Describing reports of severe suffering, starvation and indiscriminate attacks on civilians amid the ongoing fighting in Syria, humanitarian officials briefed the Security Council today, offering glimpses of hope while urging sustained action to end the six-year-long conflict in that country.
Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that after a fierce month-long escalation in the fighting, the recent ceasefire and broader humanitarian access were among emerging reasons for hope. Also briefing were Amir Mahmoud Abdulla, Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), and Peter Salama, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Programme.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015) and 2332 (2016) (document S/2017/58), the Emergency Relief Coordinator recalled that a nationwide ceasefire had gone into effect on 30 December 2016 and reduced the levels and of violence, some breaches notwithstanding. He added that his recent meetings in Helsinki with Syrian non-governmental organizations and the creation of a mechanism to observe the ceasefire were among the reasons for hope.
However, the fighting persisted and the humanitarian situation remained grim, with a number of areas in dire need of assistance, he emphasized, while calling on the Council to ensure that the ceasefire was sustained, that all parties to the conflict protected civilians and that sieges were lifted immediately across the country. The Council must also rally behind efforts by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to find a political solution to the conflict, he added.
Briefing on food security, Mr. Abdulla warned that Syria was in danger of becoming a country of subsistence farmers, emphasizing that its wheat harvest was at an all-time low and that fuel shortages and destroyed infrastructure were stymying food production. To date, 7 million people were facing food insecurity, with a further 2 million at risk. Of great concern was the city of Deir ez-Zor, which remained inaccessible since its fall to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in 2014, and where 90,000 civilians were struggling to survive. Meanwhile, humanitarian access remained irregular, hobbling urgently needed deliveries, he continued. There was no humanitarian solution to the crisis, he said, emphasizing that, ultimately, peace and security were the only answers. “A new political commitment to peace is needed so that we can all focus our energy and efforts on the future of Syrian families and helping them rebuild their lives and livelihoods,” he said.
Mr. Salama, speaking via teleconference from Geneva, said the war had also devastated the health system. The impact of six years of war had taken a heavy toll on civilians, as well as on the workers, hospitals and clinics serving them. More than 100 attacks had been carried out against health centres in 2016 alone. Acute shortages, as well as blocked access to health services, were wide-spread, with half of all Syrian children lacking the required vaccinations and more than 300,000 pregnant women unable to obtain the care they needed, he emphasized. As WHO worked with partners to address those needs, it was critical to ensure the safety of those providing such services, he stressed. Current WHO efforts were focused on ensuring secure access to besieged and other hard-to-reach areas, he said, calling for an end to attacks on health workers. Syrian health system must be rebuilt, he said, adding that the international community must do its part by providing strong support for that endeavour.
The representatives of Bolivia and Uruguay delivered statements, expressing hope for a lasting ceasefire and a political solution to end the conflict in Syria.
The meeting began at 10:12 a.m. and ended at 11:02 a.m.
STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the suffering in Syria over the course of 2016 defied comprehension: people dying of starvation, bombs raining down on schools and medical facilities, and towns besieged, bombed and emptied. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) had recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra. “So much suffering in just 12 months, and all of it under our collective watch,” he noted. Yet, reasons to hope were emerging, he said, pointing out that a nationwide ceasefire in effect since 30 December 2016 continued to hold, and that all efforts must be made to ensure that it was consolidated and extended.
Reporting on his recent trip to Helsinki, he said he had gained hope from his meetings there, none more so than those with Syrian non-governmental organizations. Concerning the political track, he welcomed efforts to create a mechanism for observing the ceasefire, emphasizing that the United Nations was ready to assist in that regard. From the formation of the humanitarian task force in early 2016, through to last September, there had been unprecedented access to those most in need, he said, adding that inter-agency convoys had reached 1.25 million people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, compared to 487,000 in the entire course of 2015.
And yet, access had returned to the levels seen before the task force had taken effect, he said, explaining that the two-step approval process agreed with the Syrian authorities had become a 10-step process. Only one or two approved convoys had reached their destinations in each of the last three months, and in December 2016, one inter-agency convoy had delivered aid to 6,000 people from a request amounting to for assistance for 930,250 under the December plan. “This is less than 1 per cent of what we aimed to achieve,” he said. Despite the fact that the sole purpose of the task force was to ensure humanitarian access, and that the 30 December 2016 ceasefire had improved security, “we continue to be blocked at every turn” by a lack of approvals at central and local levels. Noting that an 11 January note verbale from the Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator in Damascus to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still awaited a response, he called upon Council members with influence over the Syrian authorities, and on task force members, to do more to ensure the Government’s support for aid delivery. “We need to be allowed to pass — not as a favour but as a right,” he stressed.
Detailing progress, he said that since cross-border operations had begun in July 2014, the United Nations had conducted more than 467 cross-border convoys, an average of nearly four per week, while delivering assistance to Aleppo, Idlib, Lattakia and Hama governorates from Turkey, and Dera’a and Quneitra governorates from Jordan. It had completed 294 airlifts to Qamishly, he said, adding that, as of January 2017, an estimated 643,780 people were living in 13 besieged areas, while three locations had been removed from the previous list of 16 locations in which 974,080 people were unable to move freely. As for areas requiring action, he said humanitarian needs in Aleppo were staggering, with nearly 160,000 people temporarily displaced from formerly besieged neighbourhoods since 24 November 2016. Last week, the Syrian Humanitarian Fund had released $19 million to support life-saving and early recovery assistance, he said, while expressing deep concern over reports of humanitarian stockpiles found in eastern Aleppo since the evacuation from that city.
Outside eastern Aleppo, 5,077 people had been displaced to the Jibreen shelter, while more than 50,000 people in western Aleppo were supported by regular programming activities, he continued. He also expressed concern for the safety of 93,500 people in the besieged western side of Deir ez-Zor amid reports of attacks by ISIL. In rural Damascus, fighting in Wadi Barada had displaced 17,500 people, while a shortage of water affected some 5.5 million people. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and water authorities had entered Wadi Barada on 13 and 14 January to assess the damage, but the assassination of a reconciliation committee member had rekindled the fighting, resulting in that mission’s suspension. Expressing further concern for the safety of more than 400,000 people in Raqqa District, including 150,000 displaced, he called upon the Security Council to ensure that the ceasefire was sustained; that all parties to the conflict protected civilians and civilian infrastructure; and that all sieges across the country were lifted immediately.
AMIR MAHMOUD ABDULLA, Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), noted that the situation inside Syria continued to deteriorate six years into the conflict, with 7 million people facing food insecurity and a further 2 million at risk. Syria was in danger of becoming a country of subsistence farmers, with its wheat harvest at an all-time low and fuel shortages and destroyed infrastructure stymying food production. In addition, Deir ez-Zor had been inaccessible since the city’s fall to ISIL in 2014. Trapped inside were 90,000 civilians still struggling to survive, he said, adding that 4.6 million people around the country were in hard-to-reach areas receiving only sporadic humanitarian aid.
He went on to state that irregular humanitarian access, due in part to deteriorating security conditions in some areas, had resulted in WFP suspending some operations and resorting to airdropped deliveries to thousands of people across Syria. Citing the high cost of such measures, he said access could not be arbitrary and must be reasonably regular, as well as safe. There was no humanitarian solution to the crisis, he said, emphasizing that, ultimately, peace and security were the only answers. “A new political commitment to peace is needed so that we can all focus our energy and efforts on the future of Syrian families and helping them rebuild their lives and livelihoods.”
PETER SALAMA, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Programme, spoke by teleconference from Geneva, saying six years of war had taken a serious toll on civilians and the health workers, hospitals and clinics serving them. Until recent security developments, 30,000 people had sustained war-related injuries every month, he recalled. The war had gutted the health system, with more than 100 attacks launched against health centres in 2016 alone, he said, adding that it had led to acute shortages and blocked access to services. Half of all Syrian children were not receiving the required vaccinations and more than 300,000 pregnant women lacked the care they needed.
Highlighting WHO’s activities, he that said its work with partners had delivered thousands of vaccines to children and provided much-needed services in insecure areas, including air evacuations and medical supply deliveries in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo. Underscoring the importance of the safety of those providing such services, he said WHO was working to ensure access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and an end to attacks on health workers, with perpetrators being held accountable. Moving forward, Syria’s health system must be rebuilt, with strong support from the international community, he said.
ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) said that for the first time in months, the overall outlook in Syria was “slightly better”, following the cessation of hostilities in December. The Astana meeting had given hope that the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy could breathe new life into the political process next month in Geneva. However, he expressed serious concern about the humanitarian situation, noting that although the end of the siege on eastern Aleppo had reduced the number of people in hard-to-reach areas, 700,000 people were surviving without the bare necessities. It was unacceptable that aid had reached only 1 per cent of those in need, he emphasized, adding that, in Wadi Barada, sabotage of the water supply to Damascus and surrounding areas should be seen as a war crime. He expressed hope for consolidation of the cessation of hostilities; protection of civilians by all parties; the lifting of all sieges; immediate and unfettered humanitarian access, in accordance with monthly United Nations plans; and continuing efforts to combat terrorism and support a political solution.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTY SOLIZ (Bolivia) welcomed the efforts of all humanitarian organizations, including the Red Crescent, working in complex situations inside Syria. Urging full respect for international humanitarian law on the part of all parties to the conflict so that a ceasefire could be reached and civilians protected, he also called for the lifting of sieges and the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict. He noted that, according to a communiqué made public following the Astana meeting, the parties would seek a ceasefire, which would reduce violence, build trust and safely guarantee access to humanitarian aid.