The morning of 3 June UN Security Council members will be briefed in consultations on humanitarian access to besieged areas in Syria by UNOCHA head advisor Stephen O’Brien. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will also brief via video-teleconference.
The briefing comes amidst diminishing prospects for resuming the intra-Syrian political talks, as the cessation of hostilities unravels due to government offensives around Aleppo, Idlib and the rebel held suburbs of Damascus, as well as the ongoing lack of humanitarian access. In particular, the briefing is being held to give Council members the information they need to assess developments since the 17 May statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which decided that if the UN continues to be denied access to besieged areas after 1 June, then the World Food Programme should deliver humanitarian aid via air bridges and air drops, as it does in ISIL-controlled Deir ez-Zor.
Council members will want to hear O’Brien’s assessment of yesterday’s aid deliveries to the government-besieged Damascus suburbs of Darraya and Moadamiyeh—two of the 19 besieged areas identified by the UN. Some Council members have observed that the delivery of aid, but not food, to Darraya for the first time since 2012 on the 1 June deadline set by the ISSG is not coincidental, and was likely approved by the Syrian government to ward off further international action towards air drops. It was just a few weeks ago, on 12 May, that despite having received clearance from government authorities, a UN aid convoy was denied access to Darraya by the 4th Division of the Syrian Army, controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher. After the convoy turned back, government forces launched a mortar attack at the area where civilians had gathered to receive the aid. Some Council members have been hesitant to characterise yesterday’s aid delivery to Darraya as significant progress as the government did not approve the delivery of food items despite reports of starvation conditions. There are preliminary approvals from the government for the delivery of food to Darraya tomorrow, and Council members will want an update from O’Brien on this.
Council members will also be interested in a read-out from O’Brien on today’s meeting of the ISSG humanitarian task-force in Geneva and the discussions regarding the feasibility of the World Food Programme delivering aid via air drops or air bridges. Council members will want more information on the technical and logistical aspects of air drops as well as to get a preliminary sense of the government’s view of such an undertaking. Few Council members believe that government consent will be forthcoming if such cooperation is absent when it comes to the delivery of aid via land routes. To date the government has only approved UN-facilitated air drops to ISIL-controlled Deir ez Zor.
Meanwhile, it seems there is pressure mounting from several members of the ISSG for the UN to submit a plan to the government for air drops and air bridges to all besieged communities. At the same time, several Council members have underscored the need for Iran and Russia, who are also ISSG members, to use their leverage to pressure the Syrian government to grant access by land. Council members are of the view that the cost, questionable efficacy and logistics of air drops makes it an option of last resort. Some Council members hope it is an option that, if implemented, may result in the government approving more land convoys in order to keep international actors out of its air space.
There appears to be growing pressure from the larger UN membership for the Council to take some action. While there has been no formal discussion among Council members over the issue of the delivery of humanitarian aid by air without state consent, informally members are looking at resolution 2165 in this regard. Resolution 2165, adopted in July 2014, gave the UN authorisation for cross-border and cross-line access to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria without state consent. It specified four border crossings in operational paragraph 2, but also alluded to broader authorisation in operational paragraph 6 by deciding that all Syrian parties shall enable the immediate and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance and will immediately remove all impediments to the provision of humanitarian assistance. Nevertheless, irrespective of resolution 2165, no Council member believes that the UN would carry out air drops without state consent or without more explicit authorisation from the Council. Aside from the often delicate balance required from the UN to both pressure and cooperate with the government on humanitarian issues, such hesitancy also relates to the fact that the UN uses private contractors to carry out air drops and contractors would be unwilling to operate without Syrian consent for practical reasons, ranging from liability and safety issues to air traffic control needs.
Information from the briefing is expected to be important in shaping members’ understanding of whether the time has come for action from the Council. Those members who might be keen on taking further action on the issue of humanitarian access broadly, and air drops and air bridges in particular, are assessing whether the ad hoc and partial aid deliveries approved by the government to besieged areas are a sufficient indication of willingness on the part of the Syrian government to approve more land convoys. While no draft Council outcome has been circulated, it seems that if there is not a significant uptick in humanitarian access by land routes in the near term then there may be an attempt to table a draft resolution authorising the UN and/or member states to carry out air drops.
De Mistura will also add to the brief but is unlikely to have any significant updates on the political track. The chances of resuming talks in June and reaching a framework agreement by 1 August seem more remote than ever. The chief negotiator of the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), resigned on 29 May, saying the international community has been unable to implement its own decisions regarding the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and the release of detainees.
The political and humanitarian tracks have become inextricably linked, with OCHA reiterating that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved by humanitarian actors and requires a political solution and de Mistura stressing the need for substantially more aid and substantially less violence for political talks to be credible. However, when de Mistura and O’Brien last briefed Council members, on 26 and 27 May respectively, they both delivered the same message that the cessation of hostilities needs to be respected and there needs to be sustained and unfettered access that results in a material improvement of the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Russia and the US have invested a great deal of political capital to resolve the Syrian crisis, most recently demonstrated in a 9 May joint statement released ahead of the 17 May ISSG meeting, where they committed to intensify efforts to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities, enhance efforts to promote humanitarian assistance, and redouble efforts to reach a political solution. However, the situation on the ground over the course of May did not provide any evidence that commitments from either the 9 May joint statement or the 17 May ISSG statement were being observed. Some Council members are concerned that the Russian-US cooperation on Syria has reached its limits, resulting in familiar divisions re-emerging in the Security Council.