Tomorrow (7 September), the Security Council is scheduled to receive briefings on the political and humanitarian situation in the Syrian northern governorate of Idlib and adjacent areas close to the Turkish border. The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and John Ging, OCHA’s Director of Operations, are the anticipated briefers. The meeting is taking place against the backdrop of a potential major military operation by the Syrian government and its allies to gain control of the area, currently held by armed groups. An outcome from the meeting is not expected at this point.
Also tomorrow, a high-level meeting will be convened by the guarantors of the Astana process—Iran, Russia, and Turkey—in Tehran. Until now, they have not been able to find agreement on how to handle the situation in Idlib.
Despite constituting the last de-escalation zone agreed to in May 2017 by Iran, Russia, and Turkey Idlib has been targeted by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. It hosts 1.4 million civilians displaced by the conflict and a total of 2.9 million people, including 1 million children. The UN has repeatedly warned about the possibility of a humanitarian emergency not yet seen in the Syrian conflict in case of an escalation of military activity in and around Idlib. The presence in Idlib of around 10,000 Al-Nusra fighters (a Council-designated terrorist group) continues to be used to justify military operations, as has been the case in other parts of Syria. In the past, the Syrian government and its allies have evacuated rebels and civilians to Idlib from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Dara’a and Qunaitra under so-called reconciliation agreements after militarily retaking control of those areas. On 5 September, Adama Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, issued a statement expressing grave concern about the situation.
Although the potential of a military offensive in Idlib has been known for some time, the situation has become more urgent following an intensification of attacks by Russia and the Syrian government, including the stated plans to initiate a ground offensive next week.
On 29 August the Secretary-General warned against a looming humanitarian “catastrophe” that would follow a full-scale military operation. He appealed to the government of Syria and all parties to exercise restraint and prioritise the protection of civilians, and urged the Astana guarantors to increase efforts to find a peaceful solution.
On 4 September, de Mistura stated as a primary goal that this battle not end in a “bloodbath,” or be averted altogether. In this regard, he specifically appealed to Russia and Turkey to use their influence to prevent the battle. A battle for Idlib could be the last major battle in the territorial conflict in Syria.
The E-10 (the ten elected members of the Council) met on 4 September to discuss the developments in Idlib. Poland, in its capacity as the monthly coordinator of the E-10, read a statement at the Security Council media stakeout, echoing the SG’s concerns, including the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe. They also called for the implementation of applicable Council resolutions, and called upon all relevant actors with influence on the ground to step up efforts for a peaceful solution.
The P-3 have said that military strikes against Syrian government targets are an option in case chemical weapons are used in an offensive against Idlib. Russia has been critical of this position, reiterating its stance that Syria doesn’t have chemical weapons. Ahead of a Council briefing on the Syria chemical weapons file today, the “EU-8” (Italy and the Netherlands splitting their term at the Council, France, Poland, Sweden, UK, and future members Belgium and Germany) made a statement on Idlib in which they called the use of chemical weapons “totally unacceptable”. They urged the guarantors of the Astana process as the safeguards of the de-escalation zones, especially Russia and Iran, to find a solution.
After the briefing, the five EU members of the Council (France, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK) will co-host an Arria-formula meeting on “Syrian Voices on Preventing a Deathtrap in Idlib.” The concept note circulated by the EU Delegation to the UN states that the meeting’s objective is to highlight the dire humanitarian situation on the ground as well as possible consequences of a further military escalation. According to the organizers, the briefers representing the “Syrian voices” include Hind Kabawat (Deputy Head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission in Geneva), Fadwa Ojyli and Bassma Kodmani (both members of the Syrian Negotiation Commission), Bahjat Hajjar (a researcher and activist) and Hadi Al-Bahra (the chief negotiator of the Syrian National Coalition delegation in Geneva). According to the concept note, the meeting will also serve as a platform to inform an international response. The meeting will be open and will also be webcast.
Tomorrow’s meeting could be an opportunity for the Council to explore the level of support for action to avoid a military escalation and put pressure on the Astana guarantors to find a solution. The public nature of the meeting may present an obstacle for that kind of action-oriented discussion, however.