22 May 2017
7944th Meeting (AM)

Special Envoy Calls Agreement on Syria De-escalation Zones ‘Promising Step’ amid Persistent Fighting, ISIL Threat, as He Briefs Security Council

Absence of Trust Means More Suffering, Says Ukraine, As Bolivia Cites External Actors Threatening Independence, Sovereignty of Damascus

Small but significant steps were being made in political efforts to end the conflict in Syria on the heels of an agreement on creating de-escalation zones in that country, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy told the Security Council today, while warning of persistent fighting in some areas and the threat still posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).

Staffan de Mistura, speaking by video-teleconference from Geneva, said the memorandum on de-escalation zones — signed on 4 May by Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey, in Astana, Kazakhstan — was “a promising step” presaging a significant drop in reported violence, including aerial bombing.  Tangible change was being reported on the ground, including the welcome resumption of market activity, he said, noting that whenever a moment of peace emerged, Syrians took the present and future into their own hands.

However, despite the memorandum and the nationwide ceasefire announced in December, hostilities between Government forces and armed opposition groups were still being reported, sometimes outside the current de-escalation zones, he said.  Additionally, Government forces had targeted armed opposition groups involved in fighting Da’esh, he added, cautioning that while the group had lost territory, it still had the capacity to cause great harm, as seen in its recent attack against civilians in Salamiyeh.

Given that situation, the ceasefire guarantors must promptly, diligently and fairly clarify the Astana memorandum’s details in order to ensure that no party could exploit ambiguities, he emphasized.  The goal was not just de-escalation, but a countrywide ceasefire, he said, urging all sides — including those with influence on parties to the conflict — to allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to the more than 4.5 million people in need living in hard-to-reach areas.

Providing more detail on the political process, he said that following a sixth round of negotiations in Geneva on 16-19 May, the parties had remained separated by major gaps.  However, there had also been a greater understanding of what was required to negotiate a transitional political agreement based Syria’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and independence, on the Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012, and on Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).

Describing the launch of a technical consultative process aimed at “going deeper” in examining relevant legal and constitutional issues, he said that he had urged the parties to indicate the basis of their own participation in the consultative process, which would allow them to focus on real deliverables.  “We can now say the process is up and running,” he said, expressing hope that the effort would eventually lead to the formation of a unified opposition under a “common umbrella”.

That would help to move all the parties closer to the possibility of direct negotiations between the Government and the opposition, he continued.  Pointing out that any solid legal framework would require constitutional underpinnings, he emphasized that experts would not take any decisions, but would only propose solid options to participants in the formal talks.  For the first time, all parties had consented to engage in concrete technical talks, he pointed out.  A seventh round of formal negotiations would be held in June, he added.

Following the briefing, Council President Elbio Rosselli (Uruguay) spoke in his national capacity, voicing support for a new round of negotiations and for the recent progress made in designing Syria’s Constitution.  Nevertheless, there was need to multiply and accelerate such efforts in order to find a political solution to the crisis, he said, emphasizing:  “There is a no place for a military solution.”  Urging all parties to avoid unilateral actions that could create obstacles to progress, he stressed that the United Nations and the Special Envoy were not the main actors in the Syrian tragedy, but only mediators between the parties.

Indeed, the main responsibility for ending the conflict lay squarely with Syrians, in particular the Government and the armed groups, he continued, underlining also the responsibility of third-party States participating directly or indirectly in the conflict.  The Council must continue to exert pressure to keep the parties at the negotiating table, he said.  Calling for political will in that regard, he warned that the crisis was driving fundamentalist terrorism not only in Syria but all over the world, and urged the parties — as well as those with influence over them — to end all hostilities and negotiate in good faith.

Volodymyr Yelchenko (Ukraine), however, expressed regret that the latest round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva had not yielded much progress.  “A breakthrough did not happen because the main ingredient for a sustainable solution is missing — trust,” he said, noting that the absence of trust poisoned the environment for negotiations and doomed the Syrian people to more suffering.  He said he was appalled by reports that the Syrian regime was using cremation to hide evidence of mass murder at Sednaya prison, where thousands were believed to have been executed.  While welcoming the general idea of de-escalation zones, he pointed out that “the devil is always in the details”, cautioning that any such zones would be meaningless without a credible enforcement mechanism.

Yet another challenge was that the Syrian regime’s commitment to fighting ISIL was “clearly lacking”, he continued.  Instead, it continued to use the de-escalation agreement to shift the focus to the east of the country, where it was trying to seize ground from anti-ISIL rebels in Al-Baida.  Those actions proved that the regime was sticking to its long-standing strategy of militarily eliminating the Syrian opposition instead of ISIL, he said, adding that the international community was left with a difficult choice — Assad or ISIL?  It was therefore imperative that the Council make absolutely sure that the proposed de-escalation zones were not yet another tool that the regime and its allies would use to regroup and prepare their forces to attack.

Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz (Bolivia) welcomed efforts by regional actors and the ceasefire guarantors to strengthen the path towards political dialogue and to maintain the ceasefire, which had proven the longest-lasting one to date.  Urging all parties to lay down their weapons, he said that despite remarkable recent progress, illegal unilateral actions continued — including some on the part of external actors — threatening Syria’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the strides made in countering Da’esh.

Kairat Umarov (Kazakhstan) said that the parties to the conflict, having been brought to the negotiating table under complex and sensitive conditions, now had a clear agenda for pursuing a political settlement.  Emphasizing the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, he said all agreements reached in Astana must produce tangible outcomes because they were an integral part of the Geneva process.

The meeting began at 10:06 a.m. and ended at 10:47 a.m.

For information media. Not an official record.