Those Besieging Syrian Cities Know Security Council Unable, Unwilling to Stop Them, Emergency Relief Coordinator Says in Briefing

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21 November 2016
7817th Meeting (AM)

Those Besieging Syrian Cities Know Security Council Unable, Unwilling to Stop Them, Emergency Relief Coordinator Says in Briefing

Government Allowing Civilians to Flee Eastern Aleppo, But Terrorists Hold Them as Human Shields, Insists Permanent Representative

Those maintaining the sieges in Syria knew by now that the Security Council was unable or unwilling to enforce its will or agree on steps to stop them, the Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told the 15-nation body today.

Stephen O’Brien, delivering his monthly briefing on the strife-filled country, said that over the last week there had been an intense unleashing of military aggression in Aleppo, with shelling, reportedly by the Syrian Government, killing hundreds of civilians.  As of yesterday, there were barely any functional hospitals left in eastern Aleppo.  In addition, more than 350 mortars and rockets had been reportedly launched by non-State armed groups into western Aleppo, killing 60 people and injuring more than 350.

Since July, 275,000 civilians had been trapped in eastern Aleppo, he said.  The Russian Federation and Syria had opened corridors for civilians to leave, but those passages were reportedly unsafe or perceived as unsafe.  There had also been reports that non-State armed groups had prevented those wishing to leave the city from doing so.  Humanitarian conditions in that area had gone from terrifying to barely survivable and civilians would shortly face a harsh winter without heating.

During 2016, there had been a massive increase in the use of besiegement, particularly by the Government of Syria, he said.  Currently, an estimated 974,000 people were living under siege.  Attacks on civilian infrastructure, most notably hospitals and schools had become commonplace.  Such attacks were violations of international humanitarian law and some had been called out as war crimes by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he pointed out. 

Reiterating the demands in various Security Council resolutions, he called for strong Council action to back up its resolutions.  “I hear the argument that this Council should not pass a resolution because it would be ‘premature’,” he said, but “[…] it is never too premature to save a life.  It is never too soon for you to find a solution to this conflict and end the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Elizabeth Hoff of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that, having had one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, Syria’s health services had been devastated.  Over half its public hospitals and primary care centres were either closed or only partially functioning.  Almost two-thirds of health care officials had left the country and Syrians no longer had reliable access to necessary medicines, treatment for traumatic injuries, safe delivery for babies or other critical care. 

There had been 126 attacks on health care facilities between January and September alone, some more than once, she said.  Equally disturbing were the militarization of health care facilities by several parties to the conflict, the targeting of health care personnel and the denial of medical and surgical supplies to many areas.  In eastern Aleppo, all eight hospitals were either out of action or barely functioning and the few remaining doctors were exhausted and overwhelmed. 

“Denying ordinary citizens access to health care is an affront to our common humanity”, she stated, stressing that attacks on health facilities were a violation of international law.  She called on the Security Council to ensure that the parties involved had the coordinates of all humanitarian convoys and health facilities, to register any attacks that occurred and to ensure sustained, unconditional access to all areas for medical supplies and evacuations. 

The Syrian Government was following a “starve, get bombed or surrender” strategy, said the representative of the United States.  While atrocities committed by terrorist organizations must be acknowledged, the truth must also be told of “Government and Russian terror”, she stressed, describing air strikes on hospitals in that regard.  Naming commanders who she said were responsible for such merciless attacks, she emphasized that they must know that they would be some day held accountable.  In addition, while condemning abuses by non-State actors and terrorist groups, she also emphasized that the Assad regime and the Russian Federation must know that they were responsible for the massive destruction and suffering in Syria.

The representative of the Russian Federation, however, stated that his country had been assisting United Nations humanitarian aid and other assistance in Syria, as well as facilitating political efforts.  Acknowledging the suffering civilians in Aleppo, nonetheless, he pointed out that the differentiation of armed groups from terrorists had not taken place.  His country and the Syrian Government were being blamed for the suffering, but numbers were constantly changing and information was being intentionally falsified.  Underlining the cessation of bombings during various periods, he stressed Russian efforts to end the fighting while assisting the Government in counter-terrorism. 

The Syrian Government had allowed civilians in eastern Aleppo to flee and had opened corridors for them to do so, stated that country’s representative.  The terrorists, however, had retained civilians to use as human shields.  If the United States wanted to safeguard terrorists, it could take them, especially since there were many foreigners among them.  Furthermore, the humanitarian reports of the United Nations were being distorted for political purposes, while the terrorist threat to his country was being ignored.  No one was more keen than his Government to stop the suffering, through the ending of such terrorist activity as well as all fighting, he maintained. 

Nonetheless, the Council had been powerless in dealing with the situation in Syria, New Zealand’s representative said.  Together with Egypt and Spain, he was proposing a simple resolution which would establish a 10‑day pause of hostilities in Aleppo and re‑establish the cessation of hostilities in the rest of the country. 

Several speakers voiced support for New Zealand’s draft resolution while lamenting the fact that the Security Council had been unable to stop the Syrian people’s suffering.  The representative of Senegal, Council President for November, emphasized that the Council had displayed its lack of unity and political will as well as its powerlessness to act on any aspect of the crisis, including the humanitarian, security and the political aspects as well as the non‑proliferation aspect.  He appealed to the Council to support the Syrian people and called for support of the draft before the Council to end the violence.  That text could provide a glimmer of hope. 

Also speaking today were representatives of Uruguay, Japan, France, United Kingdom, Angola, Ukraine, Venezuela, Malaysia, Span, China and Egypt.

The meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 12:41 p.m.

Briefings

STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, describing the level of depravity with which the Syrian people were being treated, added “shame on us all for not acting to stop the annihilation of eastern Aleppo and its people and much of the rest of Syria too.”  Although a unilateral Russian and Syrian pause on aerial bombardment over eastern Aleppo, instituted on 18 October for an initial 72 hours had been maintained beyond the stated end, offering a glimmer of hope, the same had not been the case for western Aleppo, as non-State armed groups had launched hundreds of mortars into civilian areas. 

Over the last week there had been an intense unleashing of military aggression in Aleppo, he continued.  On 15 November the Syrian Government had reportedly started shelling again across areas of Aleppo held by non-State armed groups.  Reports indicated that hundreds of civilians had been killed, injured or otherwise affected.  As of yesterday, there were barely any functional hospitals left in eastern Aleppo.  As well, more than 350 mortars and rockets had been reportedly launched by non-State armed groups into western Aleppo, killing 60 people and injuring more than 350.

Since July, 275,000 civilians had been trapped in eastern Aleppo, he said. The Russian Federation and Syria had opened corridors for civilians to leave, but they were reportedly unsafe or perceived as unsafe.  There had also been reports that non-State armed groups had prevented those wishing to leave the city from doing so.  Humanitarian conditions in eastern Aleppo had gone from terrifying to barely survivable.  There had been protests against corruption and a monopoly on goods.  Civilians would shortly face a harsh winter without heating.

The United Nations had employed significant efforts to deliver lifesaving aid under dangerous circumstances, he said, urging the Government of Syria to give the Secretary-General’s Board of Inquiry regarding the attack on the humanitarian convoy on 19 September in Urum al-Kubra full access to conduct its investigations.  The restart of intense fighting was a clear setback to the goal of reaching agreement and delivering aid.  The United Nations would continue to insist on the parties’ obligations to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law and to see sustained humanitarian assistance delivered to those in eastern Aleppo and all who were in need throughout Syria, he said, calling on all with influence to do their part to end the senseless cycles of violence.

He went on to say that he also remained seriously concerned about the fate of all those living in besieged locations.  Aid deliveries and medical evacuations to the towns under the Four Towns Agreement – Madaya, Zabadani, Fu’ah and Kafraya — had been unable to deploy.  Only one convoy had reached the four towns in over six months.  There had also been a report of chemical weapons on Kafr Zita in Hama Governorate on 1 October.  During 2016, there had been a massive increase in the use of besiegement, particularly by the Government of Syria.  Currently, there were an estimated 974,000 people living under siege.

He underscored that those maintaining the sieges knew by now that the Council was unable or unwilling to enforce its will or agree on steps to stop them.  Attacks on civilian infrastructure, most notably hospitals and schools had become commonplace.  Such attacks were violations of international humanitarian law and some had been called out as war crimes by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Millions of children had had their childhoods ripped away by calculated and reckless attacks on schools, with 30 children dead over the last two weeks of October.  Since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2286 on 3 May, over 130 attacks on medical facilities had been documented and 750 medical personnel had been killed.

Cross-border activities had become a vital part of the response, with 420 cross-border convoys delivering health assistance sufficient for 9 million people and food for 3 million people, he said.  Unfortunately, since his last report to the Council, none of the inter-agency convoys had been able to deliver aid across lines, which required detailed access negotiations with all sides.  Syrians had also been impacted by anti-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) operations, resulting in an initial displacement of 8,000 people in Ar-Raqqa Governorate.  Support for 400,000 people was foreseen as operations progressed.

He reiterated what the Council in its resolutions had demanded:  an immediate end to all forms of violence; immediately ceasing all attacks against civilians; immediately lifting of sieges; promptly allowing unhindered humanitarian access; respecting the principle of medical neutrality; protecting civilians; and immediately ending arbitrary detention and torture.  That list was neither unreasonable nor unattainable, noting that he had called over and over for strong Council action to back up its resolutions.  “I hear the argument that this Council should not pass a resolution because it would be ‘premature’,” he said, but “[…] it is never too premature to save a life.  It is never too soon for you to find a solution to this conflict and end the suffering of the Syrian people.”

ELIZABETH HOFF of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that, having had one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, Syria’s health services had been devastated.  Over half its public hospitals and primary care centres were either closed or only partially functioning.  Almost two-thirds of health care officials had left the country.  Vaccination coverage had been halved, making children vulnerable to once-eradicated diseases.  No longer did Syrians have reliable access to necessary medicines, treatment for traumatic injuries, safe delivery for babies or other critical care. 

There had been 126 attacks on health care facilities between January and September alone, some more than once, she said.  Equally disturbing were the militarization of health care facilities by several parties to the conflict, the targeting of health care personnel and the denial of medical and surgical supplies to many areas.  Many patients were afraid to travel to facilities that remained. 

In eastern Aleppo, all eight hospitals were either out of action or barely functioning and the few remaining doctors were exhausted and overwhelmed, she continued.  WHO was awaiting the removal of obstacles to its plans to evacuate those in critical conditions and allow convoys to deliver supplies.  Hospitals in western Aleppo had been overwhelmed with wounded patients following indiscriminate shelling by non-State armed groups, such as the mortar that landed on a school last Saturday.

“Denying ordinary citizens access to health care is an affront to our common humanity”, she said, stressing that attacks on health facilities were a violation of international law, in which the neutrality of health facilities were enshrined.  Strongly condemning all actions by any party that targeted or appropriated health care facilities, she noted that previous calls had, unfortunately, fallen on deaf ears.

Despite the difficulties, she said that in 2016 thus far WHO had delivered over 9 million medical treatments throughout Syria, with several besieged areas reached for the first time as part of inter-agency convoys.  However, the Government had withheld approval for the delivery of 75 additional tons of life‑saving supplies to some areas, depriving some 150,000 people of critical care.  The organization had also established a disease surveillance system, had trained over 16,000 health-care workers and, with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), had supported the vaccination of millions of children.  All that work was done with the support of the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent and national non‑governmental partners.

Nonetheless, the situation was worsening, and she called on the Council to ensure that the parties involved had the coordinates of all humanitarian convoys and health facilities in order to end attacks on those facilities regardless of perpetrators, to register any attacks that occurred and to ensure sustained, unconditional access to all areas for medical supplies and evacuations.  She pledged WHO’s continued dedication to the people of Syria and extended thanks to donors who had donated to operations there.

Statements

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay), expressing regret about the harrowing reports the Council received month after month, emphasized the unacceptability of attacks on civilians and humanitarian facilities under any system of beliefs.  Noting the responsibility of all parties, he proposed that non‑State actors that conducted such attacks should be called terrorist groups.  Those who provided material or other support for the attacks were also guilty.  Supporting all of Mr. O’Brien’s recommendations, he called for an immediate end to the violence in Syria.

SAMANTHA POWER (United States) said that the Syrian Government was following a “starve, get bombed or surrender” strategy.  Sieges, the blocking of aid, the indiscriminate attacking of civilians and other humanitarian violations were characteristic of the tactics of the Government and its supporters across the country.  While atrocities committed by terrorist organizations must be acknowledged, the truth must also be told of “Government and Russian terror”, she stressed, describing air strikes on hospitals in that regard.  She also said she wondered if the Russian Federation’s representative would ever condemn the Syrian Government for even one attack on a school, hospital or civilian facility. 

Naming commanders that she said were responsible for such merciless attacks, she emphasized that they must know that they would be some day held accountable.  She also called for accountability for the detention and torture of civilians, journalists and health care workers, describing the torture ordeal of one journalist.  She went on to name the facilities where such abuses had been reported, as well as those alleged to have committed them.  While condemning such abuses by non-State actors and terrorist groups, she emphasized that the Assad regime and the Russian Federation must know that they were responsible for the massive destruction and suffering in Syria.

KORO BESSHO (Japan) said that an agreement from the Security Council or the International Syria Support Group was required to truly change the situation.  Even a single instance of humanitarian access faced countless obstacles on the ground.  “If members of the International Syria Support Group exert increased influence on the parties on the ground, can we overcome some of the impediments to humanitarian access?” he asked the Council.  As well, it was clear that Syria’s medical sector was in huge and imminent need of rehabilitation.  Shocked by the number of medical facilities that had been attacked in 2016, he once again underscored the obligation of parties to armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law under all circumstances.  Furthermore, if the lack of clarity on the attackers of medical facilities was making it difficult to protect those premises, the Security Council should request the Secretariat to investigate the issue.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said the humanitarian situation in Aleppo was more serious than words could describe and would trigger an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.  The Syrian regime was besieging civilians in 25 areas.  Requests to deliver aid once every month to those areas had been denied and those supplies and materials continued to be pilfered or spoiled.  The Syrian regime was obliged to ensure unhindered humanitarian access.  Deliberate attacks on hospitals and medical staff continued; that constituted war crimes.  The Syrian regime and its supporters must immediately cease bombing Aleppo and allow access to humanitarian aid.  He called on those members of the Council directly involved to take steps to prevent Aleppo from becoming a land of devastation.  The total war strategy was a strategic error that would lead to division of Syria and strengthen the role of Da’esh.  Underscoring the importance of a political solution to the crisis, he said the credibility of the Council was on the line.

MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom) said the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation were determined to make the suffering of civilians worse by refusing access to aid.  He urged the Russian Federation to persuade the Syrian regime to let the United Nations do its job.  The Assad regime was pummelling civilians with devastating air strikes.  There were no more functioning hospitals left in eastern Aleppo, as part of a systematic campaign to remove the most basic necessities.  However, according to the Russian Federation, the bombardments of hospitals were a figment of the imagination.  He demanded that bombing of hospitals, schools and civilians, constituting war crimes, be stopped, as they served no military purpose.  Such attacks were not counter-terrorist operations, he emphasized, adding he supported sending a joint investigative team to investigate the bombing of hospitals.  Aid must reach the people living in besieged areas across areas.  Those two simple steps must be taken to get to the third step:  a political situation, he said, pointing out that the Russian Federation had a unique role to play in all those steps.

JOÃO IAMBENO GIMOLIECA (Angola), voicing regret that the Security Council had been unable to foster progress in Syria, said it was critical to set aside political differences and intensify work for new talks.  The continuous suffering of innocent civilians could not be accepted.  For that reason, he had supported the draft submitted by New Zealand, Egypt and Spain that called for specific steps to end the fighting and proceed to negotiations.  The influence that some Council members had over parties in Syria should be used to move forward peace rather than support capabilities to continue fighting. 

VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) said that the Assad regime and its supporters continued to believe there was a military solution to the Syrian crisis.  There would be no winners in the fighting, but there surely were losers.  Meanwhile, messages from the Russian Federation denied the attacks on hospitals as fantasy.  He called for investigations for a number of horrific crimes that had been reported against hospitals, schools and population centres.  Those who assume there would be no accountability for such crimes must be proven wrong, he stressed.

VLADIMIR K. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) stated that his country had been assisting United Nations humanitarian aid and other assistance in Syria and had also been facilitating political efforts.  Unfortunately for the suffering civilians in Aleppo, however, the differentiation of armed groups from terrorists had not taken place.  Those groups must confirm that they were ready to interact with the relevant humanitarian agencies without conditions.  There could be no barter with the lives of injured people, he stressed.  While his country and the Syrian Government were being blamed for the suffering, he asked for information on the efforts of other parties and other actors in Syria to help the people of eastern Aleppo. 

According to the reports, however, all the Government did was attack health facilities, with the numbers constantly changing, he continued.  Information was being intentionally falsified.  Honest information exchange on the location of facilities was being denied.  Underlining the cessation of bombings during various periods, he stressed Russian efforts to end the fighting while assisting the Government in counter-terrorism, emphasizing the dangers faced by Syria due to the presence of foreign fighters.  Noting the naming of Syrian commanders, he asked why the names of terrorists had not also been listed.  He also asked what happened to the presumption of innocence.  Such rhetoric showed the failure of efforts for regime change in Syria.  The door to effective cooperation on ending the conflict remained open, nevertheless, he stressed.

HENRY ALFREDO SUÁREZ MORENO (Venezuela), expressing concern at the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, pointed out that humanitarian aid was being delivered in other parts of Syria, saying that humanitarian aid needed to be balanced and impartial.  Terrorism was the root cause of the situation in Syria and the activities of ISIL/Da’esh must be countered.  Humanitarian convoys to Aleppo had been blocked by militants from the Al‑Nusra Front, which had also prevented civilians from leaving.  In eastern Aleppo, people were rising up against the armed groups.  Why, then, had the opposition not clearly decoupled themselves from terrorism, he asked, saying that there was complicity between the two.  He expressed concern about the destruction of basic infrastructures, such as water and electricity installations and hospitals, and he called on the parties to resume negotiations as soon as possible without pre-conditions.

GERARD VAN BOHEMEN (New Zealand) said the Council had been powerless in dealing with the situation in Syria.  Cross-line access had been systematically denied by the Syrian Government.  The resolution on health care workers and hospitals was blatantly being ignored.  The Council had also been powerless regarding sieges and bombarding of civilians.  The situation in Syria was complex with many actors, internal and external, playing a role.  The country was being destroyed by its own Government.  He noted that his country had tried last month to advance a resolution that had demanded an end all actions that threatened civilians.  Together with Egypt and Spain, he was again proposing a simple resolution which would establish a 10‑day pause of hostilities in Aleppo and re‑establish the cessation of hostilities in the rest of the country.  He urged all Council members to support that proposal in words and actions.

RAMLAN BIN IBRAHIM (Malaysia) said the situation in Aleppo and the whole of Syria arose from the Council’s inability to end the suffering of civilians.  Although there was no compromise against the fight against terrorism, he said the bombing of hospitals were not part of that fight.  Resumptions of airstrikes had diminished any hope of humanitarian aid to be delivered.  Apart from hostilities in Aleppo, he also said he was concerned about military escalations in Homs and elsewhere.  The senseless collective punishment must be stopped.  The targeting of schools indicated only that the war was inflicting maximum suffering to the vulnerable.  Perpetrators should be held to account, he stated, calling on Council members to support the proposal before them and urging those who could make a difference to halt atrocities.

ROMÁN OYARZUN MARCHESI (Spain), voicing support for the draft proposed by New Zealand, Egypt and Spain, affirmed that the suffering in Syria must be ended, as must be the daily violations of humanitarian and human rights law.  The Council must shoulder its responsibility to bring about a cessation of hostilities, as to ensure the differentiation of terrorists from other opposition forces.  He pledged that his country would continue to work for a political solution that could end the crisis.

SHEN BO (China), condemning all attacks against hospitals and other humanitarian facilities, called on all parties to ensure humanitarian access, adding that a political solution must be promoted to end the fighting.  The international community should unite in fighting terrorism forces and all political efforts must be targeted to relieving the suffering of the Syrian people, he said.

AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) emphasized again that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis.  A comprehensive political settlement was needed based on the Geneva Declaration and relevant Security Council resolutions.  His country, along with other countries, was trying to improve the situation in Aleppo through promotion of a draft on a ceasefire in that city and throughout the country while ensuring that it was strictly monitored.  The text emphasized the need to counter all terrorism in the country and abide by other resolutions of the Security Council.  He called on the Council to adopt the text and for the international community to work in concert to end the suffering of the Syrian people.

FODÉ SECK (Senegal), Council President for November, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing that the Council had displayed its lack of unity and political will as well as its powerlessness to act on any aspect of the crisis, including the humanitarian, security and the political aspects as well as the non‑proliferation aspect.  There was a growing danger that the country would break up.  Terrorism was taking root and the cultural heritage of the country was being destroyed or trafficked.  He appealed to the Council to support the Syrian people and called for support of the draft before the Council to end the violence.  That text could provide a glimmer of hope.  All agreed there was no military solution, he said.

Mr. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation), taking the floor for a second time, said a culture of behaviour was being introduced into the Council which was unacceptable.  Representatives of some permanent members were leaving the Chamber when the Syrian representative was taking the floor.  Apparently, they had not enough courage to listen to a statement made by a colleague. That was unacceptable, he said.

BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria), seconding the comment by the Russian Federation’s representative about the departure of the “Three Musketeers”, said that he could now deliver his statement without their poisoning the discussion.  The so‑called coalition led by the United States had committed another atrocity by its bombings in northern Raqqa, leading to the death of six civilians.  Meanwhile the United States representative added lies upon lies.  The witness cited by her was the representative of Al Nusra, a terrorist organization condemned by her own Government.  The Syrian air force had dropped leaflets to allow civilians to flee from terrorists and had opened corridors for them to do so.  The terrorists, however, had retained the civilians to use as human shields.  If the United States wanted to safeguard terrorists, it could take them, especially since there were many foreigners among them.  In addition, he pointed out that Mr. O’Brien, in his statement, did not mention the word terrorism once. 

He went on to say that his country had sent hundreds of letters explaining the activities of terrorists on the ground.  Still, some on the Council still did not understand the origins of the “Saudi/Qatari blight in Syria”.  The terrorists were the takfiris that were influenced by Saudi Wahhabi teachings.  They came from all over the world.  It was the same terrorism that was being fought in Mosul with support by an international coalition.  He asked why there was a double standard on fighting them in his country.  There was also a double standard on condemning air strikes in his country depending on who carried them out. 

The humanitarian reports of the United Nations were being distorted for political purposes, while the terrorist threat to his country was being ignored, he continued.  Those who supported armed groups or coercive measures in Syria were the cause of suffering.  He described attacks by armed groups recently that harmed civilians, including yesterday’s shelling of two schools in western Aleppo that killed children and caused a teacher to have her leg amputated.  No one was more keen than his Government to stop the suffering, through the ending of such terrorist activity as well as all fighting, he maintained.  The truces arranged by his country were an indication of that desire.  Humanitarian agencies who wanted to help the people should cooperate more closely with the Government which, in any case, provided most of the aid.  Falsifications had only increased suffering.

For information media. Not an official record.