests the Secretary-General to conduct, within six months of the adoption, an independent written review of the UN humanitarian cross-border operations, including recommendations on how to further strengthen the existing UN monitoring mechanism. The reference to the independence of the review and the fact that it focuses only on UN operations made it palatable to the P3, although they did not see the need for such a review necessary. Agreeing on the level of detail regarding the stakeholders that need to be consulted in the review process proved difficult; in the end, the draft in blue mentions the actors included in operative paragraph 3 of resolution 2165, including the Syrian authorities, relevant neighboring countries, UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners.

The draft also requests the Secretary-General to include in his monthly reports overall trends in UN cross-line and cross-border humanitarian access, and more detailed information on the humanitarian assistance delivered through UN humanitarian cross-border operations. Here again, agreeing on the level of detail to be made available to the Council was also a difficult issue.

Another area of disagreement that required compromise was how to characterise the security situation in Syria. While Russia advocated language welcoming the creation of de-escalation areas and the improvement of security conditions on the ground, the P3 emphasised the continuous violence, the ongoing sieges, and the critical humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta. It seems that the penholders’ intention was to focus efforts on the operational aspects of the draft and not to be distracted by the divergent narratives put forward by Council members. In the spirit of compromise, while noting the ongoing work on de-escalation areas, the draft acknowledges the severity of the devastating humanitarian situation and expresses grave alarm at the dire situation in besieged areas, including Eastern Ghouta.

Humanitarian and Political Briefings

The briefing by Lowcock is expected to focus on the critical situation in the besieged area of Eastern Ghouta, which has seen an increase in fighting and a worsening in the living conditions of nearly 400,000 people. Despite the identification of some 500 people requiring urgent medical evacuations, only eight were evacuated in November. According to a 15 December report of the Secretary-General, access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas has been hindered by the removal of items, bureaucratic impediments imposed by the government, and insecurity (S/2017/1057). Given the limitations of regular programming and cross-line operations, Lowcock is expected to welcome the renewal of the authorisation for cross-border aid delivery.

Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is expected to share with the Council his assessment of the eighth round of the intra-Syrian talks that was completed last week in Geneva. In particular, he is expected to explain why direct negotiations between the two delegations did not happen and assess whether additional pressure can be applied in order to engage on the substance of the process and the agenda set out in resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which mapped out a political process.

The government suspended its participation in the recent round of talks because of what it considered a precondition in the communiqué of the Ryadh II conference, a meeting of opposition forces held in late November, regarding the absence of a role for President Bashar al-Assad in the political transition. In a 14 December press conference in Geneva, De Mistura said that he had conveyed the government’s position to the opposition and that there were other “well calibrated statements where the opposition did not refer any more to that context which was particularly annoying to the government”. The government eventually returned to Geneva, but it did not engage with the opposition, prompting De Mistura to say it effectively imposed a precondition by refusing to negotiate with the opposition if it does not reconsider that aspect of the communiqué.

Tomorrow De Mistura may discuss the additional influence that other countries can exert on the government to ensure substantive and direct engagement in talks, with a now unified opposition delegation. While the opposition has engaged on all four baskets of the agenda (governance; constitutional issues; elections and security governance and counter-terrorism), the government only did so on counter-terrorism. In the context of military victories against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, De Mistura has been stressing how winning the war will not translate into winning the peace without a meaningful political process.

Council members may take this opportunity to ask Russia about the organisation in Sochi of a congress of Syrian peoples early next year. While the terms of reference of the initiative remain unclear, some Council members have raised concerns on the record over the last few weeks regarding an initiative that may be aimed at providing an alternative platform to the talks in Geneva.

* Post-script: Resolution 2393 was adopted with twelve votes in favor and three abstentions (Bolivia, China and Russia).

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