No Excuse, Explanation or Rationale for Waging War on Civilians, Security Council Hears during Briefings by Political, Humanitarian Affairs Chiefs

SC/12351
4 May 2016
7687th Meeting (PM)

No Excuse, Explanation or Rationale for Waging War on Civilians, Security Council Hears during Briefings by Political, Humanitarian Affairs Chiefs

Syria’s Representative Accuses ‘So-Called Moderate Opposition’ of Killings

Indiscriminate bombardments, harrowing attacks targeting civilians and medical facilities, and widespread carnage had left Aleppo a shell of its former self, with “no corner of the city” spared, the ranking United Nations political and humanitarian affairs officials told a Security Council meeting this afternoon.

Government aerial bombardment of Aleppo over the last two weeks represented some of the worst of the five-year-long war, said Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, briefing the 15-member Council on the current situation on the ground.  The pattern of systematic destruction was evident he said, urging all parties to abide by the cessation of hostilities agreement.  He also underscored the importance of the principles set out for a political transition, to be found in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), the Vienna statements and the Geneva communiqué.  “We cannot waste the opportunity of the negotiations in Geneva,” he emphasized.

“Allowing the parties to the conflict to play for time or territory on the ground to strengthen their position at the negotiating table would be a mistake,” he continued.  “The United Nations will strive to resume the negotiations as soon as feasible, in the hope that, meanwhile, efforts to put the cessation of hostilities back on track will bear fruit.”  Nothing should prevent those aims, he said.  Efforts to tackle terrorism should not stop the parties from advancing the negotiations nor hinder progress on the transition process.  A comprehensive political transition to an inclusive, democratic and participatory State, reached through the political process, would be one of the greatest contributions that could be made to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Nusra Front, he added.

Providing a more detailed snapshot of Aleppo’s current state, Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said life was horrendous and had lost all sense.  Access to water and electricity was sporadic at best, and the estimated 300,000 people remaining in the eastern part of the city were living in constant fear of the next barrel bomb attack from the air, he noted.  The estimated 1.3 million people in western Aleppo were seeking refuge from the shells and mortars slamming into their homes.  “There can be no explanation or excuse, no reason or rationale, for waging war on civilians,” he said, emphasizing that such attacks must stop immediately.  Urging full, unhindered and safe access to all those in need of medical, surgical and other assistance, including those in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, he said all parties must live up to their obligations under international humanitarian law and Council resolutions.

Syria’s representative voiced regret over recent violence in Aleppo and noted that, in the past 10 days, the so-called moderate opposition had, in fact, killed 118 people and wounded more than 200 others in attacking civilians and hospitals alike.  The Government of Syria had participated in the Geneva peace talks in good faith and abided by the cessation of hostilities accord, and remained interested in joining any sincere effort to reach a solution, he said.

Council members expressed alarm over recent attacks and welcomed the announcement by the United States and the Russian Federation of a new ceasefire agreement extending to Aleppo.

The representatives of France and the United Kingdom, who had jointly requested this afternoon’s meeting, called for reinvigorating the peace talks.  The United Kingdom’s representative said the Council had an obligation to the people of Aleppo to seek a political settlement of the war and end the violence.  Doing nothing was not an option, he said, adding that his delegation was drafting a Security Council press statement that would address some of the pressing challenges.

Indeed, Senegal’s representative said, it was the Council’s duty to ensure that peace talks would resume with a genuine ceasefire in place, and that a political transition would unfold, bringing meaningful change.  Given the ongoing attacks against civilians, it was necessary for the Council to publish a statement sending a clear message to all warring parties.

Concurring, Angola’s representative said that, even though Council statements had had little effect on the parties in the past, it was important to act because inaction would be felt for generations to come.  He urged all parties to put down their weapons and return to the peace talks.

In order to achieve that end, States should use every means possible to influence the parties, some speakers said.  The representatives of the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group, discussed their joint efforts to restore calm to Aleppo and suggested paths for further progress.

The representative of the United States called upon all those with influence, especially the Russian Federation and Iran, must press the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to cease the hostilities and facilitate a political transition.  Voicing concern over externally funded groups operating in Syria, the Russian Federation’s representative said there seemed to be a lack of political will to influence Syrian opposition groups to distance themselves from terrorist organizations.

Some speakers agreed, with Egypt’s representative, the Council President for May, saying that reluctance among certain States was hampering progress in the peace talks.  That reluctance had allowed Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaida to gain ground and recruit fighters.  To reverse that trend, the International Syria Support Group should address that concern.  “Al-Nusra Front is as dangerous as ISIL,” he said, emphasizing that the Geneva process remained the only beacon of hope for settling the conflict.

Also speaking were representatives of Spain, New Zealand, Ukraine, Japan, Uruguay, Venezuela, China and Malaysia.

The meeting began at 2:07 p.m. and ended at 4:01 p.m.

Briefings

JEFFREY FELTMAN, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said the pattern of systematic destruction was evident and “no corner of the city had been spared”, with Aleppo becoming a shell of what it once was.  Government aerial bombardment over the last two weeks represented some of the worst of the five-year-long war in Syria he said, urging all parties to abide by the ceasefire arrangements.  Amid the horrific attacks, intentional and direct attacks on hospitals were war crimes.  Reports of joint military operations being conducted by groups that were parties to the cessation of hostilities and those outside it, including the Al-Nusra Front, presented a major challenge to stabilizing the situation.

The overall situation in Aleppo resembled some of the worst days of the pre-ceasefire agreement, he said, expressing hope that the current “days of silence” decreased violence and extended to cover more areas in the country.  The ceasefire must be put back on track and additional measures were needed to reinvigorate and ensure enhanced monitoring of the cessation of hostilities.  The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had held consultations with the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group ceasefire taskforce and was currently in Berlin meeting German and French officials.

Turning to the political process, he said the next round of negotiations should be supported by progress on the ground.  Yet, the current level of violence in Aleppo was hindering the ability of the Syrian parties to engage in negotiations.  There was no military solution and the only way for peace to come to Syria was through a political solution.  With that in mind, the Special Envoy had developed an 18-point mediator’s summary to advance political transition arrangements.  While progress had been made during the last round of talks, future rounds needed to determine how the respective visions of political transition would unfold.  Through Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), the Vienna statements and the Geneva communiqué, the international community had already defined a number of core principles for any transition.

Now, renewed backing of the International Syria Support Group was required, he said, to advance the intra-Syrian negotiations.  Efforts to tackle terrorism, as outlined in resolution 2253 (2015), should not prevent parties from advancing negotiations nor hinder progress.  Through the political transition process, one of the greatest contributions that could be made to fight Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Nusra Front was to achieve a comprehensive political transition to an inclusive, democratic and participatory State.

The Secretary-General and his Special Envoy were trying to find a way forward by August.  “We cannot waste the opportunity of the negotiations in Geneva.  Allowing the parties to the conflict to play for time or territory on the ground to strengthen their position at the negotiating table would be a mistake,” he said, and added that:  “The United Nations will strive to resume the negotiations as soon as feasible, in the hope that meanwhile efforts to put the cessation of hostilities back on track will bear fruit.”

STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that for the sake of Syrians, the opportunity of negotiations in Geneva could not be squandered.  While welcoming news of a further agreement, he was horrified by the death and destruction in Aleppo, where indiscriminate attacks and use of explosive weapons by Government, non-State armed opposition groups and listed terrorists had intensified, affecting mostly civilians.  While the dead were still being counted, estimates were that hundreds of civilians had been killed or injured.

Life in Aleppo was horrendous and had lost all sense, he said.  Access to water and electricity was sporadic at best.  The estimated 300,000 people remaining in the eastern part of the city lived in constant fear of the next air attack, including barrel bombs, while the estimated 1.3 million in western Aleppo were seeking refuge from the shells and mortars slamming their homes.  “There can be no explanation or excuse, no reason or rationale, for waging war on civilians,” he said.

Bombs had also rained down on medical facilities across Aleppo, he said, citing a 22 April airstrike that hit an ambulance en route to help those wounded in an earlier airstrike in the Huluk neighbourhood.  On 27 April, Al-Quds hospital — the most advanced paediatric care centre in Aleppo — was destroyed by a wave of airstrikes, which by all accounts was launched by the Syrian Government.  Fifty people were killed and 80 injured.  On 29 April, airstrikes destroyed a United Nations-funded primary health centre in the Marjeh neighbourhood, and the Bustan al-Qasir health-care centre in eastern Aleppo, currently controlled by non-State armed groups.  Such attacks had claimed innocent lives and left tens of thousands of civilians unable to access even the most basic care.

More broadly, he said, Physicians for Human Rights had found there had been more than 360 attacks on 250 medical facilities during the conflict.  It was now considered a risk to live near a medical facility.  Enshrined in international humanitarian law, the protection and provision of medical assistance to the wounded and sick was at the heart of humanitarian action.  Those responsible for such unconscionable acts had violated international law, with some attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  They would be held accountable.

While the United Nations and its partners had delivered life-saving aid to hundreds of thousands of people each month in Aleppo, originating both from within Syria and cross-border from Turkey, he expressed concern that the security situation in the city had impeded those operations.  Many actors had had to suspend their operations that the Government had not approved his Office’s request for a cross-line, inter-agency convoy to eastern Aleppo in May.  Suspension of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s activities was also worrying and he called for allowing the organization to resume its activities as soon as possible.

Indiscriminate attacks and the destruction of civilian infrastructure had taken a toll across the country, he said, expressing concern about the impacts in Dar’a, amid reports of fighting between the Government and non-State armed groups.  Attacks on civilians must immediately stop, he stressed, urging full, unhindered and safe access to all those in need, including in besieged and hard-to-reach areas and for assistance, including medical and surgical supplies.  All parties must live up to their obligations under international humanitarian law and Council resolutions.

Statements

MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom), thanking the Council for convening the open meeting, said the cessation of hostilities agreement had, in fact, ceased to exist.  Even yesterday, he said, reports had described two barrel bombs targeting civilian areas and regime shelling hitting several neighbourhoods and President Assad had shown that there was no commitment to a political settlement.  Emphasizing that there could not be peace if Assad remained in power, he said the Assad regime had deliberately attacked hospitals and civilians.  The assault and encircling of an entire city were war crimes and those responsible should be held fully accountable.  The Council had an obligation to the people of Aleppo to try to find a political settlement to the war and stop the violence.  Welcoming the United States and Russian Federation announcement of a new ceasefire agreement, he said, adding that the United Kingdom was drafting a text that would address some of the pressing challenges.  Doing nothing was not an option, he concluded.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said that, despite progress since the diplomatic process began in Vienna and the subsequent cessation of hostilities agreement, attacks continued.  Aleppo was a city at a crossroads, with rich cultural heritage.  The world could not close its eyes to the truth.  The Syrian regime was using all means to attack on civilians, displacing thousands of people.  Drawing attention to the Council’s resolution on protecting medical personnel and facilities, he noted that, on 27 April, a hospital had been deliberately attacked by the Syrian regime.  To improve the situation on the ground, the international community must ensure that the cessation of hostilities be respected.  Given the more than 400,000 deaths, the Security Council had an important role to monitor the country’s compliance with the ceasefire agreement.

ROMÁN OYARZUN MARCHESI (Spain) said the Council must support the work of Special Envoy de Mistura, who underscored the urgency of complying with the cessation of hostilities agreement.  The next step should be to return to the negotiating table.  It was unfortunate that, recently, Syrian Government forces had attacked a hospital in breach of international law.  It was more dangerous to live next to a hospital than to be a fighter or combatant in that country, he stressed.

SAMANTHA POWER (United States) said the recent explosion of violence was threatening Aleppo’s future.  To save the ancient city, progress was needed to stop the fighting, improve humanitarian access and advance political discussions.  The cessation of hostilities had saved lives, access had improved modestly and talks were continuing.  All three tracks must continue to progress together.  But, the current violence threatened those advances.  The Assad regime had played the major role in the attack, she said, noting her country’s cooperation with the Special Envoy and the Russian Federation in securing progress and ensuring hostilities end in Aleppo and across the country.  In the past two weeks ambulances, schools and other civilian areas had been targeted, creating a devastating humanitarian situation in the city.  The Assad regime had also restricted access for aid deliveries.

The Assad regime and any group that targeted hospitals and other civilian facilities must be pressed urgently to commit to existing Council resolutions, including resolution 2286 (2016) condemning those and other attacks on health workers and civilians, she said.  The primary responsibility for the current situation clearly rested with the regime.  All those with influence, especially the Russian Federation and Iran, must press the regime to cease hostilities and facilitate a political transition.

VITALY CHURKIN (Russian Federation) said the broad level of violence had decreased and new opportunities had formed to achieve a political solution.  In many areas in Syria, towns and cities were joining the ceasefire agreement and negotiations were leading to the restoration of peace in a growing number of areas.  It was counterproductive to express criticism on unconfirmed reports and to make allegations against Syria’s Government.  Reports of chemical weapon use among armed groups were disturbing and should be examined.  There seemed to be a lack of political will to influence Syrian opposition groups to distance themselves from terrorist groups.  Meanwhile, the Russian Federation and United States military experts were working closely on a daily basis and were cooperating on negotiations, including an intention that would have introduced calm in Aleppo on 3 May.  Before that date, however, insurgents had sought to break through defences, with Al-Nusra Front and other local groups launching attacks, including on a maternity hospital.

To put negotiations on hold and allow insurgents to regroup was not unacceptable, he said, especially since the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had reported the use of mustard gas among them.  At a time when all steps must be taken to halt the use of chemical weapons, some Council members were preventing the Chinese and Russian efforts in that regard.  All provocations must end.  Without external support, terrorist groups in Syria could not operate, he said.  The Syria-Turkey border must be examined, he said, calling on all side to continue with negotiations.  With regard to the representative of the United Kingdom’s proposed press statement, he said he would consider the text.

GERARD VAN BOHEMEN (New Zealand) pressed all sides to invest fully in the political process, recalling the Council’s duty to pressure parties at the table to participate in good faith.  That meant increasing access for aid, negotiating the release of detainees, stopping the fighting and engaging on the substance of a political transition.  It also meant halting attacks on schools and hospitals. There had been a tendency to use “terrorism” and “terrorists” loosely as a justification for military response.  That must stop, with military action carried out in full respect for international humanitarian law, he said, citing requirements for distinction, proportionality and prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.  Greater care was also needed to distinguish between groups participating in the peace process and those outside it.

VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) strongly condemned the recent air strikes in Aleppo that had killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands of others.  While commending the efforts of the Special Envoy for Syria to get Syria back on track, he said that would not be possible with the current Government’s actions.  Indiscriminate attacks against civilians must stop, he said, describing the unanimous adoption of resolution 2286 (2016) as a timely and important step.  Failure to comply with that text would lead to the collapse of the cessation of hostilities accord, he warned.

MOTOHIDE YOSHIKAWA (Japan) acknowledged the remarkable progress made over the past months and the considerable improvements in humanitarian access.  However, “we cannot be satisfied with these temporary achievements”, he said, expressing regret over the escalation of violence in Syria.  Welcoming the joint efforts by the United States and the Russian Federation, he urged all parties to comply strictly with resolution 2286 (2016).  It was critical to improve the situation on the ground, he added, stressing the important role to be played by the international community.

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) asked:  “How many deaths does it take to reach a political solution in Syria?”  Expressing support for the joint efforts by the Russian Federation and the United States to secure the cessation of hostilities, he expressed hope that the parties to the conflict would feel the pressure.  Uruguay stood ready to support all initiatives that would help facilitate humanitarian access.

GORGUI CISS (Senegal) said all parties must honour the ceasefire arrangements and fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law.  Clashes were taking place during a critical juncture in negotiations, and it was the Council’s responsibility to ensure that peace talks resumed with a genuine ceasefire in place, and that a political transition would unfold and bring meaningful change.  Given the ongoing attacks against civilians, it was necessary for the Council to publish a statement sending a clear message to all warring parties, he said.

HENRY ALFREDO SUÁREZ MORENO (Venezuela) emphasized the importance of maintaining political space for dialogue in Geneva.  That dialogue among all parties must resume because a comprehensive political solution was the only way to end the violence in Syria.  Terrorist groups must be fought and overthrown, he said, calling on all States to use their influence to ensure that such groups cut ties with ISIL and similar terrorist actors.  The humanitarian response in Syria must be guided by a neutral and balanced approach that would reach all communities.  Calling for an end to indiscriminate attacks against medical facilities and civilians, he said the peace process must be supported by the Syrian people and a solution to the armed conflict must therefore be political.

LIU JIEYI (China), acknowledging the large number of casualties in Syria, condemned all attacks on civilians or medical facilities.  China supported efforts by the United States and the Russian Federation, he said, noting that, despite the tensions in Aleppo, ceasefires had been established and maintained in most of the country.  Countries in the region must play a constructive role, he said, commending the work of the Special Envoy.  Furthermore, there was a need to strengthen counter-terrorism efforts in order to ensure peace and security in Syria and neighbouring countries.

SITI HAJJAR ADNIN (Malaysia) said that while violence had been reduced significantly due to the cessation of hostilities, the fighting in Aleppo had intensified in recent weeks.  “We cannot allow the good progress to unravel,” she emphasized, condemning recent attacks on medical personnel and facilities as unacceptable.  Welcoming the joint efforts of the United States and the Russian Federation, she stressed the need to maintain the cessation of hostilities, rebuild confidence among the parties and provide unhindered humanitarian access.

JULIO HELDER MOURA LUCAS (Angola) said the deal struck by the United States and the Russian Federation must deliver, especially with the ceasefire verging on collapse.  A military solution was not feasible, yet armed groups on the ground were apparently unwilling to relinquish their positions in the sinister, devastating war.  The ceasefire could create space for dialogue, but the situation on the ground clearly demonstrated that the parties were interested in strategic gains.  Considering the worsening humanitarian situation, Angola urged all parties immediately to allow aid deliveries to resume, he said.  Even though Security Council statements had had little effect on the parties, it was important to act because inaction would be felt for generations to come, he warned, urging all parties to put down their weapons and return to the peace talks.

AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt), Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, saying the international consensus was based on ending the hostilities, reaching agreement, improving humanitarian access and combating terrorism and extremism.  Condemning attacks against hospitals and civilian areas, he urged all parties to honour international humanitarian law and to allow access to affected communities by groups providing assistance to those in need.  Noting that reluctance on the part of certain States had hampered progress in advancing the talks, he emphasized that it was time to be honest and set matters straight, stressing that such reluctance had allowed Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaida to gain ground and recruit armed groups into their ranks.  He called on the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group to end that sense of reluctance.  “Al-Nusra Front is as dangerous as ISIL,” he said, underlining that the Geneva process remained the only beacon of hope for settling the conflict.

MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria) expressing regret that 28 civilians had been killed in Aleppo yesterday, said that hospitals and civilian areas had been under attack by armed groups.  “Either support or cover-up terrorists, enough with the hypocrisy and politicization,” he said, asking Council members how they could call the opposition “moderate”.  In fact, they had killed 118 people and wounded more than 200 just in the past 10 days, he noted.  It was clear that the Government of Syria had been participating in the Geneva talks in good faith in order to reach a political settlement, he said.  It had abided by the cessation of hostilities accord in order to ensure the restoration of security, combat terrorism and protect its citizens.  However, Al-Nusra Front had violated the agreement in Aleppo, he said, voicing the Government’s interest in joining any sincere efforts to reach a solution.

For information media. Not an official record.