Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2401 (2018), today:
I am here to report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2401 which was unanimously adopted by this Council on 24 February. But I am keenly aware that I am doing so just as the bloodletting in Syria enters its eighth year.
Let me highlight just one stark fact on this grimmest of anniversaries: In 2017, more children were killed in Syria than during any other year since the war began.
I am deeply saddened by the immense loss and cascading suffering of the Syrian people. And I am deeply disappointed by all those who have, year after year, by action or inaction, by design or indifference, allowed this to happen. My grief and frustration are compounded by all I know of the people of Syria.
As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the aftermath of the Iraq war, I saw the remarkable hospitality of the Syrian people in hosting 1.5 million Iraqi refugees — not in camps, but in their communities across the country. Syria was a place where refugees could live in security, trying to rebuild their lives and raise their families. Today so many of those generous Syrians who shared so much have themselves been forced from their homes, becoming refugees or internally displaced.
In neighboring countries — whose enormous hospitality I witnessed, but are burdened by overwhelming needs — the vast majority of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. Many of those Syrians who journeyed even farther from home in search of safety found the doors they once opened to others in need shut in their face. A country known for its ancient civilization and a people known for their richness of diversity have been betrayed.
Syria is bleeding inside and out. There should be only one agenda for all of us: to end the suffering of the Syrian people and find a political solution to the conflict. And this Council has a particular responsibility. Let me now turn to the implementation of resolution 2401 and the issue of compliance by all relevant parties in Syria.
I do so with a caveat: The United Nations is following developments closely but we cannot have the full picture due to a limited presence and restricted access on the ground. Resolution 2401 demands all parties to “cease hostilities without delay, and engage immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days … throughout Syria”, while still countering Da’esh and other terrorist groups as designated by the Council.
It is true that, in some areas — like Deir ez-Zour and with a recent ceasefire in Douma that I will address later — the conflict is diminishing in intensity. Yet there has been no cessation of hostilities.
Violence continues in eastern Ghouta and beyond — including in Afrin, parts of Idlib and into Damascus and its suburbs. Particularly in eastern Ghouta, airstrikes, shelling and ground offensives have intensified after the adoption of the resolution and claimed many hundreds of civilian lives — some even reporting the toll at more than 1,000.
The resolution further demands the enabling of “the safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services”. Despite some limited convoy deliveries, the provision of humanitarian aid and services has not been safe, unimpeded or sustained. The resolution calls for “all parties to lift the sieges in populated areas including in eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foah and Kafraya”. No sieges have been lifted.
The resolution demands for the “medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded”. To our knowledge, not one critically sick or wounded person has yet been evacuated. But I will come back to this later in relation to a recent announcement.
The resolution reiterates its demands, “reminding in particular the Syrian authorities, that all parties immediately comply with their obligations under international law, international human rights law, as applicable and international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians”. And I remind all involved that even efforts to combat terrorist groups identified by this Council do not supersede these obligations.
Yet we see egregious violations, indiscriminate attacks, and a failure to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. Since the passage of resolution 2401, my Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and I have been focused on helping to create the conditions for a cessation of hostilities in eastern Ghouta, where — as I said to this Council two weeks ago — people have been living in a hell on earth.
As my Special Envoy has said to the Council a few days ago: “Eastern Ghouta is the most urgent situation, because it is where we have the clearest potential to try to support [the de-escalation] in concrete ways, and because we have been concretely approached.”
On 26 February, the Russian Federation announced a five-hour daily “humanitarian pause” in eastern Ghouta. I will speak to this later in my remarks. On 27 February, the President of the Security Council and I received a letter from the Syrian National Committee conveying another letter of the three armed opposition groups in eastern Ghouta — Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham.
They expressed their commitment “to the full implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions, especially resolution 2401” — and to expelling “the armed groups of Hayat Tahrir Al-sham, Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida and all of those belonging to them, from eastern Ghouta”. They also promised to ensure humanitarian access and the facilitation of the work of United Nations agencies.
On receiving the letter, the Office of the Special Envoy opened channels with all three groups, inside and outside the enclave. The respective commanders issued further letters, expressing the groups’ readiness to negotiate with the Russian Federation in Geneva.
In parallel, both I and my Special Envoy engaged with the relevant authorities of the Russian Federation. My team on the ground did likewise, and also engaged with the Government of Syria. We offered the United Nations good offices to facilitate and observe any meeting between the representatives of the armed opposition groups, the Syrian Government and the Russian Federation. For a few days, and despite our best efforts, it was not possible to schedule any meeting.
Meanwhile, on 6 March, the Syrian Government had addressed a letter to me and to the President of the Security Council. That letter stated that Syria positively welcomed resolution 2401, “as it stresses firm commitment to the Syrian State’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Charter and calls for implementing a humanitarian truce across Syria to ensure a safe, sustainable and unhindered access of humanitarian aid.”
That same day, my Special Envoy informed the Russian Federation of his intention to invite the three armed opposition groups to a meeting with the Russian Federation in Geneva three days later. On 7 March, his interlocutors replied that they did not think a meeting in Geneva was the best option and were pursuing contacts on the ground with the relevant armed opposition groups. As these diplomatic efforts were taking place, fighting went on.
The Syrian Government and its allies intensified airstrikes and launched a ground offensive, progressively gaining control of parts of eastern Ghouta from about 10 per cent of the enclave on 3 March to more than 60 per cent today. The offensive initially took place in less populated areas, steadily moving to urban centres and forcing large-scale displacement.
In the follow-up of the efforts I have described, it was possible on 8 and 10 March to convene two meetings between Russian officials and Jaish al-Islam in the outskirts of eastern Ghouta with the United Nations as an observer. In those meetings, progress was made in relation to the removal of a number of members of Al-Nusrah, as well as other aspects including the potential for a ceasefire and improved humanitarian access.
A first group of Al-Nusrah fighters and their families were since evacuated from eastern Ghouta. In between, it has not been possible to facilitate contact between the Russian authorities and Failaq al-Rahman. The group insisted the meeting take place in Geneva. The Russian Federation insisted that the meeting happen on the ground.
On 10 March, Government forces intensified their offensive capturing the city of Misraba in a movement aiming at dividing the enclave into three separate areas. On the evening of that same day, the Russian Federation informed the United Nations that a unilateral ceasefire would take place at midnight in relation to Jaish al-Islam in Douma.
It was agreed a meeting would occur on 11 March — with United Nations facilitation. On that day, with the ceasefire between Government and Jaish al-Islam forces largely holding in Douma, the meeting took place, as well as a further meeting today.
As I speak to you now, I have not yet received a full report on the result of today’s meeting, but I was informed as I was entering this room, from our people in Damascus, that there has been progress in relation to civilian evacuations and humanitarian aid.
Furthermore, I took note of today’s earlier statement issued by Jaish al-Islam: “in the context of Security Council resolutions 2254 and 2401, an agreement was reached with the Russian side through the United Nations for a humanitarian medical evacuation of the wounded for treatment outside of eastern Ghouta.”
We are also hearing reports of tentative initiatives both by tribal leaders and the Russian Federation for contact with other groups on the ground. I wish to underscore the urgency of seeing medical evacuations, civilian protection, and full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access as soon as possible.
In between, attacks on other parts of eastern Ghouta continued, with the enclave now split into three separate pockets. During this whole period, the shelling from eastern Ghouta to Damascus was also ongoing, causing dozens of civilian deaths and injuries, with some reports putting it close to 100.
My Special Envoy and I have remained apprised at each step of the diplomatic engagement, offering support and guidance to ensure implementation in letter and spirit of the resolution.
In short, as my Special Envoy has said to this Council, “we are leaving no stone unturned in trying to bring all major stakeholders to the table and contribute in a concrete fashion to find a sustainable solution for the implementation of resolution 2401.”
As the situation continues to unfold, the Turkish offensive in Afrin — pursued with armed opposition group allies — intensified with airstrikes and ground advances against PYD/YPG fighters — themselves reinforced by elements coming from eastern Syria where they were combating Da’esh.
Pro-Syrian Government forces have also deployed inside of Afrin city. The fighting resulted in significant civilian displacement with reports of numerous casualties and damage to infrastructure.
With the cooperation of Syrian armed opposition groups — Turkish forces established a so-called buffer zone inside Syrian territory linking northern rural Aleppo and Idlib, and surrounding Afrin from three sides. The offensive is now pushing ever closer towards the city with its large civilian population.
Allow me to turn now to our efforts to address the humanitarian crisis. When resolution 2401 was adopted, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners stood ready to deliver. Plans were in place for multiple convoys each week to agreed-upon locations, in response to independently-assessed needs. Unfortunately, actual delivery does not match our plan.
Let me describe what it was possible to do in the past two weeks. On 1 March, humanitarian organizations delivered assistance for some 50,000 people in hard-to-reach areas of Afrin and Tell Refaat, north of Aleppo. On 4 March, a convoy of 19 trucks organized by the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and partners reached Dar Al-Kabira in northern Homs. It provided assistance to 33,500 people of the requested 40,250.
However, the Government of Syria did not allow delivery of life-saving medicines such as insulin and key items including solar lamps, syringes and pediatric scales.
As I mentioned earlier, in eastern Ghouta, the Russian Federation unilaterally announced a daily five-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting, starting from 27 February, to prevent victims among the population and to let civilians leave the enclave.
In reality, not many civilians left. On the one hand, sufficient protection standards were not in place for voluntary movement. At the same time, others were prevented from leaving by armed groups.
In this context — even though the five-hour window was insufficient to enable the “safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services” as demanded in the resolution — the United Nations sent on 5 March an inter-agency convoy of 46 trucks to Douma in eastern Ghouta with food for 27,500 people, along with health and nutrition supplies.
Yet those 27,500 represented only a third of the requested beneficiaries, all in desperate need. And most of the health supplies were removed by the Syrian authorities — including basic medicines, dialysis treatments, and trauma and surgical materials, such as burn dressings and adrenaline — despite the provisions of paragraph 8 of resolution 2401.
According to the World Health Organization, only about 30 per cent of medical supplies in the convoy were allowed to proceed. United Nations personnel from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs accompanying the convoy were also denied access to eastern Ghouta. Violence rendered this operation extremely perilous despite prior assurances from the parties to the conflict. The insecurity forced the team to reluctantly halt unloading and return to Damascus with a large share of the food aid still on the trucks.
On 9 March, a convoy of 13 trucks reached Douma, delivering the remaining food assistance which could not be offloaded four days earlier. Once again, shelling occurred nearby, despite assurances having been provided by all parties.
In these difficult circumstances, I commend the valiant humanitarian workers risking their lives to provide assistance and protection to people in need. But we are obviously far from “safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid” as demanded in resolution 2401 as well as other relevant Security Council resolutions.
And so the humanitarian and human rights situation is becoming more desperate by the day. In Douma, relief workers who reached the city last week described conditions as shocking and overwhelming. People are sheltering in overcrowded basements. Access to food, water and sanitation is limited. In relation to Douma, we have a convoy ready that I hope will be allowed to proceed in the coming days, especially after the results of today’s meeting.
As in all conflict settings, the specific needs of women are not receiving sufficient attention, including access to safe spaces, critical health services, medicine and baby formula for their children.
In eastern Ghouta, health partners on the ground advise that more than [1,000] people are in urgent need of medical evacuation. The United Nations is ready to support these medical evacuations, in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other partners. A prioritized list of those in greatest need, mostly children, has been shared with the Syrian authorities.
And I urge a positive response, hoping that today’s meeting will allow it to take place in the immediate future. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has announced its intention to send a relief convoy to Afrin as soon as security conditions allow. A United Nations humanitarian mission is awaiting Government authorization to immediately deploy to Raqqa for assessments of security and needs.
There are also new disturbing allegations of the use of chlorine gas. Even if we cannot verify them, we cannot ignore them. I continue to urge the Council to find unity on this issue.
Having said what I said, I believe that despite all the difficulties, lack of trust, mutual suspicions and cold calculations, it should still be possible to implement resolution 2401. It should be possible to have a cessation of hostilities. It should be possible to deliver aid. It should be possible to evacuate the sick and wounded. It should be possible to lift the sieges. It should be possible to accelerate humanitarian mine action throughout Syria.
It should also be possible to remove Security Council-listed terrorist fighters from conflict zones without massive and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure.
We cannot give up for the sake of the Syrian people. I appeal to all parties for the full implementation of resolution 2401 throughout the whole of Syrian territory. The United Nations is ready to assist in any efforts to make that happen.
I call on all States with influence to exercise it in support of the efforts of the United Nations and the implementation of the resolution. I hope this week’s Astana ministerial meeting — which will gather the guarantors of de-escalation — will concretely restore de-escalation arrangements, and take real steps on detainees, abductees and missing persons.
The dramatic situation I have described — the calamity across the country, the rivalries, the cynicism, the cruelty — highlight the need for a political solution. My Special Envoy continues to work towards the full implementation of resolution 2254.
On Thursday, this conflict will enter its eighth year. I refuse to lose my hope to see Syria rising from the ashes. To see a united, democratic Syria able to avoid fragmentation and sectarianism with its sovereignty and territorial integrity respected and to see a Syrian people able to freely decide their future and choose their political leadership.