Tomorrow (8 February), Council members will receive a briefing from Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on the humanitarian situation in Syria at the request of Kuwait and Sweden, the humanitarian penholders. The request was made following yesterday’s statement by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator and other UN officials in Syria calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities of at least one month throughout Syria to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded, and the alleviation of people’s suffering, to the extent possible, wherever they are.
The statement draws attention to the dire consequences of the humanitarian situation in several parts of the country. It outlines the various areas where the situation is most critical for civilians: Afrin, where military operations by Turkey and the reported blockage of exit points by other forces has trapped many civilians; Raqqa, given the impact of unexploded ordinance and the lack of services; Idlib, which is densely populated and is being subjected to ongoing military operations by the Syrian government; Eastern Ghouta, where medical evacuations continue to be urgently needed in the midst of continuous besiegement by the government and allied forces; Foua and Kafraya, which are besieged by armed groups; and the Rukban camp which is on the Berm and remains inaccessible to the UN’s Damascus-based humanitarian team. Council members may be interested in details of the situation in these areas, as well as efforts being made to overcome the difficulties to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Obstacles to access are among the longstanding issues highlighted by OCHA in its regular briefings to the Council. While inter-agency convoys to besieged and hard-to-reach areas are regularly agreed to with the Syrian government, they are seldom actually dispatched as a result of bureaucratic restrictions. Despite a government commitment to improve the multi-step process to issue the relevant facilitation letters, humanitarian access continues to be an ongoing problem. In her briefing to the Council on 30 January, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller said that no cross-line convoys were able to reach besieged or hard-to-reach areas in January. In her briefing, she also mentioned difficulties in delivering humanitarian aid to areas previously reached under regular programming. Since then, an agreement has been reached with local authorities in Al-Hasakah in northern Syria to allow some UN partners to resume humanitarian work, which had come to a halt in recent weeks.
Some of the points mentioned by Mueller were raised by Lowcock on his first visit to Syria. In remarks to the press in Damascus on 11 January he highlighted five areas where progress is needed:
- finalising the UN humanitarian response plan for 2018 to meet the needs of more than 13 million people in Syria;
- reaching an agreement to allow for medical evacuation for hundreds of people trapped in Eastern Ghouta;
- ensuring consistent and regular cross-line access;
- agreeing on UN-supported aid convoys from Damascus to the remote area of Rukban (the Berm) in south-eastern Syria; and
- developing more effective arrangements to allow the UN to support the work of Syrian and international NGOs.
Lowcock reiterated these five issues in a briefing to Council members under “any other business” on 22 January. Following his briefing, Kuwait and Sweden circulated a draft presidential statement calling for progress on them.
The presidential statement could not be adopted, as the differences among members displayed in two rounds of negotiations, could not be overcome. Russia challenged the prioritisation of the five areas identified by Lowcock and questioned the need for such a statement by the Council. The penholders, which had minimised references to particular locations in Syria to bypass Council divisions, proposed not to specifically outline in the statement the five areas mentioned by Lowcock, nonetheless urging progress on them. The P3 argued that the language used in the statement was not strong enough and that the efforts to make it palatable to Russia and others had diluted its substance.
Yesterday’s statement by UN officials highlights how “[t]he humanitarian response has become a hostage to fighting and competing politics” in Syria and characterises this as a “shame for all”.
The Council’s most recent outcome on the humanitarian situation in Syria was resolution 2393, which was adopted with three abstentions (Bolivia, China and Russia) in December 2017 and reauthorised the delivery of cross-line and cross-border aid in Syria. That draft—stewarded by the then humanitarian penholders, Egypt, Japan and Sweden—was able to overcome the increased politicisation of the humanitarian situation in Syria. It remains to be seen whether Council members will be able to preserve space for compromise on the Syria humanitarian track in the coming months.