The intensity of international confrontations over Syria during the last month were unprecedented since 1973, the Special Envoy told the Security Council today, underscoring the need for “careful diplomacy” to support de-escalation, avoid miscalculations and facilitate genuine communication about sustainably ending the conflict.
Staffan de Mistura, speaking via videoconference from Geneva, detailed air strikes carried out by the United States, France and the United Kingdom near Damascus and Homs on 13 April, as well as dozens of alleged and confirmed strikes by Israel across the country on 29 April, 8 May and between 9 and 10 May, targeting presumed Iranian and Syrian military targets.
While he could not independently verify every aspect of those events, the issue of chemical weapons was intimately related to heightened tensions. He reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for the Council to agree on a dedicated mechanism for effective accountability for such use in Syria.
More broadly, he said evacuations from eastern Ghouta were being repeated in the eastern Qalamoun area, southern Damascus and northern rural Homs. He described a pattern of military air strikes, followed by a negotiation and an agreement for the evacuation of civilians and fighters unwilling to remain under Syrian Government control or Russian Federation protection guarantees. In Idlib, such agreements were being discussed — but in reverse: those in Government‑controlled Fouah and Kefraya were considering evacuating after years of attacks from surrounding areas.
He feared that escalation in Idlib, Daraa and the north-east could incur risks to global peace and security, as those areas contained external international forces. At the ninth high-level Astana meeting on 15 May, particularly on Idlib, parties had discussed how to avoid such confrontation, in full respect of Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
He had engaged with a spectrum of stakeholders and identified options to relaunch the United Nations facilitated Geneva process. He also had assessed options to revive intra-Syrian talks, notably through forums that functioned within the framework of resolution 2254 (2015).
Throughout, he had called for robust international dialogue and consensus on de-escalation, confidence-building and creating minimum conditions for a credible peace process. That process itself must be revived, in terms of the constitutional committee and initial steps towards the establishment of a safe, neutral environment. “We stand ready to facilitate discussions on both,” he said.
Following his briefing, Syria’s delegate accused the United States and the United Kingdom of supporting terrorist groups in his country. They claimed to seek a political solution, yet had exploited the United Nations by pressuring his Government as a way of carrying out a hegemon agenda.
He said the legal and constitutional obligation set forth in Council resolutions on combating terrorism had obliged Syria to take military operations in eastern Ghouta to free civilians from terrorist groups. Stressing that Israel’s aggression would not have been possible without the United States support, he said Syria would fend off all such hostility.
The United States delegate supported Israel’s right to defend itself. Calling on Iran, Hizbullah and other proxy parties to halt attacks, she said the Council should pressure Iran to stop provocative actions in Syria. The United Kingdom’s delegate, along similar lines, called on the Russian Federation and Iran to encourage Syria to set aside a military solution and engage with the United Nations. “It is not us in the West that are stopping that from happening,” she said.
The Russian Federation’s delegate, meanwhile, said the strikes by those countries had breached international law. Efforts by the Astana guarantor countries were leading to the elimination of terrorist groups in Syria. He said today’s meeting was about Syria, not Iran, and asked about conditions in the territory of Syria controlled by the United States.
Also speaking today were representatives of China, Kazakhstan and Bolivia.
The meeting began at 10:13 a.m. and ended at 11:24 a.m.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, speaking via videoconference from Geneva, said tensions were high, and regional and international confrontations had occurred several times. On 13 April, the United States, France and the United Kingdom had conducted missile strikes in response to charges of chemical weapons use in eastern Ghouta, having targeted three specific sites. On 29 April, strikes were reported on Syrian Government facilities in Hama and Aleppo, with some media outlets attributing them to Israel and alleging that those killed included Iranian personnel. Neither Israel nor Iran had responded.
He said that, on 8 May, strikes had been reported south of Damascus, with Syrian State media attributing them to Israel, which did not confirm that claim. Israel then said it had detected “irregular Iranian activity” in the occupied Golan. Between 9 and 10 May, Israel had carried out dozens of strikes against presumed Iranian and Syrian military targets across southern Syria. It said that it was responding to Iranian rockets against Israeli targets. Iran denied those claims. Explaining that his team could not verify every aspect of those incidents, he said even an incomplete picture demonstrated a troubling trajectory: ever more frequent and intense international confrontations over Syria, unprecedented since 1973.
The Secretary-General had called for restraint, reminding all parties of their obligation to act consistently with the Charter of the United Nations and with international law, he said. Echoing the call for the Council to agree on a dedicated mechanism for effective accountability for chemical weapons use in Syria, he said his office awaited the results of the ongoing investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission, following its visit to Douma, with a report to be issued to the States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. “The importance of accountability for any established use of chemical weapons is paramount,” he said.
Evacuations from eastern Ghouta had been repeated in the eastern Qalamoun area, southern Damascus and northern rural Homs. He described a pattern of military air strikes, followed by a negotiation and an agreement for the evacuation of civilians and fighters unwilling to remain under Syrian Government control or Russian Federation protection guarantees. In Idlib, such agreements were being discussed — but in reverse: those in Government-controlled Fouah and Kefraya were considering evacuating after years of attacks from surrounding areas.
He cautioned against the illusion propagated by those wishing to see those events as paving the way for a solution, pointing to a so-called “simplified map”. Simply funnelling civilians and fighters into northern Syria might only postpone the conflict. Some 110,000 people had been evacuated to north-western Syria and the Euphrates Shield areas in the last two months, many in urgent need of assistance, while the situation in Afrin remained challenging. Humanitarian partners were stretched thin by the scale of the evacuations. He feared that escalation in Idlib, Daraa and the northeast could incur risks to global peace and security, as many of those areas contained external international forces.
Stressing that international discussions were needed on how to prevent further confrontations, he said he had attended the high-level Astana meeting on 15 May, where there was constructive discussion on how that might be achieved with in full respect of Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. There was also a second meeting of the Working Group on the release of detainees/abductees, the handover of bodies and identification of missing persons.
De-escalation was indispensable, he said, but just one ingredient to advance the political process. Implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) was also needed to overcome challenges to a meaningful Geneva process. He had consulted with a broad spectrum of stakeholders and identified options for relaunching the United Nations-facilitated Geneva process. Over two weeks, he had held an exhaustive tour of consultations — with the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, European Union and several key European countries, Turkey, Russian Federation, Iran, Council members, as well as with the Syrian Government and opposition contacts in Astana.
He said he had returned to Geneva with a mixed picture. There were significant differences, but also much common interest: the need to de-escalate, to form a constitutional committee under United Nations auspices, to establish a safe, neutral environment and to respect Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. But, those commonalities risked being lost in the absence of serious international dialogue. He underscored the need for robust international dialogue and consensus on de-escalation, confidence-building and creating minimum conditions for a credible political process. His office was also assessing options to update, revive and advance intra-Syrian dialogue, notably through the use of forums he had established that functioned within the framework of resolution 2254 (2015).
Stressing that the United Nations remained ready to work on the formation of a constitutional committee, according to the Sochi final declaration, he welcomed the intention of the Astana Guarantors to regularly engage with the Organization on follow-up to that accord. Outlining “two bottom lines”, he said de-escalation was critical between both the Syrian and international stakeholders. The political process must be revived in terms of the constitutional committee, as well as initial steps towards the establishment of a safe neutral environment. “We stand ready to facilitate discussions on both,” he said, stressing that “careful diplomacy” was required in order to support de-escalation, avoid miscalculation and ensure genuine communication about a sustainable end to the conflict.
KELLEY A. ECKELS-CURRIE (United States), noting Iran’s responsibility for recent rocket attacks on Israeli citizens, said her country supported Israel’s right to defend itself. Where Iran showed up in the Middle East, chaos followed. Calling on Iran, Hizbullah and other proxy parties to halt attacks, she said the Council must put pressure on Iran to stop provocative actions in Syria, which had enflamed and prolonged the conflict. The Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in Douma and more than 50 times since the start of the civil war, she said. The need for a ceasefire was obvious, as violence continued, including air strikes tripling in frequency in the south, even though it was a de-escalation zone. The Russian Federation must play its part to ensure progress. There was a clear blueprint in resolution 2254 (2015), she said, adding that the end of the conflict could only be reached via the United Nations process.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said his country supported a diplomatic approach to reach a political settlement. The United States, United Kingdom and France had undertaken aggressive action recently in Syria, breaching international law. The Russian Federation, unlike some Council members who took unilateral measures, sought a political solution. Providing updates on a recent Astana process meeting, he said a joint statement had been signed, addressing a host of political and humanitarian issues key to the ceasefire regime. Efforts must be stepped up, including to restore normal civilian life and to provide safe humanitarian access. Joint efforts must also continue to build trust among conflicting sides, he said, noting Syria’s willingness to work with such an initiative. Consultations with the Special Envoy and parties would continue, with the Syrians themselves reaching an agreement on the parameters of the process.
However, he said, the growing aggression against Syria had strained such efforts. Concerted efforts from the guarantor countries were leading to the elimination of terrorist groups in Syria. Providing a broader snapshot of conditions across Syria, he said the Russian Federation’s efforts included restoring water services and easing the return of internally displaced persons. Efforts must also be made to restore control over areas plagued by armed groups and terrorists. The Russian Federation would continue the difficult endeavour of restoring peace in Syria, but negative actions were fuelling the conflict, including the reckless conduct of certain international players. Turning to comments that had been made by his counterpart from the United States, he said today’s meeting was on Syria, not Iran, and asked about details on conditions in the territory controlled by the United States. He also raised fears about Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) filling the vacuum when the United States withdrew from the area.
MA ZHAOXU (China) welcomed the latest round of the Astana dialogue, paying tribute to the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Iran for their contributions. The political solution was the only option and efforts must be made at national and international levels to move towards that goal. Noting that targets in Syria had been subjected to attacks, he expressed hope that all parties would work towards ending the violence. A Syrian-owned, Syrian-led process must be supported and must be based on resolution 2254 (2015). For its part, China was working towards finding a solution, having held a symposium in May on prospects for peace and the role the international community could play.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said he was glad that Syrian Government and opposition representatives had, in Astana on 14 and 15 May, confirmed the need to pursue the political process. However, Geneva should remain the main international platform in the quest for a political settlement. Emphasizing that “we cannot afford a war in Idlib”, he called on stakeholders with influence on the conflicting parties to conduct negotiations at the regional, national and local levels, and avert impending tensions. He added that there would be no lasting results without direct dialogue and confidence-building measures. It was the Syrians themselves who should begin to shape the country’s future political system, he said.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) called for an end to the violence and urged all to refrain from unilateral acts. Welcoming the meeting of the three ceasefire guarantors in March, he looked forward to the next summit sponsored by Iran and also welcomed the Astana meeting held this past week. He urged more coordination among local authorities in the de-escalation zones, along with humanitarian actors. In that context, he urged full implementation of resolution 2401 (2018) to ensure safe, sustained and unhindered humanitarian access. Voluntary return to eastern Ghouta and north-western Syria must be carried out in a safe and dignified manner, he said, underscoring the need to save civilians in Idlib, calling for avoiding escalation of violence there. Confidence-building measures must be pursued, as must commitments made at the national commission for Syrian dialogue forged in Sochi in January. He hoped a constitutional committee would soon be set up and include all parties to the conflict. He rejected any attempt to introduce sectarianism into Syria, noting that the only way to resolve the conflict was through an inclusive political process.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the Geneva process had not proven as fast or productive as the Council would have liked. “We all know what needs to be done,” she said. What the Council struggled with was how to take the next step. She expressed hope that, immediately following today’s public meeting, there would be discussions on what it would take “to get the constitutional committee up and running”, how the Council could best support those efforts and what it would take to support Idlib. All in the Council understood the importance, scale and significance of that area and she urged the Astana guarantors to ensure that people in Idlib were safe and that humanitarian catastrophe would be averted.
To remarks about “backsliding” from a political settlement by her counterpart from the Russian Federation, she called for all those with influence on Syria — including the Russian Federation and Iran — to encourage Syria to set aside a military solution and engage with the United Nations “across the board”, stressing: “It is not us in the West that are stopping that from happening.” To other comments, she said the United Kingdom, France and the United States had taken their action in Syria in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. In so doing, they had degraded Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons and had upheld the global ban on weapons of mass destruction. Those reasons should not be used “to let Syria off the hook” from engaging with the United Nations on a political process.
MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria) said the United States and the United Kingdom had sought to market false statements as a way to justify their aggression against his country, hiding their involvement in sponsoring terrorism. The testimony of thousands of Syrians who had escaped armed terrorists in eastern Ghouta proved that those countries were involved in their suffering. “You support those terrorist groups,” he said. Through their illegal occupation of Syrian territories, they had proven they could not let go of greed and imperialism. In the Council, they claimed to seek a political solution, yet Syria had defeated their agenda in Aleppo and eastern Ghouta. “You will not be victorious in any area of my country,” he said. Further, they had exploited the United Nations by pressuring Syria so they could implement their hegemon agenda. They did not use the United Nations to fight terrorism.
On the humanitarian situation, he said Syria gave primacy to providing all forms of humanitarian assistance to all affected Syrians wherever they were. The legal and constitutional obligation set forth in Council resolutions on combating terrorism had obliged Syria to take military operations in eastern Ghouta in order to free civilians from terrorist groups. Contrary to false narratives, those operations had reduced civilian suffering and facilitated humanitarian access. The United States had supported Israel’s 9 May aggression, after the latter had failed to protect its proxy terrorist groups and conspire against Syria. Israel’s aggression would not have been possible without the United States support, he said, and Syria was ready to fend off all such aggressions against its sovereignty. Satisfied with the ninth round of Astana talks, whose outcome had stressed respect for Syria’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, his Government had expelled terrorists from northern Homs, in cooperation with its friends. It would support all genuine efforts to arrive at a political solution through which Syrians would decide their future.
Ms. PIERCE (United Kingdom), taking the floor for a second time, asked her counterpart from Syria whether it would engage with the Special Envoy and the Council and partners to make real progress on the constitutional committee.
Mr. MOUNZER (Syria) said his country was working with the Special Envoy and was keen on finding a peaceful Syrian-led solution to the Syrian crisis.