Situation in Syria at High Risk for Backsliding, Special Envoy Tells Security Council, Urging Government, Opposition to Restart Geneva Peace Talks

SC/13010
27 September 2017
8058th Meeting (PM)

Situation in Syria at High Risk for Backsliding, Special Envoy Tells Security Council, Urging Government, Opposition to Restart Geneva Peace Talks

While there had been some progress, the situation in Syria remained fragile and highly susceptible to backsliding, the United Nations Special Envoy for the country warned today, urging both sides to assess the situation realistically and responsibly and return to Geneva talks, which he said he intended to reconvene in October.

Briefing the 15-member Security Council, Staffan de Mistura welcomed the creation of four zones of de-escalation resulting from the Amman and Astana meetings along with the de-confliction zones brokered by the Russian Federation, calling them an important step in the effort to curb the violence.  Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) was being beaten back with Syrian Government forces advancing in the eastern countryside of Hama and Homs, he said.  Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces with the backing of the Global Coalition against Da’esh made further advances against ISIL, taking control of most of the city of Raqqa.

He expressed concern about the Al-Nusra Front offensive in Idlib and Hama provinces, noting that for the first since April, air strikes had allegedly hit some civilians and civilian infrastructure.  “So, the situation is far from perfect or ideal,” he added.

More needed to be done to protect civilians and ensure that Syria remained unified, he said.  The Government had a duty to genuinely engage in negotiations with the opposition.  Now that the scourge of terror was starting to be defeated in Syria, time was ripe for a real and inclusive process.  “The Government should be urged to show by word and action that it genuinely wants to have a negotiation,” he said.  Discussions must focus on forming inclusive governance, a schedule for a new constitution, and United Nations-supervised elections.

For its part, the opposition had a duty to signal that it wanted to speak with one voice in genuine negotiations with the Government, he said, adding:  “No one is asking the opposition to stop being an opposition, but we are urging the opposition to realize that it is at its most credible and effective when it stands together, and shows readiness to give and take.”

“Let me caution both sides and their backers against illusions of victory or dreams of shortcuts,” he continued, stressing that the time had come for the focus to return to Geneva for intra-Syrian talks under United Nations auspices.  “We have a month until those talks.  Let us use it to prepare well,” he said.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, also briefing the Council, expressed concern about reports of recent fighting and air strikes in Idlib and Hama and that an air strike on Wednesday in rural Hama may have killed as many as 80 people fleeing ISIL/Da’esh.  Three hospitals in the Kafr Nabl, Khan Sheikhoun and Heish sub-districts were no longer in service, leaving more than a half a million people without access to medical care.

As the front lines continued to shift, humanitarian access to those in need was also changing, he said.  More than 1 million people relied on assistance that was provided across conflict lines, although humanitarian partners were still unable to reach the vast majority of those people on a regular basis.  Under the August and September access plans, the United Nations had reached 280,500 of the 1.3 million people whom it had requested to access.

He noted, however, that in the last 18 months there had been periods when the United Nations had reached more than 300,000 people in a single week, which was a situation he hoped to see replicated or surpassed in the future.  Doing so would require overcoming restraints posed by bureaucratic delays and blockages by all sides.  Inside Syria, regular programming reached more than 4 million people each month with food, medicine and other essential items.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the Russian Federation cautioned against the spread of false information, which he said had become a well-known and often-used tactic of the Syria conflict.  The fair distribution of humanitarian supplies remained a protracted issue, he stressed, explaining how aid often fell into the hands of fighters who then sold it on the black market or used it to purchase the loyalty of civilians.  “This is unacceptable,” he stressed.  People’s need for humanitarian aid was often miscalculated and manipulated as the number of those in need often rose in areas under opposition control.  Some continued to link the provision of humanitarian aid to progress around a political transition.  The collective punishment of the Syrian people must stop.

The United States’ representative said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had denied humanitarian assistance to many people, and in a new low, had authorized humanitarian convoys to his supporters while preventing life-saving aid to other people in need.  The United States was committed to finding a solution to the situation in Syria and holding the regime accountable for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The international community must not and would not forget what was needed to truly solve the crisis — a real political process in which the Syrian people could ensure their own safety and determine their own future.

Syria’s representative said his Government had continued to cooperate with the different United Nations agencies based on the governing principles of humanitarian work but also the fundamental principle of respecting one nation’s sovereignty.  Noting that the United States had said it had allocated $160 million to spend on Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, he asked: “Would it not have been better to use that money to return them to their homes and to rebuild schools in Syria?”  Humanitarian efforts must not be based on politicization.  Syrian pain must not be used as a commodity, he stressed.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Uruguay and Kazakhstan.

The meeting began at 3:09 p.m. and ended at 4:39 p.m.

Briefings

STAFFAN DE MISTURA, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, said that while the Amman and Astana meetings had created four zones of de-escalation, along with the de-confliction zones brokered by the Russian Federation in Ifreen and Eastern Qalamoun, the situation in Syria still remained fragile and highly susceptible to backsliding.  Expressing concern for the Al-Nusra Front offensive in Idlib and Hama provinces, he said that for the first time since April air strikes had allegedly hit some civilians and civilian infrastructure.  “So the situation is far from perfect or ideal,” he said, adding that nevertheless the creation of the de-escalation zones was an important next step in the effort to curb the violence.

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) was being beaten back, he continued, adding that Government forces had advanced in the eastern countryside of Hama and Homs and broken the three-year siege of Dier ez-Zor city.  The Syrian Democratic Forces with the backing of the Global Coalition against Da’esh made further advances against ISIL, taking control of most of the city of Raqqa, while the Syrian Democratic Forces-led Deir ez-Zor military council had made advances against ISIL on the eastern banks of the Euphrates.  Armed opposition groups were also involved in battle against the group in Daraa.

More needed to be done to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure from military assaults and to ensure safe and sustained access to all civilians in need in Syria, he said.  He expressed regret over the lack of progress concerning detainees, abductees and missing persons.  He also expressed hope that concrete results could be achieved in the near future regarding humanitarian mine action.  He noted the wide consensus that de-escalation arrangements must not lead to a soft partition of Syria, adding that the country’s unity and territorial integrity must be fully upheld.  Syrians of all backgrounds had voiced their strong rejection of any partitioning of Syria — its territory and its people.  The Astana and Amman processes should be laying the basis for a renewed Geneva process, moving those talks into genuine negotiations on the political future of Syria.

He said he had engaged both sides of the conflict, attended multilateral meetings, and visited Washington while his Deputy was currently visiting Moscow. He pledged that he would also continue to engage civil society and women.  Further, he intended to convene the eighth round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva in about one month, calling on both sides to assess the situation with realism and responsibility to the Syrian people.

The Government had a duty to genuinely engage in negotiations with the opposition, he said.  Until now, it had conditioned its readiness to move from talks to real negotiations on opposition unity.  The issue of terrorism had been important to the Government, he continued, adding that now that the scourge was starting to be defeated in Syria, time was ripe for a real and inclusive process.  “The Government should be urged to show by word and action that it genuinely wants to have a negotiation,” he said.  Discussions must focus on forming inclusive governance, a schedule for a new constitution, and United Nations-supervised elections.  “This will not be easy, but it has to start, and the United Nations will be an honest broker in enabling real negotiations with the opposition,” he said.

For its part, the opposition had a duty to signal that it wanted to speak with one voice in genuine negotiations with the Government, he said, adding:  “No one is asking the opposition to stop being an opposition, but we are urging the opposition to realize that it is at its most credible and effective when it stands together, and shows readiness to give and take.”  He said he looked forward to the upcoming inclusive conference in Saudi Arabia.  “Let me caution both sides and their backers against illusions of victory or dreams of shortcuts,” he continued.  There was no substitute for an internationally supported process based on a comprehensive and inclusive approach that also helped Syrians to re-discover a modicum of trust and social cohesion after the bitterness of conflict.

Hundreds of thousands were dead, millions displaced, thousands had been detained or had disappeared, and civilian infrastructure had been destroyed on a scale unimaginable, he said.  The time had come for the focus to return to Geneva, and the intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the United Nations.  “We have a month until those talks.  Let us use it to prepare well,” he said.

MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the de-escalation following the 4 May agreement had a positive impact on civilians in certain parts of south-west Syria, rural Damascus and north-west Homs, as well as Idlib.  Nevertheless, he was concerned about reports of recent fighting and air strikes in Idlib and Hama, which had resulted in significant death, injury and damaged critical infrastructure.  There were reports that an air strike on Wednesday in the Wadi al-Zeib area in rural Hama may have killed as many as 80 people fleeing ISIL/Da’esh.  Three hospitals in the Kafr Nabl, Khan Sheikhoun and Heish sub-districts were no longer in service, leaving more than a half a million people without access to medical care.  “Such attacks result not only in direct human suffering from the attacks themselves, but they also cause unnecessary consequential suffering and death by depriving people of access to medical care for what would otherwise be treatable conditions,” he said.

He expressed concern about the estimated 14,000 civilians trapped in Raqqa due to the battle against Da’esh there.  In Deir ez-Zor governorate, air strikes in recent days had reportedly caused the death of scores of civilians.  There were also reports of Da’esh using civilians as human shields.  Nearly 100,000 people from towns in the governorate along the Euphrates had reportedly been displaced due to the intense fighting since 25 August, with more than 50,000 people displaced in the last week alone.  Many had been forced into other areas controlled by Da’esh, out of the reach of relief organizations.

As the front lines continued to shift, humanitarian access to those in need was also changing, he said.  After three years of besiegement, Government forces gained access to Deir ez-Zor in early September and new commercial and humanitarian routes had been opened as a result.  The United Nations, through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, had been able to reach the area by road, which meant that the airdrops that had been taking place since April 2016 could end.  Following a comprehensive review, Deir ez-Zor and the 93,500 people in the city were being removed from the list of those besieged.  As a result, nearly 420,000 people, most of whom were children, remained besieged in 10 locations across Syria.  Of those, 95 per cent were besieged by the Government of Syria, 2 per cent were besieged by non-State armed groups, and 3 per cent were besieged by both non-State armed groups and the Government.  “While the numbers are reduced, the plight of those trapped remains severe,” he said, adding:  “These sieges must be lifted”.

More than 1 million people relied on assistance that was provided across conflict lines, he said, although humanitarian partners were still unable to reach the vast majority of those people on a regular basis.  Under the August and September access plans, the United Nations had reached 280,500 of the 1.3 million people whom it had requested to access.  He noted, however, that in the last 18 months there had been periods when the United Nations had reached more than 300,000 people in a single week, which was a situation he hoped to see replicated or surpassed in the future.  Doing so would require overcoming restraints posed by bureaucratic delays and blockages by all sides.  Inside Syria, regular programming reached more than 4 million people each month with food, medicine and other essential items.  Through cross-border programming from Jordan and Turkey, millions more were reached.  Since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2165 (2014), the United Nations had dispatched more than 16,000 trucks, delivering health supplies and non-food items, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene support.

The situation remained perilous for humanitarian workers in Syria, dozens of whom had been killed since the start of the conflict, he said.  More than 50 United Nations or United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) staff members were still detained or missing.  At the Brussels Conference in April, some $6 billion had been pledged by more than 40 Governments to meet the humanitarian and longer-term needs of Syrians and host communities inside Syria and in the region.  Yet, the 2017 United Nations response plan remained substantially underfunded.  Syria continued to face deep and difficult challenges and the Syrian people remained trapped in a cycle of violence that must be broken.  He would continue working openly and transparently with all sides to find solutions that placed the Syrian people at the centre of the international community’s collective efforts.

Statements

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) said that in the past two years, his delegation had emphasized the importance of the protection of civilians and international humanitarian law, while also advocating that there be no impediments to the distribution of aid across the Syrian territory, including besieged areas.  The Astana process and other regional processes had led to a significant reduction in fighting in the country, he said, adding that it was imperative to guarantee unfettered humanitarian access and freedom of movement for relief works across conflict zones.  Ensuring justice was served to the hundreds and thousands of victims of the conflict would be essential for lasting peace in Syria.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that the level of violence in Syria had continued to drop and noted the desire of some to splinter the country into different spheres of influence.  The territory under ISIL control was dwindling and the Russian air force continued to provide the Government of Syria with support.  He cautioned that terrorists must not be given an opportunity to rear their heads and stressed that only frank cooperation among the international community would make it possible to eradicate terrorism.  Members of Al-Nusra Front had recently undertaken action to undermine stability in Idlib.  He also cautioned against the spread of false information, which he said had become a well-known and often-used tactic of the conflict.

The Astana process had breathed new life into intra-Syrian talks under United Nations auspices, he continued.  However, progress would largely depend on the ability of the opposition to unite and eschew radical positions.  He expressed hope that there would be success in the next Geneva round, and welcomed initiatives of regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Without the engagement of the Syrian Government it would be impossible to reach a solution.  The fair distribution of humanitarian supplies remained a protracted issue, he continued, explaining how aid often fell into the hands of fighters who then sold it on the black market or used it to purchase the loyalty of civilians.  “This is unacceptable,” he stressed.

People’s need for humanitarian aid was often miscalculated and manipulated as numbers of those in need often rose in areas under opposition control, he continued.  The Russian Federation stood ready to organize a more effective plan to distribute aid.  “The Syrian people need to feel that peace is coming,” he said, urging the United Nations to step up its humanitarian assistance.  Some capitals had continued to link the provision of humanitarian aid to progress around a political transition.  The collective punishment of the Syrian people must stop.  While providing aid to neighbouring countries was important and the construction of schools for Syrian children in Turkey and Jordan was certainly possible, he asked:  “Wouldn’t it be better to rebuild schools and the education system in Syria?”

NIKKI HALEY (United States) said that last week’s high-level meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria was a welcome development.  Although there had been decreasing violence in Syria, this was no time for complacency.  Any gains against Da’esh would only be temporary, any paper agreements reached in Astana would not succeed and the Syrian people would remain vulnerable unless a political process was undertaken that included the Syrian people.  Still, the Syrian regime refused to sit down at the negotiating table.  Syrian armed forces continued to use chemical weapons against civilians, and target hospitals and medical personnel.  Such attacks fit an all-too-familiar pattern in which medical personnel and facilities were attacked by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had denied humanitarian assistance to many people, and in a new low, had authorized humanitarian convoys to his supporters while preventing life-saving aid to other people in need, she said.  The United States was committed to finding a solution to the situation in Syria and holding the regime accountable for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.  A political transition was the only solution — one that did not allow Iranian influence to replace Da’esh or allow President Assad to stay in power.  The international community must not and would not forget what was needed to truly solve the crisis — a real political process in which the Syrian people could ensure their own safety and determine their own future.

KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) noted the gradual progress on the political front and the improvement of the humanitarian situation in several areas of Syria.  The Astana platform complimented the Geneva process, and was not meant to replace it.  Support for both processes was needed to ensure further progress.  The humanitarian situation in the country remained serious and deserved the Council’s attention.  He called on the Government of Syria and neighbouring countries to refrain from impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need.  He expressed concern about the nearly 420,000 people who remained besieged in 10 locations in Syria.  The parties to the conflict must support the release of prisoners, the transfer of the dead and exchange of information on missing persons.

BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said that listening to some of the briefers today indicated to him that some knew what was happening in Syria by being on the ground, while others did not know at all and were primarily basing their statements on media fabrications.  Seven years into the terrorist war imposed against Syria, it was time to abandon such delusive tactics.  He recalled having met with Mr. Lowcock, who assured him that he was dedicated to addressing the humanitarian situation in Syria, without seeking to exploit the Syrian people’s pain for interventionist agendas.  The Government had continued to cooperate with the different United Nations agencies based on the governing principles of humanitarian work but also the fundamental principle of respecting one nation’s sovereignty.  He was perplexed to see that Mr. Lowcock did not mention cooperating with the Government in his statement “as if OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] was cooperating with ghosts and not the Syrian Government”.

The root cause of the crisis in Syria was the emergence and proliferation of armed groups such as ISIL and Al-Nusra Front, and the summoning of foreign fighters, he continued.  Unilateral measures had only led to the suffering of the Syrian people.  Noting that the United States had said it had allocated $160 million to spend on Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, he asked:  “Would it not have been better to use that money to return them to their homes and to rebuild schools in Syria?”  Humanitarian efforts must not be based on politicization.  The real reason behind Syrian suffering was international terrorism and unilateral measures imposed by the United States and European Union.  Illegal actions of the Global Coalition had increased the suffering of the Syrian people and destroyed lives and infrastructure.

Syrian pain must not be used as a commodity and donor conferences for show, he stressed.  United States aircrafts had struck a school for disabled students and “now I am learning of the sudden accusation that we [Syria] have attacked the school in that area”, he said, referring to the statement made by the representative of the United States.  He stressed that humanitarian assistance must reach areas liberated by the Syrian army and its allied forces and thanked Iran and the Russian Federation for their continued support.  Some wanted to fight Iran and other allied forces in Syria; that tactic was a blatant violation of international law and the United Nations Charter.  The Government was committed to the processes in Astana and Geneva, he emphasized, renewing its commitment to joining all rounds of negotiations.  In the meantime, the Government would fight to defeat terrorism in all of its territories.

Ms. HALEY (United States), taking the floor a second time, recalled that the United Nations had only reached about 21 per cent of the people it had requested humanitarian access to.  The Syrian regime continued to restrict medical items from such convoy.  The international community should not reduce the tools at its disposal to reach those in need.  Cross-border assistance must continue in order to save millions of people from death and destruction.  Refugees did not leave Syria solely due to terrorists, she said, stressing that many had left because they were afraid of the regime.  Money was being given to countries hosting refugees because it had been proven that they took care of their people.  The only political thing that everyone wanted was for the Syrian people to go home and live under a Government that took care of them.  “They deserve to go home.  They deserve to be safe,” she said.

Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), also taking the floor a second time, said the international community must get to the bottom of the statistics, including those regarding the number of people in Syria who had access to and received humanitarian assistance.  That was one of the challenges that the new Under-Secretary-General would need to address.  He recalled that 5 million people had received assistance thanks to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ cooperation with the Government of Syria.

Mr. JA’AFARI (Syria), also taking the floor a second time, said it was well known that there was a plot to overthrow the regime in his country.  There were many books that had been written that addressed the use of terrorism as manipulation, particularly to undermine Governments in the Middle East.  Had anyone forgotten about the scandal of the occupation of Iraq, he questioned, further asking why United States forces were in the region and who called for them to be there.  The United States and European conduct and attitude towards the events in Syria went against all resolutions that had been adopted since the beginning of the crisis in his country.  Syria was a sovereign State and did not desire to fight the United States.

For information media. Not an official record.