Special Envoy Advocates ‘Fresh Thinking’, Sustained Efforts to Reduce Violence
Despite having briefed the Security Council more than two dozen times on the brutal conflict raging in Syria, the United Nations top humanitarian official today stressed that “none of us can escape a share in the shame” of not having ended the tragedy, as he addressed the 15-member body for the final time.
Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, described as “sad, tragic and blunt truth” that, in his last address to the Council, he was still urging it to stop the Syrian people from paying the price of political and diplomatic failure. “Syria is a conflict with an atrocious, incalculable human cost — one that has forced us to see the very worst of humanity,” he said. Month after month, the fearful plight of Syrians “sears into our hearts” and “torments our minds”.
The Council had heard “in minute detail” about the destruction of Syria and its people since his appointment in June 2015, he said. It had seen harrowing images of bombs and mortars raining down on schools, of emaciated children in besieged towns, and of a drowned child washed up on a beach. Session after session had outlined that carnage, he said, “and yet failed to see accountability for any of the countless war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the ground”.
At least 500,000 Syrians had been killed and millions injured or displaced over the course of the conflict, he said, calling — for a final time as Emergency Relief Coordinator — on the Council to urgently refer the situation and those responsible for it to the International Criminal Court, as well as to support to the Internal, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and ask Syrian authorities to finally grant access to the Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Recent efforts to push Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) out of its strongholds had come with the terrible costs of killing, injuring and displacing scores of civilians, he said. It was estimated that an average 27 people were killed in Raqqa every day, while up to 25,000 civilians were trapped in the city and exposed to the risk of crossfire. He urged all parties fighting in Raqqa and across Syria to take every possible measure — however difficult or constraining they believed it to be — to spare and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
In other areas of Syria, he said the security and protection of an estimated 45,000 people stranded along the border with Jordan continued to deteriorate, and in Idlib, humanitarian responses were challenged by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group — formerly known as al-Nusrah. Calling on all parties to respect humanitarian principles and ensure the independence of those providing aid, he described several cross-line interagency operations to reach besieged and hard-to-reach locations. An August-September convoy plan aimed to reach 1.2 million people across 36 such locations, while teams on the ground were negotiating with Syrian authorities to turn partial access approvals into full approvals, and to end the removal of medical supplies.
Urging all parties to work together to consolidate and expand the agreed ceasefires, he said any reductions in hostilities must also generate results for safe, unimpeded and sustained freedom of movement and humanitarian access. The deployment of several convoys in recent days had shown that when there was political will, access to besieged and hard-to-reach locations was possible. Administrative delays on the part of the Syrian Government, which blocked access, were “wrong, outrageous and morally reprehensible”, and must end.
Paying tribute to all the brave men and women who risked their lives daily providing humanitarian service in Syria, he nevertheless said he was leaving his post “with a heavy heart”. Council members must rise above their national interests. “Surely what divides you on this Council cannot be more important than what must unite you and us all — our common humanity to relieve the world’s suffering,” he concluded.
Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, speaking via video link from Geneva, outlined diplomatic efforts carried out since the conclusion of the seventh round of intra-Syrian talks on 14 July. While there was undoubtedly still violence in Syria, the trend of de-escalation continued. Following a series of agreements with armed groups, including with the support of Egypt and the Russian Federation, violence had reduced significantly in parts of the Ghouta de-escalation zone. In Homs, the Russian Federation was engaged in efforts to reach a ceasefire, but there were concerns over reports of shelling and airstrikes north of the city.
In Idlib, where the situation remained complex and required close attention, he said Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham had seized territory from other armed opposition groups and stated its intention to set up “some kind of new al-Nusra dominated administration”. It was critical that the Astana guarantors, along with the Government and armed opposition groups, soon agree to operationalize the de-escalation zone in Idlib.
As efforts to combat terrorism continued, the area controlled by ISIL had shrunk, he said, noting that the Lebanese Army had advanced against that group on its side of the border. While the Syrian Democratic Forces and United States-led coalition continued their efforts to eliminate ISIL from Raqqa, there was a need for rapid, safe and sustained humanitarian access, and efforts to release arbitrarily detained persons.
Noting that such progress was due to a timely process of prioritization and cooperation among key external players, he warned that “the challenge ahead will be to extend this spirit into the political realm”. The various factions of the opposition must work towards developing common negotiating positions and strengthening their unity. The successful rounds of United Nations-led technical talks among those groups should now be used as a springboard for further efforts, as elevating common technical commonalities to the political level was imperative.
“As we counsel fresh thinking on the part or the opposition, we may also need to do the same with the Government,” he continued, noting that it had indicated it would be prepared to intensify its engagement with a unified opposition. However, there had been many cases in other conflicts where, despite military advances, a Government had not turned those gains into a sustainable post-conflict situation due to unmet political grievances and lack of genuine inclusion in the country’s future. Both the opposition and the Government should now have a genuine interest to engage in a serious discussion. Ultimately, it would be Syrians to determine the future of their country.
In the coming months, he said, external partners — including the Russian Federation, Iran, the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and others — would need to keep working on de-escalation, including at the next Astana meeting scheduled for 14 and 15 September. Saudi Arabia and all parties with influence over the opposition should focus on one plan to foster “cohesion and realism” among opposition members. Meanwhile, those with influence over the Government should assess the situation clearly and signal a genuine readiness for dialogue and inclusion on Syria’s future. France’s proposal to meet with the other permanent Council members could be a valuable platform to discuss common political objectives, he added.
Following the briefings, Elbio Rossellli (Uruguay) described the Under-Secretary-General as a straight-shooter who pulled no punches, thanking him for frank and uncomfortable briefings that highlighted the Council’s failure to help stop the horror in Syria or to make any difference there. He also thanked the Special Envoy, who continued to “move heaven and earth” to carve out spaces in which understanding and agreement could be forged amid a dearth of political will, particularly on the part of fragmented opposition groups.
Expressing support for the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, he said it would be a positive move for Damascus to invite its new Head for a field visit. While the Astana process and other initiatives had reduced violence, it was crucial for de-escalation zones to be transitional in nature, thus preserving Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. He emphasized the need for unfettered humanitarian access, citing increasingly sporadic aid deliveries and bureaucratic foot-dragging by the Government. That was not a failure on Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ part, but rather one of the Council and Member States with influence on the parties, he said, expressing support as well for the Secretary-General’s proposal that acts perpetrated in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The meeting began at 10:28 a.m. and ended at 11:20 a.m.