Fighting in Syria Remains Devastating for Civilians, Even after Declaration of Ceasefire, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

SC/12848
30 May 2017
7955th Meeting (PM)

Fighting in Syria Remains Devastating for Civilians, Even after Declaration of Ceasefire, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Secretary-General’s Report Reflects Effort to Deform Reality, Says Representative

Notwithstanding the ceasefire declared in 2016, fighting in several areas of Syria continued to devastate civilians, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council today, citing casualties caused by terrorist attacks and by air strikes designed to counter them.

Delivering a briefing, Stephen O’Brien, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said 30 women and children had been injured in Deir ez-Zor just last week, in an attack by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2017/445), he said more than 100 civilians had fallen victim to recent counter-ISIL air strikes, in both Deir ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa.  “We need to see a step-change in access to the increasingly dire situation in north-eastern Syria, he said, calling for access through every possible modality, the easing of restrictions, and greater cross-border access for aid, including land access from Aleppo.

According to the Astana memorandum agreed by Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey on the creation of four de-escalation areas, he said, fighting must decrease significantly and humanitarian access must be unhindered.  “This agreement must succeed,” he emphasized, while pointing out that delays by the Government of Syria in approving facilitation letters and convoy plans continued to hamper efforts.  “We are essentially down to one cross-line convoy per week,” he said, noting also that the Government’s removal of life-saving medicine and medical supplies from convoy continued unabated.  Attacks against hospitals and health facilities had continued at a rate of 20 per month between January and April.  The Council must ensure that the delivery of humanitarian assistance was outside political and military calculations.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates renewed calls for all parties to ease restrictions on aid, with some stressing that the drop in violence should have already prompted greater humanitarian access.  Egypt’s representative called upon the guarantors of the Astana de-escalation memorandum to facilitate its humanitarian provisions.

On that point, France’s representative urged the guarantors to impose the cessation of hostilities on the Syrian regime, saying the latter continued to block aid convoys.  He added that the local evacuation agreements concluded by the regime, after having starved people for years, had resulted in large-scale displacements, cautioning that such forced movements could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The representative of the United States described the crematorium built in Syria’s Sednaya prison to dispose of victims’ bodies as the most persuasive indicator of the “hell” in Syria.  The Russian Federation and Iran had either helped as the Syrian Government committed some of history’s worst war crimes, or looked away, she said.

Meanwhile, the Russian Federation’s representative blamed clashes between rival groups for delays in the delivery of aid, asking how long it would be before those who had trained the armed Syrian opposition “knocked some sense into them”.  He added that it was “borderline insulting” for Western partners to turn Council meetings into a platform from which to launch accusations against his country, emphasizing that they would do better to explain the steps they were taking to advance a political solution.

Syria’s representative said that the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in his country reflected the positions of certain parties and States that sought deliberately to deform reality.  They accused Syria of laying siege on its own territory, when in fact, the besieged areas were occupied by armed terrorist groups that used civilians as human shields and resold humanitarian assistance at exorbitant prices.

“Our efforts have made it possible for peace to return to many cities and villages,” he emphasized.  Syria had offered options for disarming, settling the situation without judicial process, and leaving, he said, noting that civilians had gone on to resume their normal lives.  Syria had always been the victim of lies told by countries that did not wish to end the suffering.  They preferred direct terrorism, investing in terrorist groups and imposing an economic blockade, he added.

Also speaking today were representatives of Sweden, Japan, United Kingdom, China, Italy, Ethiopia, Senegal, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Bolivia and Uruguay.

The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 5:04 p.m.

Briefing

STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that, counter-weighing reports of a significant drop in violence in some parts of Syria was a conflict that continued to devastate civilians, noting that 30 women and children had been injured just last week in an attack by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in Deir ez-Zor.  More than 100 civilians had fallen victim to counter-ISIL air strikes, notably in Al-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, while children had been forcibly detained, tortured, subjected to sexual violence, forcibly recruited and, in some cases, executed.  Nearly 7 million children lived in poverty and 1.75 million were out of school, he said, noting that one in three schools, 7,400 in total, had been damaged or destroyed.  Outside Syria, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Syrian children had become stateless, abandoned but for the generosity of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

He said the Astana memorandum reached by the three guarantors — Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey — on the creation of four de-escalation areas stipulated that fighting must decrease significantly and that there must be unhindered humanitarian access in those areas, including all besieged locations except those in Damascus and Deir ez-Zor, he said, emphasizing:  “This agreement must succeed.”  The United Nations was ready to work with all involved to ensure the delivery of life-saving assistance, based on its own needs assessment, but without constant interference, reduced beneficiary numbers, removal of medical items “out of spite”, bureaucratic restrictions and procedural roadblocks, he stressed.

He went on to say that so-called “surrender” or “evacuation” agreements had followed years of intense air strikes, shelling and sniping aimed at making life intolerable and death likely.  There must be accountability for applying “starve-and-surrender” tactics, a monstrous form of cruelty, he said.  Evacuations were only the beginning of a new set of challenges for those forced to leave and for host communities.  The displaced, traveling mainly to Idlib and northern rural Aleppo, found themselves in a precarious environment, in which the capacity to support displacement was reaching its limit.

In fact, he continued, protection space was shrinking in many areas and humanitarian conditions were worsening due to increasingly strict limitations imposed by local authorities, non-State armed groups, terrorist organizations, and the actions of some neighbouring countries.  Pressing the Council to use its influence to ensure that such actors respected humanitarian principles, he expressed great concern over cross-border restrictions and regulatory impediments imposed on non-governmental groups in northern Syria, as well as signs that internally displaced persons fleeing Raqqa Governorate were subjected to movement restrictions by the self-proclaimed Democratic Self-Administration.  “We need to see a step-change in access to the increasingly dire situation in north-eastern Syria, he said, calling for access through every possible modality, the easing of restrictions, and greater cross-border access for aid, including land access from Aleppo.

For cross-line inter-agency convoys, he continued, the Government’s administrative delays in approving facilitation letters and convoy plans continued to hamper efforts.  The United Nations had secured the letters for only seven convoys under the April/May access plan, which would allow the Organization to reach 266,750 of the 1 million people requested.  “We are essentially down to one cross-line convoy per week,” he said, pointing out that the removal of life-saving medicine and medical supplies continued unabated.  Attacks against hospitals and other health facilities continued at a rate of 20 per month between January and April, averaging one attack every 36 hours.

He went on to describe the denial and delay of access as a political calculation and military tactic, stressing that where there was political will, the humanitarian imperative to deliver on assessed needs was possible.  As such, the Council should ensure that the will to place humanitarian aid delivery in its rightful position — outside political and military calculations — was restored.  “The delivery of aid is not an ask,” he emphasized.  “The bottom line is that we have been wasting too much of our time literally begging for facilitation letters”, arguing at roadblocks, pleading for trucks to be allowed to pass and that medical items not be removed.

Statements

OLOF SKOOG (Sweden), noting that a whole generation of Syrian children had had their childhoods stolen from them, commended efforts by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its partners, emphasizing the need to support children’s access to education and psychosocial support.  Humanitarian access to areas besieged by the Syrian regime had been deplorable, he said, renewing his call on Damascus to provide safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all in need.  The recent humanitarian convoy to Duma demonstrated that it was possible to gain access with the active engagement of the Russian Federation, he said, urging the Astana guarantors’ working group to accord priority to implementing the humanitarian provisions of their memorandum.  Greater humanitarian access, including to de-escalation zones, was critical to sustaining the Astana process and improving the conditions for results in Geneva, he added.

AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) renewed his country’s call on all parties — Syrian and international alike — to ease humanitarian access by providing full support for the United Nations and its partners safely reaching those in need.  Egypt also called on the guarantor States of the Astana de-escalation memorandum to facilitate its humanitarian provisions.  While the threat of terrorism in Syria could not be underestimated, delving into humanitarian details while condemning civilian casualties and attacks on schools and hospitals would not end the crisis, he emphasized, adding that a comprehensive political settlement, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), was the only solution.  Egypt called on all Council members, As well as the International Syria Support Group, to initiate a frank dialogue on a political process that would bring various initiatives together and serve the aspirations of the Syrian people.

KORO BESSHO (Japan) said humanitarian access had been neither systematic nor consistent.  It was essential that the Security Council and the International Syria Support Group collectively undertake serious and coordinated efforts towards full implementation of the relevant resolutions.  Japan would continue to seek solutions to the humanitarian situation, in cooperation with other humanitarian co-penholders, he said, asking all actors with political influence to do the same.  Turning to the Astana process, he said expectations were high because so much of the humanitarian crisis was concentrated in the de-escalation zones where the Astana guarantors were seeking to reduce the fighting.

MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom) said his country had cautiously welcomed the Astana agreement, but it had done little to help Syrians.  Rather, it helped the regime and its allies.  “The guns have fallen silent only where it has suited them”, and had been deafening elsewhere.  He questioned how the ceasefire was experienced in Darra Province, as barrel bombs and air strikes rained down on opposition areas.  There had been a failure to improve humanitarian access to an estimated 620,000 people living under siege, he said, adding that, while the United Nations was ready to deliver aid, with assurances from the opposition, it had been forced to wait for regime approval letters that never arrived.  The Astana guarantors must do more to end the violence, with effective, impartial monitoring bodies ensuring that ceasefire violators were held to account.  The United Nations must be allowed to assess the needs of each de-escalation zone, he emphasized.

ANNE GUEGUEN (France) said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian armed and security forces in Khan Shaykhoun was unacceptable, emphasizing that her country’s analysis of events there had found “without a doubt” that the Syrian Government had been involved.  Noting that the reduction of violence in Hama, Ghouta and Darra was precarious, she urged the Astana guarantors — especially the Russian Federation and Iran — to impose the cessation of hostilities on the Syrian regime, saying it continued to block humanitarian convoys, and reiterated the call for the immediate lifting of sieges since aid must reach all in need.  Implementation of the local evacuation agreements, concluded by the regime after having starved people for years, had resulted in large-scale displacement, which could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.  The forcible imposition of such agreements must end, she said, while urging examination of information about a crematorium in Sednaya prison.

NIKKI HALEY (United States) said the Syrian refugees she had recently visited had told her they wished to return home.  “There is no home for these desperate people to return to,” she said.  The regime had subjected its people to torture, but the most persuasive indicator of the hell in Syria was what the Assad regime had built in Sednaya prison — a crematorium to dispose of victims’ bodies.  The Russian Federation and Iran had either aided or “looked away” as the Assad regime committed some of history’s worst war crimes.  Pressing the Russian Federation to use its influence to end such atrocities, she said the bombing of hospitals and schools continued unabated, adding that children who had survived awoke at night screaming and reliving the horrors they had experienced.  The systems and structures for providing care for children were eroding around them because one in three schools had been destroyed or damaged, she said.  Noting that children helped support their families in more than 75 per cent of households, she said the Council was in a position to give children the future they wanted, but the Government continued to block aid.  “No one is fooled by the games they are playing,” she said.

WU HAITAO (China) noted that there had recently been positive momentum towards a political settlement, thanks to joint international efforts.  Despite difficulties on the ground, United Nations humanitarian agencies had dispatched convoys, he said.  Emphasizing that a political settlement was the only viable way to ease the humanitarian situation, he said China looked forward to the next round of Geneva talks, to be held in June.  He noted that attacks by terrorist organizations in Syria had severely impeded international relief efforts and called for greater efforts to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts while combating Council-designated terrorist organizations.

SEBASTIANO CARDI (Italy), describing today’s briefing as sobering, said that while there had been indications of reduced violence, fighting continued in key areas and there was little meaningful humanitarian access.  In areas besieged by the regime, there had been no improvement at all.  Where convoys had been allowed, the regime removed medical and surgical items, contrary to international humanitarian law and Council resolutions.  Describing the Astana agreement as a step forward, he noted that falling violence should have prompted an increase in humanitarian access, but that had not been the case so far.  The United Nations must play an active role in implementing the humanitarian aspects of the Astana memorandum, he said, emphasizing that his delegation would not like to parallel humanitarian tracks without the Organization’s direct involvement.

TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia), referring to the Astana memorandum, said any effort that reduced the violence should be welcomed.  That ceasefire agreement must succeed, he said, emphasizing that a long-term solution would depend on a Syrian–led political process under United Nations auspices.  A political solution might not be easy to achieve in the short term, but it was the only option, and small and incremental progress should be welcome.  Success on the political track would hinge on constructive efforts by countries in the region, others with influence on the parties, and unity within the Security Council.

ABDOULAYE BARRO (Senegal) echoed appeals by several United Nations entities to investigate crimes against children in Syria.  He also reiterated calls for Syria not to delay facilitation letters and expressed hope that the cessation of hostilities would extend throughout the country.  Welcoming the memorandum on de-escalating violence in certain areas, he emphasized that a political solution based on the Geneva communiqué and resolution 2254 (2015) was the only way to end the crisis in Syria.

KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) emphasized that human assistance must not be politicized, and requested that the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran help reconcile the parties in conflict.  It was encouraging that the number of those joining the reconciliation process had grown to 1,500, he said, expressing support for the Russian Federation’s appeal for the international coalition to help in demining Syrian territory, and more broadly for a fund to finance such an effort by commercial companies.  He noted that the forced mass resettlement of civilians had changed the demographic character of some areas, exacerbating cultural and religious differences.  He also expressed concern over the fate of prisoners, calling upon Syria to allow international investigation of such claims, including in those relating to Sednaya prison.  The Council had a responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria, he emphasized.  “We need unity to achieve success.”

YURIY VITRENKO (Ukraine) said that of the more than 600,000 besieged people in Syria, 82 per cent were besieged by regime forces.  Humanitarian access was obstructed, and the question was how much real progress had been made and whether Damascus had followed through on the pledges contained in the memorandum.  Expressing alarm over the UNICEF report on the suffering of millions of children in Syria, he stressed that depriving children of their needs would create the best conditions for Al-Qaida’s recruitment campaign.  He expressed concern over the demographic and humanitarian consequences that could arise from the forced displacement of civilians in the eastern districts of Damascus.

PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) emphasized that the humanitarian situation in Syria remained critical, and called upon all parties to guarantee the security of those trapped in conflict.  Acknowledging efforts to reconcile the opposing sides in Syria, he urged the parties to ensure humanitarian access to besieged areas and emphatically condemned all acts of terrorism, reiterating that an inclusive and orderly political process, directed by the Syrian people, was the only solution.

VLADIMIR K. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) said it was a fact that there had been a reduction in violence inside Syria after the Astana agreement, and to say otherwise was to undermine the achievements of the Astana process, which would continue.  Condemning the 22 May mortar shelling of the Russian embassy in Damascus from a terrorist-controlled area, he pointed out that Western partners had said nothing about that incident.  As for the Secretary-General’s report, he said its humanitarian element was “diluted”.  Those most in need of help lived in Government-controlled areas, including recently liberated zones.  Efforts to remove landmines and restore infrastructure were ongoing, and Russia was helping, he said, noting that not all States were doing so.  Meanwhile clashes between rival groups hindered humanitarian activities, he said, asking how long it would be until those who had trained the armed Syrian opposition knocked some sense into them.  It was “borderline insulting” for Western partners to turn Council meetings into a platform from which to make accusations against his country, he said, adding that everyone knew what Russia was doing.  Other Council members should explain the steps they were taking to bring a political solution closer.

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay), Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing pursuing a political solution that would put a peaceful transition in Syria on track must remain the main objective.  It was immoral to distinguish between civilians simply because they supported one side or another, he said, emphasizing also that, as long as there was no accountability for grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, perpetrators would feel that they could act with impunity.  Uruguay supported the Secretary-General’s request to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, he said, adding that the same course should also be followed for the situation in Yemen.

MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria) deplored the fact that the report’s authors reflected the positions of certain parties and States that deliberately deformed reality, some of which were permanent Council members.  They insisted on sending political messages — subsequently adopted by some Governments — that accused Syria of laying siege to its own territory, whereas the country was suffering under unilateral measures imposed by some countries, including the United States.  Besieged areas were those occupied by armed terrorist groups using civilians as human shields, who resold humanitarian assistance at exorbitant prices, he said.  Returning to the report, he noted that it used the term “forced displacement” to describe national reconciliation, a dangerous focus reflecting the approach of States supporting armed groups in Syria.

“Our efforts have made it possible for peace to return to many cities and villages,” he said, noting that the initiative was based on transparent operations through which the Government provided options for surrendering weapons, resettlement without judicial process, or leaving the area.  Civilians went on to resume their normal lives after armed groups left.  Expressing surprise that the United Nations was concerned about Syrians returning home, he rejected the report’s skewed “United States logic” on the chemical attacks, pointing out that use of such weapons was a crime against humanity.  “We did not use these chemical weapons in the framework of our work on terror,” he said, stressing that the events of Khan Shaykhoun had been perpetrated by Al-Nusra Front, supported by the countries accusing Syria.

The report also said nothing about the so-called coalition’s air attacks on schools, bridges and oil facilities, he said, decrying the Secretariat’s having “closed its eyes” to the coalition’s violations of the United Nations Charter.  The Secretariat also tried to justify Turkey’s aggression against Syria, he added.  Underlining that the Government was meeting 60 per cent of humanitarian needs, he reaffirmed the policy that aid must be provided without discrimination, welcoming proposals to facilitate convoys.  He said the United Nations should acknowledge that Al-Nusra Front and allied terrorist groups had created road blocks, besieged cities and used civilians as shields, and rejected charges that the Government had taken procedural and logistical steps affecting the provision of assistance in stable areas.

Syria continued to facilitate the entry of convoys into those areas, he said, adding that the report did not recognize that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs deliberately delayed its convoys and refused to enter some areas proposed by the Government.  The report also failed to mention the number of convoys sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and an attack on buses fleeing Foah and Kefraya, in which civilians had been killed.  Cross-border aid was intended for terrorist groups, he said, adding that Syria had always been the victim of lies told by countries that did not wish to end suffering, but rather to direct terrorism, invest in terrorist groups and impose an economic blockade.  He called on the United States, United Kingdom, France and those supporting terrorism in Syria to stop taking advantage of the crisis for political gains.  Syria would continue to ensure the success of the processes launched in Astana and Geneva, he said.

For information media. Not an official record.