Permanent Representative Says Government Will Fight Terrorism, Ensure Return of Refugees without Foreign Interference
Syria, in its eighth year of war, must not miss an opportunity to create the constitutional committee, the top United Nations official tasked with seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis told the Security Council today, also welcoming the new Russian‑Turkish agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib.
“There is urgency to moving ahead,” said Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, briefing the Council on the Secretary‑General’s latest report (document S/2018/845). “We cannot afford to keep consulting. It is way too easy to say ‘we will keep consulting’.”
Stressing that Syrians look to the United Nations to facilitate a genuine, credible and inclusive process to end the conflict, he said the constitutional committee is a first step and will comprise three groups: the Government of Syria; a broad opposition delegation; and one comprising Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women.
While the first two groups have been accepted, he said stakeholders meeting in Astana on 10 and 11 September deeply questioned the composition of the third group. The next month is critical, he continued, expressing readiness to engage all stakeholders, from international players to the Syrian opposition.
On the Russian‑Turkish agreement, he said diplomacy has produced progress in addressing terrorist threats and protecting 3 million civilians in Idlib, expressing hope the accord will be swiftly implemented.
Also briefing the Council, Mark Lowcock, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs, said demilitarization in Idlib requires the agreement of all parties. Civilians must be allowed to seek refuge elsewhere.
He said food rations for one week for 350,000 people and non‑food items for 400,000 people have been pre‑positioned in Idlib. Indeed, for civilians, the 17 September agreement could mean merely “a stay of execution” or “the beginning of a reprieve”, the first tiny glint of light at the end of the darkest tunnel.
In the ensuing debate, speakers painted differing pictures of a future Syria, with the representative of the United States calling for the convening of the constitutional committee and urging that a date be set for its first meeting. While the “Astana group” has expressed reservations over membership, said France’s delegate, the time is right to make headway. Establishing a constitutional committee would be a first milestone of establishing peace.
The Russian Federation’s delegate said his country will work towards establishing the constitutional committee. He called for an end to destructive attempts to undermine the achievement of a sustained political settlement, pointing out that the Special Envoy must facilitate, not lead, the process.
Turkey’s delegate explained that, according to the demilitarization agreement, all heavy weaponry will be withdrawn by 10 October, terrorist groups will be removed by 15 October and Turkish‑Russian patrols will be coordinated on both sides of the demilitarized zone. His counterpart from Iran, meanwhile, said the accord is the result of intensive, responsible diplomacy based on the Astana process approach. It is also in line with the views expressed by the Presidents of Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey at the recent Tehran summit to discuss Idlib.
Syria’s delegate said his Government will, without foreign interference, counter terrorism, ensure the return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons, and reconstruct the country, free of terrorists and illegal occupying powers. While not mentioned today, the Russian‑Turkish agreement came about through intensive negotiations between Syria and the Russian Federation, he asserted.
Also speaking today were representatives of Sweden (also on behalf of Kuwait), Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, Côte d’Ivoire, China, Poland, Peru, Ethiopia, Netherlands, United Kingdom and Bolivia.
The meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 12:40 p.m.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Envoy for Syria, providing a snapshot of developments, some of which are included in the Secretary‑General’s latest report on the implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015), 2332 (2016), 2393 (2017) and 2401 (2018) (document S/2018/845). Most recently, the Russian Federation and Turkey reached an agreement on 17 September to establish a de‑escalation zone in Idlib. Diplomacy has produced progress in addressing terrorist threats and protecting up to 3 million civilians, he said, expressing hope the agreement will be swiftly implemented. However, recent air strikes in Damascus involving Israeli jets are a concern, he said, calling on all parties to refrain from military action elsewhere that will exacerbate the situation.
Turning to political developments, he said Syrians look to the United Nations to facilitate a genuine, credible and inclusive process to end the conflict, as mandated by resolution 2254 (2015). On the creation of a constitutional committee, he said that since the Sochi Congress, held earlier in 2018, discussions with stakeholders have led to steps taken towards a Syrian‑owned, Syrian‑led mechanism. An accepted formula for participation allocates one third of the constitutional committee to each of three groups: the Government of Syria; a broad opposition delegation; and one comprising Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women. While the first two groups have been accepted, stakeholders meeting in Astana on 10 and 11 September deeply questioned the composition of the third group, which the United Nations is mandated to facilitate, and consultations are being held ahead of a related Geneva meeting in October. “There is urgency to moving ahead,” he said. “We cannot afford to keep consulting. It is way too easy to say ‘we will keep consulting’.”
Indeed, the next month is critical, he continued, expressing readiness to engage all stakeholders, from international players to the Syrian opposition. Underlining the importance of Syrians beginning to talk to each other, he said steps must be found to build confidence and create a neutral environment. Without a meaningful and irreversible political process, and without real steps on the ground, the required confidence will not develop, he cautioned, reminding the Council of a need for urgent, concrete action on the release of detainees and abductees, the handover of bodies and the identification of missing persons, all of which are crucial issues affecting thousands of Syrians. In addition, preparations must ultimately be made for United Nations‑supervised presidential and parliamentary elections with all Syrians participating, as called for in resolution 2254 (2015).
“There is no military solution,” he concluded, asking all stakeholders to lend full support to the United Nations and its facilitation role in the matter. “We need an inclusive political process and the United Nations is here to facilitate that process, starting with a constitutional committee getting to work. But, it must be credible because only then can the United Nations invest it with the legitimacy it needs.”
MARK LOWCOCK, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs, said the situation is calmer than when he visited Damascus in January. But humanitarian needs remain substantial, and the Government expressed concern to him about the underfunding of the United Nations humanitarian response plan this year. He welcomed the 17 September agreement because — if sustained and implemented in full respect of international humanitarian law — it may avert a catastrophe. To succeed, demilitarization requires the agreement of all parties. Short of that, it is foreseeable that force will be used to demilitarize, and thus, civilians exposed to “the very harm we are trying to avoid”. If it is necessary for civilians to leave, they must be allowed to seek refuge elsewhere, he said, underlining the importance that any screening to distinguish civilians from fighters be undertaken in accordance with international law and clear standard operating procedures.
He said the United Nations, with other humanitarian organizations, continues to implement a major humanitarian assistance programme from across the border in Turkey, supporting an average 2 million people each month in north‑west Syria. This week alone, food for over 260,000 people is being sent across the border, as well as non‑food items and tents for over 60,000 people, most of it through the Bab al‑Hawa crossing into Idlib. Food rations for one week for 350,000 people and non‑food items for 400,000 people have been pre‑positioned in Idlib, with other supplies prepositioned in Homs, Aleppo and Latakia Governorates.
The humanitarian situation remains difficult in other parts of the country, he continued, stressing that approval from Syria’s Government is needed for the convoy to proceed, along with de‑confliction and guarantees of safe passage from the Government, Russian Federation, international coalition forces and Jordan, as well as written guarantees of safe passage by all non‑State armed groups. Further to the north, some 153,000 people are now estimated to have returned to Raqqa city since October 2017. In the south‑west, most of the nearly 325,000 people are estimated to have been displaced since late June. For the 3 million civilians, including 1 million children, in Idlib, the 17 September agreement could mean merely a stay of execution or the beginning of a reprieve, the first “tiny glint of light” at the end of the darkest tunnel.
JAMES JEFFREY (United States) noted that 3 million civilians in Idlib live under the terror of Bashar Al‑Assad and they know all too well his regime’s brutality. A 24‑year‑old woman fled eastern Ghouta — which the Secretary‑General described as “hell on Earth” — to Idlib, where she is on the front line of fighting again and cried when she heard warplanes. Recalling that the United States President said “Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib”, and underscoring the importance of abiding by resolution 2254 (2015), he said Assad should never be welcomed in a civilized nation. As long as Iran and its proxies remain in Syria, there will be no stability. Iran must leave Syria once and for all. The resolution calls for a lasting ceasefire. While welcoming the 17 September agreement on the demilitarized zone, he urged the Russian Federation and Turkey to commit to a lasting ceasefire. He also called for the convening of the constitutional committee in line with that resolution. It is urgent to move forward. The date for convening the first meeting of the committee should be set, he stressed, urging the Council to support this approach.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden), speaking also on behalf of Kuwait, said that despite the dire situation in Idlib, a political will is present in the region and a cessation of hostilities can be achieved. He called on Turkey and the Russian Federation to implement a respected cessation of hostilities there, which will help separate terrorist groups from armed opposition groups, and requested more information on the 17 September agreement made in Sochi, including on the establishment of a de‑militarized zone. He called on the Astana guarantors to implement their own de‑escalation agreement in Idlib, expressing concern over reports of attacks on medical facilities and underscoring the importance of both the implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) in resolving the situation there, and in parallel, advancing the political process. A full‑scale military operation in Idlib would risk any hope for a sustainable peace settlement in Syria, she said, noting that only once a credible political transition is under way and conditions within the country are safe should the international donor community assist in the reconstruction of Syria.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said that as Syria stands at a crossroads on the cusp of an abyss, it could either plunge into a further spiral of violence or choose a political path to peace. Both options are possible and the future hinges on the Council’s ability to unite for peace. Syria has become the preferred incubator for terrorism, and developments in Idlib could cause tensions to spill over the borders and potentially to Europe. Turkey has broadly mobilized to deliver on tangible actions, he said, expressing support for the Russian‑Turkish agreement. Now, the Council must continue to persuade that the path to dialogue is the only avenue to resolving the violence in Idlib. Establishing a constitutional committee would be a first milestone of establishing peace. While the “Astana group” has expressed reservations over membership, the time is right to make headway. He advocated support for the Special Envoy, as well as for an imminent date to establish the committee, making it operational as soon as possible. “We have not a minute to lose,” he warned. “Rebuilding Syria is only possible once a clear political process is established.”
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) expressed support for the Russian‑Turkish agreement, particularly the creation of a demilitarized area by 15 October, which would protect many civilian lives. The Special Envoy has helped to guide a political process forward, he said, expressing hope that no parties will prevent progress in that regard. Prioritizing a political solution is critical at a time when armed groups are operating in Idlib, he said, noting that there is no need to make civilians suffer because of a “scorched‑Earth” policy. Turning to the humanitarian front, he said more than 2.1 million people in Idlib are vulnerable and need assistance. All parties to the conflict must show moderation, respecting their obligations under international humanitarian law and protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said serious progress was made in the political process to resolve the conflict in Idlib Province. Welcoming the memorandum signed on 17 September in Sochi by the Russian Federation and Turkey, he expressed support for the creation of a demilitarized zone in Idlib by 15 October to separate Government forces from rebel fighters. While noting the recent consultations with the so‑called “Small Group” did not end in tangible results, he said such consultations should continue, and that an innovative regional paradigm is needed to support both the Geneva and Astana processes. He urged all sides to act with prudence with regard to threats of chemical weapons use, and called on the international community to provide additional financial support to respond to a potential military escalation in Syria’s north‑west. Expressing concern about the safety of civilians in rural Deir ez‑Zor Governorate, where internally displaced are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, he called on all sides not to block aid, and to make every effort to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
GBOLIÉ DESIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) welcomed the multifaceted assistance provided by the United Nations, stressing that civil society organizations are also paying the price with their lives. To date, 22 United Nations staff members and 74 personnel of non‑governmental organizations have lost their lives in the line of duty. Noting that there are 3 million civilians in Idlib, including 1.4 million internally displaced persons, he urged all parties to exercise restraint to avert the tragedy seen in eastern Ghouta and Aleppo. He also called for accountability, noting all crimes must be investigated and prosecuted. A political compromise is necessary, especially on the establishment of the constitutional committee.
MA ZHAOXU (China) welcomed the memorandum between the Russian Federation and Turkey on the demilitarized zone in Idlib, pressing all parties to implement the agreement, which, in turn, would create conditions for a peaceful settlement. It is vital to counter terrorism to consolidate peace. A political solution is the only way out. Expressing support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to form the constitutional committee, as well as the Geneva and Astana processes, he said Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity must be fully respected. On the humanitarian front, the number of returnees is on the rise. The international community should support Syria’s reconstruction and remove the remnants of war, he said, adding that humanitarian relief should remain neutral.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland), turning first to the internal dimension of the conflict, said “things are not normalizing”. Although elections were held for the first time since 2001, many had been left out, including refugees. There is no military solution to the conflict; the aim is to reach an intra‑Syrian framework political agreement. It is for Syrians to negotiate themselves, with true representation of the political process. She expressed support for the Syrian‑led inclusive constitutional committee under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva. Externally, the military offensive continues and human suffering is growing, she said, stressing that nothing can justify indiscriminate attacks on the innocent. There is a special role for the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran in that regard. Troubled by escalating hostilities in Idlib, and about the severe situation of the most vulnerable victims — notably women, children, religious minorities and internally displaced persons — she said those groups constitute half the population. She called on all stakeholders with influence on the ground — the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran — to take necessary steps to ensure an end to the fighting.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) raised grave concerns about the continued suffering of Syrians and over the inaction in ameliorating the situation. Fighting terrorism is not an excuse to place at risk millions of people. Welcoming the Russian‑Turkish agreement, particularly in separating terrorist groups from civilians, he supported the recent meeting of the small group of concerned countries, and the progress in related political discussions. Issues must be addressed in order to move forward in the political process, including resolving concerns about missing persons and meeting the needs of displaced persons, who must be able to return to their homes safely and with dignity.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia) expressed concern over further military escalation in Idlib where 2.1 million people require humanitarian assistance. Any escalation will endanger millions of civilians and affect the ability of the United Nations and its partners to deliver aid. The targeting of United Nations‑listed terrorist groups must spare no effort to protect civilians, he said, welcoming the agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib and encouraging those countries to find sustainable solutions to the conflict. The humanitarian tragedy in Syria requires safe, rapid and sustained humanitarian access. The situation cannot be addressed without a Syrian‑owned and –led comprehensive political process facilitated by the United Nations. All stakeholders must support efforts to finalize the establishment of the constitutional committee as there is no military solution to the crisis.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands) said the situation in Idlib remains tense, calling the demilitarization agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey a step in the right direction. Further escalation of violence in Idlib may lead to an international confrontation. Efforts to counter Council‑designated terrorist groups must ensure the protection of civilians and all parties must ensure full respect for international humanitarian law, he said, stressing that credible political processes must be inclusive and representative of all Syrians. Unimpeded and unconditional access for principled humanitarian assistance remains a necessity. The United Nations must remain operative and have free access to enable humanitarian aid throughout Syria. There will be no reconstruction aid for Syria until there is a lasting political solution to the crisis.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom), referring to the agreement in Sochi between Turkey and the Russian Federation, urged both nations, particularly the latter as a permanent Council member, to use their influence and implement their commitments. Otherwise, crimes committed against Syrians are committed in the name of the Russian Federation. She agreed with the positions of the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland, as well as that of France about its determination, together with the United States and the United Kingdom, to respond to any chemical weapons use. She called for the convening of the constitutional committee, stressing that the date should be set by 31 October. She also expressed support for comments by her counterpart from the Netherlands about reconstruction funds, raising the prospect of inter‑State war and risks of a wider miscalculation. The best way to honour the life of former Secretary‑General Kofi Annan is to bring the Syrian conflict to an end through the Geneva process, she stressed.
VERÓNICA CORDOVA SORIA (Bolivia) said all parties must abide by international humanitarian law to guarantee the protection of civilians, hospitals, schools and aid workers. Part of that protection umbrella includes the swift removal of anti‑personnel mines, particularly to ensure the safe return of displaced persons. She underlined the need to protect the 2.1 million in in need of assistance in Idlib, where security was fragile. Pressing all parties to continue to work towards the full implementation of resolution 2401 (2018), she expressed support for efforts to combat the spread of terrorist groups identified by the Council, and to separate them from civilian populations. The Russian‑Iranian‑Turkish agreement made in Sochi will address those concerns, she said, expressing hope agreements would continue to allow assistance convoys to operate in safe humanitarian corridors. Only a political solution will end the conflict, she emphasized.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), noting that the historic Russian‑Turkish agreement will be submitted to the Security Council as an official document, emphasized that, regardless of what some say, the Astana format remains effective. The Russian Federation will work towards establishing the constitutional committee, he said, calling for an end to destructive attempts to undermine the achievement of a sustained political settlement in Syria. The Special Envoy must facilitate, not lead, the process. As such, he called on all relevant actors to lend support for a comprehensive political process. Turning to other concerns, he said it is unseemly to politicize issues pertaining to aid delivery. Also worrisome is the lack of information in the Secretary‑General’s report about developments in Raqqa, a city which the coalition has razed to the ground, causing many casualties.
More broadly, he said action is urgently needed in a range of areas to help Syria, including boosting its economy. In that vein, unilateral sanctions imposed by a number of States are detrimental to ordinary civilians. For its part, the Russian Federation will continue to deliver assistance to Syria. As tens of thousands of Syrians are beginning to return to their country, he said efforts are under way to rebuild, and provide both food and medical services. He cited several terrorist attacks across the country, highlighting that, since July, the Russian Federation’s armed forces destroyed almost 60 drones. Terrorist fighters continue to be funded by parties abroad and efforts are addressing those and related challenges.
BASHAR JA'AFARI (Syria) condemned new Israeli aggression against his country, urging the Council to take necessary measures to hold Israel accountable for such acts. Neither of the briefers today mentioned subversive Israeli actions nor the terrorist groups operating in Syria. It is unacceptable that both failed to mention counter‑terrorism. Recalling that Israel attacked Syria twice this week, he said some Council members are unaware of that fact. Some continue to distort facts, he said, calling out the United Kingdom, United States, France and the Netherlands and explaining how these countries tried to meddle in Syria. Syria’s Government will, without foreign interference, counter terrorism, ensure the return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons, and reconstruct the country, free of terrorists and illegal occupying powers. Reconstruction projects allowed the return of displaced Syrians. No speakers today mentioned Syria with regards to the agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey, however the accord came about through intensive negotiations between Syria and the Russian Federation, he asserted.
FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) said the recent Russian‑Turkish agreement represents the determination to find a peaceful solution to the humanitarian disaster in Idlib. The summit also offered an opportunity to discuss ways and means to implement the understanding reached in Tehran, in line with the Astana spirit of cooperation. The agreement aims at, among other things, stabilizing the situation, creating conditions to fight terrorism and pave the way to advance the political process. Highlighting elements of the accord, he said all heavy weaponry will be withdrawn by 10 October, terrorist groups will be removed by 15 October and Turkish‑Russian patrols will be coordinated on both sides of the demilitarized zone. It aims to avert the looming tragedy faced by the people of Idlib. For its part, Turkey wishes to see an acceleration of efforts to establish an inclusive, credible constitutional committee, free and fair elections under United Nations supervision and addressing Syrians’ legitimate aspirations for a democratic future, in line with resolution 2254 (2015).
Reiterating a call to the Council and international community to support such efforts and expedite the political process, he said “our collective efforts to fight terrorism will contribute to the creation of viable conditions to this end”. Turkey and the Russian Federation reaffirmed in Sochi their resolve to fight terrorism in Idlib and beyond. He pledged to continue to combat all terrorist groups seeking to undermine Syria’s territorial integrity and representing a direct threat to Turkey’s national security. “The international community must shoulder its responsibility and throw its weight behind a political solution,” he said. “Millions of Syrians who have suffered tremendously are putting their faith in us. They deserve a better future. They deserve to shape the future of their homeland. We should and cannot fail them.”
GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO (Iran) said the agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib is a result of intensive, responsible diplomacy, based on the Astana process approach. Stopping violence and eliminating terrorism in the area is central to Iran’s foreign policy. As such, the fight against terrorism in Idlib is crucial to the mission of restoring peace but must not hurt civilians. The agreement is in line with views expressed by the Presidents of Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey at the Tehran summit, he recalled, emphasizing the importance of Syria’s right to sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. He expressed hope that the accord will help end the violence while remaining sensitive to humanitarian concerns. Conducive conditions should be prepared for the safe return of refugees, which will accelerate reconciliation. The right to determine Syria’s future belongs exclusively to Syrians, making the establishment and launch of the constitutional committee critical. Iran will play a constructive role in bringing peace and prosperity to Syria, he said, stressing that claims made by the United States representative are intended to cover up the failure of his country’s policies.