Ireland’s fourth two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council came to an end on December 31st. The prestigious role placed Ireland at the centre of international diplomacy on a world stage and, in recent weeks, Ireland’s performance has been critiqued and reviewed by many. It has been widely noted that Ireland “made its mark” as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, despite the shadows cast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. And while Ireland did indeed have a significant impact during its two-year term, the bigger picture is much more complex and mixed.
The world has turned its attention to the devastation in Ukraine, while Syria has been at conflict since 2011 – ever since protests against Syrian president Assad turned into a full-scale civil war. The conflict has left close to 500,000 people dead, as pro-government forces continue to target civilians and block humanitarian aid.
The war in Syria still remains the world’s largest and most protracted migration crisis in recent history. Syria’s pre-war population was 22 million and, since 2011, more than half of those people have been forced to flee their homes. More than six million Syrians have been driven to live in informal settlements and camp settings, while another 6.8 million are refugees or asylum seekers. More than 80 per cent of Syrians fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. The EU accepted one million Syrian refugees and the entire region has since struggled to cope with one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.
[ Analysis: How Ireland has achieved important goals on UN Security Council - and faced the consequences ]
In 2021, as new non-permanent UN Security Council members, Ireland and Norway led negotiations to maintain the UN cross-border humanitarian operations between Turkey and northwest Syria. As “co-penholders”, or leaders of a humanitarian process affecting 2.8 million civilians living in devastating conditions, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Russia’s almost inevitable veto against aid being delivered into parts of Syria occupied by rebel forces made negotiations difficult. As the Guardian pointed out at the time (June 2021), “the chances of success are slim. The crossing requires a UN resolution and a Russian commitment not to use its veto to block the measure.”
On the surface, nothing could have been sweeter than the success of finally passing UN Security Council Resolution 2642 and extending the council mandate for the UN’s cross-border humanitarian operation between Turkey and northwest Syria. The diplomats acted strategically and built in accommodations to ensure success, and this was supported by a co-ordinated response from Irish and international NGOs, while convincing the Russians not to block vital humanitarian aid.
However, it is hard not to feel disheartened by what has been lost, as opposed to what has been gained. Since 2020, three UN cross-border aid routes into Syria have been vetoed by Russia and China; from Jordan, Iraq, and a second crossing in Turkey. In fact, the last remaining UN humanitarian aid route into Syria could be agreed for only six months – not even a year.
The success of the UN Security Council has highlighted the diminishing global humanitarian response in Syria, despite the increasing needs and vulnerabilities. Attention has shifted to Ukraine, as it must. However, without a realistic sense of what has been lost already, it is hard to begin negotiating or defining success for humanitarian aid globally.
Speaking at an event recently, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, noted of Ireland’s contribution to the UN Security Council: “We have tried to be a small country that isn’t there to build alliances in our own political interests, but to be a constructive member of the Security Council that can bring countries together.” Ireland’s diplomatic achievements despite the odds is a testament to that ideal. But should we be aiming higher or pushing even harder?
In 2026 Ireland will hold the EU council presidency for six months. Where will Syrian civilians be by then? Where will Ukraine be? What leverage can Ireland bring to the table on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable people trapped in never-ending wars?
There is no question that the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa would have been closed without critical interventions from Irish and Norwegian delegations at the UN Security Council. Millions of people would have faced hunger and a critical health crisis. But the reality is that the six-month agreement expires in January and must be renegotiated again and again. Almost three million Syrians are relying on critical humanitarian assistance that crosses the border into Syria each month, without knowing if this assistance will arrive the next month.
Ireland must use the experience and the exposure of the UN Security Council to explore broader longer-term solutions that will protect Syrians and prevent Ukraine from following a similar path.
Jeannie Zielinski is Syria country director for Goal which has more than 900 local staff working to deliver aid in Idleb and Northern Aleppo