Syria’s Representative Says Terrorists to Blame for Bloodshed in Eastern Ghouta
Despite the Security Council’s united call just days ago for a ceasefire in Syria, deadly fighting continued, throwing the body’s credibility into question, members heard today as United Nations political and humanitarian chiefs provided updates on the dismal situation on the ground.
“We are here again today because the brief respite you unanimously demanded only days ago in resolution 2401 (2018) has not materialized,” said Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, citing reports of military airstrikes in eastern Ghouta, shelling and a chlorine gas attack. “We are still grasping for a political solution, which is the only way to end the bloodletting.”
The collective failure to end the seven-year war paled when compared to the Syrian people’s frustration, he stressed. “There will be no sustainable solution if the Council’s resolutions are not implemented,” he said, which would require parties to “step back from the brink” and end the fighting. All efforts would be in vain if there was no serious investment in a political solution.
Meanwhile, the situation was worsening, said Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2018/138). As bombs fell, aid deliveries remained blocked by authorities and the daily five-hour humanitarian pause did not offer enough time to reach hard-hit areas.
“Assistance across conflict lines to millions of people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas has in recent months totally collapsed,” he said. “Unless this changes, we will soon see even more people dying from starvation and disease than from the bombing and shelling.”
As the United Nations worked to reach 5.6 million people in need, half of whom were in Government-controlled areas, he said what Syrians needed was abundantly clear: protection, access to basic goods and services, an end to sieges and respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law. While the Council had unanimously supported those elements in passing resolution 2401 (2018), he asked members: “When will your resolution be implemented?”
Syria’s representative said the Government, for its part, had already taken steps, opening a humanitarian corridor within hours of the resolution’s adoption and protecting its citizens across the country. However, the main goal of the resolution was not to reach a truce or protect civilians, he said, but, rather, prevent his Government from targeting terrorist groups who were attacking Damascus.
Turning to the humanitarian situation, he said terrorist groups were to blame for the deteriorating conditions in eastern Ghouta. Condemning the report’s use of the term “besieged” areas, he said civilians in eastern Ghouta were being “besieged” from within by terrorists using them as human shields. When the Government had urged terrorist groups, including Jaish al Islam and Nusrah Front, to lay down their arms, they had indicated their refusal to let civilians leave the city, he said, underscoring Syria’s commitment to international law, which stipulated the right to protect civilians from terrorist groups.
In a heated debate following the briefings, Council members reiterated calls they had made on 24 February after their unanimous adoption of the resolution. (See Press Release SC/13221.) Calling anew for a cessation of hostilities without delay, leading to a durable humanitarian truce for at least 30 days, France’s representative said “these demands are perfectly clear” and they must be neither subjectively interpreted nor distorted. The Council must implement the provisions it had set out, he said, asking: “If we fail to do so, what credibility can we attribute to our commitments?”
Peru’s delegate, among others, agreed. “The credibility of this Council is increasingly undermined with every day that passes while the fighting continues,” the representative of the Netherlands said.
Sharing grave concerns about the fate of 400,000 people in eastern Ghouta, some members recommended new steps towards full implementation of resolution 2401 (2018). Some, including Bolivia’s representative, urged the guarantors of the Astana talks — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — to play their part in ensuring progress on the ground.
However, others debated the Russian Federation’s recent announcement of a daily five-hour pause in fighting to allow aid delivery. The United States’ representative declared that the Russian Federation could not unilaterally rewrite provisions in the resolution. The Council must not fall for the Russian Federation’s misdirections, she stressed, calling for redoubled efforts to implement resolution 2401 (2018).
The Russian Federation’s delegate said anti-Russian hysteria had been unleashed today, with all the demands of the resolution directed at his country. He urged States — many represented in the Council today — to halt their support of opposition militants, who had launched attacks one day after the resolution’s adoption. Calling on all parties to “cast aside dirty tricks”, he read out a proposal relating to ceasefire arrangements, urging the Council to adopt it today.
Sweden’s representative, whose delegation, with Kuwait, had co-sponsored resolution 2401 (2018), said provisions had demanded a 30-day ceasefire, not a five-hour cessation of hostilities. Calling on Syria to permit aid deliveries and on States with influence over the parties to take action, he recommended activating mechanisms to monitor implementation.
Echoing a common call, Côte d’Ivoire’s delegate said Council members must rise above their differences to deliver a message of hope to the Syrian people. Kazakhstan’s delegate, expressing regret over the lack of full agreement and coordination among key stakeholders in managing the crisis, called for closer interaction between the Russian Federation and the United States, in order to enhance the political process.
Also delivering statements were representatives of the United Kingdom, Poland, Equatorial Guinea, China, Ethiopia and Kuwait.
The meeting began at 10:37 a.m. and ended at 12:43 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, provided an update on the situation in Syria, saying convoys were ready to go to 10 besieged areas, including eastern Ghouta, and the United Nations was working on medical evacuations, partnering with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other health partners. Stressing that there had been no implementation of resolution 2401 (2018), concerning a ceasefire, he said that, to date, no convoys had reached besieged areas, permission had not yet been given to access those locations, no medical evacuations had taken place nor had any civilians left eastern Ghouta, where no humanitarian improvements had been reported. Moreover, it was impossible to deliver aid during the humanitarian pause between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. local time.
Instead, the last five days had been plagued by more bombing, fighting, death, destruction, hunger and misery, he said. On 26 February, airstrikes, barrel bombs and artillery shelling were reported across eastern Ghouta, as were deaths and injuries. Shells had also reportedly continued to fall in Damascus from eastern Ghouta.
Providing a snapshot of developments in other parts of Syria, he said fighting continued in Idlib, displacing an estimated 385,000 people since December 2017 amid reports of civilian deaths, injuries and displacement. Raqqa remained unsafe for returning citizens and local authorities had blocked humanitarian access in Hasakah.
He said the first United Nations assessment visit to Deir ez-Zor after being under control for three and a half years by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) had revealed that 80 per cent of the city had been destroyed and 100,000 people continued to live there. Aid had been dispatched. But, he remained concerned about the tens of thousands of people stranded in Rukban and efforts were ongoing to obtain the necessary agreements for aid convoys.
Access to besieged areas had dropped by 40 per cent in 2017 from 2016, with drastic reductions in deliveries caused by the Government’s refusal to provide approvals and facilitation letters, he said. “Assistance across conflict lines to millions of people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas has in recent months totally collapsed,” he said. “Unless this changes, we will soon see even more people dying from starvation and disease than from the bombing and shelling.”
As the United Nations worked to reach the 5.6 million people in need, half of whom were in Government-controlled areas, he said what Syrians needed was abundantly clear: protection, access to basic goods and services, an end to sieges, and respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law. The Council had unanimously supported those elements in passing resolution 2401 (2018). Closing with a question for the Council, he asked: “When will your resolution be implemented?”
JEFFREY FELTMAN, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said frustration over the collective failure to end the seven-year war paled when compared to the Syrian people’s frustration. “We are here again today because the brief respite you unanimously demanded only days ago in resolution 2401 (2018) has not materialized,” he said, citing reports of airstrikes, shelling and another chlorine gas attack. “We are still grasping for a political solution, which is the only way to end the bloodletting.”
He said the United Nations would continue to demand that all parties respected international law and call for accountability for the perpetrators of chemical and terrorist attacks. Acknowledging the Russian Federation’s announcement of a daily five-hour-long pause in eastern Ghouta, he reminded all parties that resolution 2401 (2018) demanded sustained aid delivery for a minimum of 30 consecutive days. “We are ready to deliver,” he said, referring to critical medical evacuations and much-needed aid and services.
Recalling that the resolution affirmed that the cessation of hostilities did not apply to military operations against ISIL, Al-Qaida, Nusrah Front and other associated terrorist groups, he said there must be a frank assessment of what that meant in the context of the unfolding humanitarian tragedy. He condemned all violations of international law by all parties, including shelling from eastern Ghouta that was killing and injuring civilians in Damascus. The scale of Government attacks on eastern Ghouta, with its 400,000 civilians, could not be justified on the basis of targeting terrorist fighters. Counter-terrorism efforts did not supersede international law obligations, he said, adding that the Government had told the United Nations that it had a right to fight terrorism, but had not confirmed that it would implement the resolution.
On 27 February, he said the United Nations had received a letter expressing full commitment to resolution 2401 (2018) from the Syrian Negotiations Commission on behalf of three major non-State armed opposition groups — Jaish al Islam, Failaq al Rahman and Ahrar al Sham — as well as civil society organizations. The groups had specifically committed to ensuring that aid could be delivered and to expelling all elements of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida in eastern Ghouta.
He emphasized that the United Nations had not independently verified reports that those non-State armed groups had created a coordination centre in eastern Ghouta with Nusrah Front. Instead, it could verify that non-State armed groups in the city, over the past 24 hours, had expressed readiness in writing to evacuate Nusrah Front fighters.
“There will be no sustainable solution if the Council’s resolutions are not implemented,” he said, efforts that would require parties to “step back from the brink” and end the fighting. “And all our efforts will be in vain if there is no serious investment in a political solution.”
Resolution 2401 (2018) called on Member States to use their influence to implement the cessation of hostilities, he said, emphasizing the United Nations call for a renewed commitment by all Member States and for caution against drawing the Organization into monitoring exercises. The latter had been tried without success due to an absence of political will among Member States. All Member States, especially those working within the Astana and Amman arrangements, must use their resources and influence over the parties to ensure the ceasefire was implemented throughout Syria.
Warring parties believed there was a military solution, but there was not, he said, emphasizing that the United Nations remained convinced that a political solution was the only way forward. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was pressing forward to facilitate the establishment of a constitutional committee in Geneva, and the Council and international community must fully support his efforts.
CARL SKAU (Sweden), speaking also on behalf of Kuwait as cosponsors of resolution 2401 (2018), said there was no time to lose. Sharing concerns about the lack of compliance with the ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, he expressed appreciation for resolution 2401 (2018). However, the value of a resolution was in its implementation and efforts must be made towards that end by all Member States. “Let us seize the opportunity to focus on its implementation,” he said, calling on the three Astana guarantors to play their part to ensure the fighting ended. Armed groups had indicated they would support the resolution and he called on those with influence to take action in that regard. As convoys stood ready, he asked Syria to urgently issue facilitation letters. Structures must also be activated to monitor and ensure the resolution’s implementation, and a clear link must be made between monitoring mechanisms and the Council. Resolution 2401 (2018) demanded a 30-day ceasefire, not a five-hour cessation of hostilities, he said, reminding all parties that they must uphold their obligations under international law.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) stressed that, since the adoption of resolution 2401 (2018), attacks on eastern Ghouta had continued unabated, no humanitarian convoys had been allowed in and no sieges lifted. More than 400,000 people remained trapped in eastern Ghouta, and a recent United Nations request to deliver a convoy to Douma had been met with no response from Syrian authorities. Calling for cessations of hostilities without delay, leading to a durable humanitarian truce for at least 30 days, he stressed that “these demands are perfectly clear” and they must be neither subjectively interpreted nor distorted. The Council must implement the provisions it had set out, he said, asking: “If we fail to do so, what credibility can we attribute to our commitments?” Following a meeting between France and the Russian Federation on 27 February in Moscow, his delegation had four demands for the parties to the conflict: Implement the non-negotiable cessation of hostilities demanded by resolution 2401 (2018); immediately open all relevant checkpoints to allow the deployment of humanitarian convoys; urgently enable the most critical medical evacuations, especially of children; and establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure full respect for resolution 2401 (2018).
JONATHON GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) said that, five days ago, all 15 Council members had raised their hands in support of a desperately needed ceasefire in Syria. Condemning attacks on both eastern Ghouta and Damascus, he said resolution 2401 (2018) had called for at least a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” — meaning “right now, immediately”. The Russian Federation’s subsequent proposal of daily five-hour windows for aid delivery was not what had been voted on, he stressed, adding that it was insufficient to allow for the aid delivery. “Humanitarian pauses of a few meagre hours are no substitute for a sustained ceasefire”, he emphasized, adding that airstrikes by pro-regime forces had continued even in the hours following the adoption of resolution 2401 (2018). Now, “as if the situation couldn’t get any worse”, there were disturbing reports of chlorine gas use by pro-regime forces. Indeed, the horror continued and nothing had changed. All States were responsible for ensuring that resolution 2401 (2018) was implemented in full, he said, calling on Iran and the Russian Federation in particular to exert their influence on the parties.
KELLEY ANNE ECKELS-CURRIE (United States) urged Member States to hold on to the hope that they could help the Syrian people, adding: “If we don’t have that hope, then we are wasting our time here.” Adopting resolution 2401 (2018), the Council, “speaking with one voice”, had sought to end the constant bombardment of eastern Ghouta. However, any hope that the Russian Federation would use its influence to those ends had again been dashed. Less than 24 hours after the text’s adoption, reports had emerged of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, once again demonstrating its complete disregard for the Council’s demands. No aid deliveries had been allowed into eastern Ghouta. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation had announced daily five-hour humanitarian pauses in flagrant violation of the resolution. That country could not unilaterally rewrite the stipulations of a text for which it had voted. Noting that Iran, the Assad regime and the Russian Federation would continue to falsely claim that they were only attacking terrorists, she said accusations that the United States supported terrorists were ridiculous. The Council must not fall for the Russian Federation’s misdirections, she stressed, calling for redoubled efforts to implement resolution 2401 (2018).
KAREL JAN GUSTAAF VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) said a full cessation of hostilities was needed, stressing that a five-hour pause did not meet the resolution’s requirements. He called on all parties to the conflict, and those with influence over them, to act now to stop the violence, bombing and shelling. “The credibility of this Council is increasingly undermined with every day that passes while the fighting continues,” he said, reiterating a call on the Astana guarantors — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — to take all necessary steps to stop the fighting. Implementing provisions on aid deliveries and on civilian protection must also be ensured. Media coverage of Syrian women being exploited in exchange for aid were a great concern, he said, emphasizing that such actions could not be tolerated. In addition, resolution 2254 (2015) must be fully implemented, as there was no military solution to the conflict.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) said the Council’s unity in adopting resolution 2401 (2018) implicitly required members to remain seized of the matter. The failure to implement it threatened the Council’s credibility. All parties to the conflict must obey the ceasefire, and he expressed support for Sweden’s recommendations. Condemning the military operations across Syria, he commended the United Nations for its diligence, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which had prepared aid deliveries. The Council must work tirelessly to ensure the resolution’s full and prompt implementation.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said the fighting had worsened and efforts must urgently be made to implement resolution 2401 (2018). All actors must use their influence to immediately improve the situation. A cessation of hostilities would provide an opportunity to give momentum to talks in Geneva so a political solution could be reached. The ceasefire must ensure the safe passage of humanitarian activities, otherwise the lives of medical and aid personnel could be in danger. The resolution’s unanimous adoption was just the beginning of the process, she said, pressing all stakeholders to do their utmost to stop the fighting.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia), condemning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Syria, urged parties to immediately implement resolution 2401 (2018) and allow entry of humanitarian convoys without any restrictions. Such efforts must be carried out in cooperation with the Syrian authorities, he said, also calling for work to begin immediately on mine clearance, especially in Raqqa where civilians were returning to their homes. The Council must maintain its unity and uphold all resolutions it adopted. Emphasizing that the only way forward was an inclusive, Syrian-led political dialogue, he drew attention to the Geneva and Astana negotiations processes, as well as the outcome of recent talks in Sochi, Russian Federation. The Syrian people had the right to decide their own future without foreign interference, he said.
BERNARD TANOH-BOUTCHOUE (Côte d’Ivoire) echoed hope that proposals stemming from the Sochi talks and other negotiations would become a part of the international efforts to bring the crisis in Syria to an end. Condemning the use of non‑conventional weapons, destruction of public infrastructure and attacks against civilians — which had led to the Council's adoption of resolution 2401 (2018) — he expressed regret that the text had yet to be implemented and deplored the ongoing loss of life. Any resolution to the crisis must be based on an inclusive political dialogue, as stipulated in resolution 2254 (2015), and all parties must ensure absolute respect for the ceasefire laid out in resolution 2401 (2018). For their part, Council members must rise above their differences to deliver a message of hope to the Syrian people.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea), noting that the Council’s resolutions were only relevant if they were implemented, said combatants must agree to sit around the table to determine the way forward. It must be Syrians themselves who chose their future. It was also imperative that the parties uphold all Council resolutions, including resolution 2401 (2018), which mandated unimpeded humanitarian access and the cessation of hostilities. The parties should work with the United Nations and other partners to ensure that assistance reached those in need and that the most critically sick were evacuated.
KANAT TUMYSH (Kazakhstan) said that, over the last 100 hours, military operations had continued to pound eastern Ghouta and attacks on Damascus had persisted. He urged the Council to assist the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in operationalizing aid delivery and undertaking medical evacuations. Kazakhstan had proposed to foster inter-Syrian negotiations through the Astana Process and make use of positive developments to improve the humanitarian situation. Expressing regret over the lack of full agreement and coordination between key stakeholders in managing the Syrian crisis, he underlined the need to establish closer interaction between the leading actors, in particular between the Russian Federation and the United States, to enhance the political process.
WU HAITAO (China) condemned all acts of violence against innocent civilians, adding that parties must take all steps to de-escalate the situation. He welcomed the Russian Federation’s announcement on ceasefire arrangements and regarding medical evacuations. A political settlement was the only viable solution, he said, citing positive results from talks in Sochi. Dialogue and negotiation must resume as soon as possible to achieve progress on a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia) said the devastating crisis required prompt action. Stressing that the Council must ensure the implementation of resolution 2401 (2018), she called on all parties to respect all provisions of the ceasefire. Urgent and coordinated action must ensure that the situation on the ground improved, she said, emphasizing that a Syrian-led process, based on resolution 2254 (2015), was the only way to end the crisis.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) asked the Emergency Relief Coordinator about the sources of his information, citing discrepancies with United Nations statistics. Once again, the United States delegate had focused entirely on the Russian Federation, purporting to know what it would say today. Quoting resolution 2401 (2018), he said any pause must be preceded by an agreement on de‑escalation. Warning countries not to exploit Syria’s tragedy, he said it was the United States that had attempted to rewrite the resolution’s demands. The Russian Federation was supporting daily five-hour pauses and called on the United Nations, ICRC and others to follow suit. Recalling that opposition militants had launched an onslaught the day following the resolution’s adoption, he noted that somehow secret information about its provisions had been made available to those fighters. Urging their foreign sponsors — including many States sitting around the Council table — to cut all ties with those groups, he said their “informational smokescreen” had reached unprecedented levels.
Meanwhile, those very delegations felt entitled to lecture others about humanism even as they razed Raqqa, he said. Citing new reports of civilian deaths resulting from coalition air strikes in Deir ez-Zor Province, he urged the coalition to support Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, rather than create justifications for its continued presence in the country. Also demanding that the coalition enable humanitarian access to all areas under its control, he said a wave of anti-Russian hysteria had been unleashed today, with all the demands of resolution 2401 (2018) directed at his country. None of those States attacking the Russian Federation had “lifted a finger” to compel opposition forces to end their attacks. Rather, they would go to any length to oust Syria’s Government. He objected to unsubstantiated claims of chemical agents use by Syria, which were simply another pretext for confrontation. Calling on all parties to “cast aside dirty tricks”, he read out a proposal relating to ceasefire arrangements, urging the Council to adopt it today.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), Council president for February, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing that resolution 2401 (2018) was only a first step. While the Council had demonstrated unity on the issue, the binding resolution must now be fully implemented. Welcoming that the United Nations was ready to deliver aid to reach eastern Ghouta and other areas, he called on all parties to respect the resolution.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said his delegation had sent a letter to the United Nations, which was clearly not a charity organization. The United Nations had, in fact, failed to ensure the implementation of resolutions since its inception, with the situation in Palestine and Iraq being clear examples. The Government was committed to the principles of international law, which stipulated its right to protect civilians from terrorist groups.
Citing a range of errors and omissions in the Secretary-General’s latest report, he said its authors had ignored credible Government information and failed to mention Turkey’s aggression in Afrin, Syria. He rejected the report’s reference to the “international coalition”, which had claimed the lives of civilians and military personnel, including through recent attacks, and called for it to be dismantled.
Turning to the humanitarian situation, he said the current deterioration of conditions in eastern Ghouta stemmed from terrorist groups operating there. Condemning the report’s use of the term “besieged” areas, he said civilians in eastern Ghouta were being “besieged” from within by terrorists using them as human shields. Accusations that the Government was besieging eastern Ghouta had been refuted and proof of access to that city could be seen, as Saudi Arabia had recently sent supplies there.
The Government had worked hard to protect its citizens across the country, including in eastern Ghouta, he said, emphasizing that a humanitarian corridor had been established within hours of the Council’s adoption of its ceasefire resolution. The Government had also called on terrorist groups, Jaish al Islam and Nusrah Front, to lay down their arms. Instead, those groups had indicated their refusal to let civilians leave eastern Ghouta.
The main goal of the resolution was not to reach a truce or protect civilians, he said, but rather, prevent the Syrian Government from targeting terrorist groups who were attacking Damascus. The resolution did not refer to any other counter-terrorism resolution, he said, pointing out several Council members’ resistance and the lengthy negotiations that had occurred on whether to include ISIL in the ceasefire.
Raising other concerns, he pointed to media reports on a “ridiculous” allegation of collusion over chemical weapons between Syria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, serving to damage both countries. Referring to a newly received Government memo, he informed the Council that trucks from Turkey had reached Idlib and towns beyond, citing reports that the delivered chemical weapons would be used by terrorists before 13 March.