Gravely concerned about serious suffering among civilians in Syria, exacerbated by severe weather, flooding and a spike in fighting, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator briefed the Security Council today, underlining the urgency of facilitating aid deliveries and preventing a humanitarian catastrophe.
The situation is dire, with more than 11.7 million Syrians requiring aid in 2019 and thousands continuing to be displaced by violence, said Reena Ghelani, Director for Operations and Advocacy at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking on behalf of Mark Lowcock, Under‑Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. At the same time, serious concerns persist about the protection of civilians in areas held by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and elsewhere, where increased military operations remain a risk that could potentially trigger catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on implementation of Security Council resolutions on Syria (document S/2019/157), she provided several examples reflecting the staggering levels of need. Thousands of people fleeing the fighting are arriving at the Rukban and Al-Hol camps. In the north-west, 40 per cent of children are out of school, 2 million rely on water supplies via truck delivery and 1.7 million are reached with critical aid through cross-border operations out of Turkey.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and partners continue to deliver life-saving assistance to millions every month, with support from the more than $5 billion in contributions to the humanitarian response plan, she said, urging Member States to ensure timely funding while noting that the 12‑14 March donor conference in Brussels will be a critical marker in this regard.
Stressing that it is crucial to sustain and fully implement the September 2018 Russian-Turkish agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in the north, she said needs are great and constant. Although a recent 10‑day‑long mission to the Rukban camp, involving 133 trucks, arrived with essential aid, food supplies are expected to last no more than 30 days and about 95 per cent of the people living there said they wish to leave.
Syria’s representative, reiterating what he told the Council upon its adoption of resolution 2139 (2014), said aid can only be delivered effectively and correctly if Member States refrain from politicizing humanitarian action. Wondering how some Member States, including some permanent Council members, could claim to worry about the humanitarian situation while supporting terrorists and maintaining their armed forces illegally in Syria, he said unilateral sanctions on his country are causing unimaginable suffering, particularly in winter, adding: “This is economic terrorism, which is unfair and illegitimate.”
Council members expressed alarm at the suffering of people in Idlib, Rukban and other areas scarred by fighting or terrorist occupation, with many calling for swift action to improve the grave conditions and pave a diplomatic path towards a political solution to end the conflict.
Belgium’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Kuwait and Germany, said that, while the Rukban humanitarian convoy was a much-needed step, a more durable solution is essential. “The people of Syria deserve to live in peace,” he said, emphasizing the need for progress on the political process in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), the 2012 Geneva communiqué and other relevant Council resolutions. “Only peace — grounded in strong, inclusive foundations — can break the cycle of violence.”
The representative of the United States urged the Russian Federation together with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to facilitate a new humanitarian convoy to Rukban by the end of March. If they have the will, those two parties can ensure regular United Nations assistance so long as there are vulnerable people at Rukban, he said, adding that it is unacceptable that the Assad regime is regularly hindering humanitarian access for the United Nations and its partners. When civilians cannot count on the regime and its allies, it is evident that conditions for the return of internally displaced persons do not exist and the time is not ripe for reconstruction assistance in regime-held areas. For its part, the United States will keep working with its coalition partners to stabilize the situation in those areas in north-east Syria once held by ISIL/Da’esh.
The Russian Federation’s representative said the responsibility for ensuring humanitarian access in occupied territory rests with the occupying Power, the United States, which must work with national authorities in line with international law. On the unstable situation in the north-west, he said the threat from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham cannot disappear by itself and any attempts to “freeze” the situation will only encourage these terrorists. A recent summit in Sochi reiterated that efforts led by the troika — Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey — was the only way to work towards a solution. Assistance provided to Syria is critical, and as a result, must be depoliticized, as the shameful use of unilateral sanctions only brings suffering to the population, he said, pointing out that, on 19 February, two evacuation corridors were established, with help from the Russian Federation.
Summing up a common thread, Côte d’Ivoire’s delegate called on parties to the conflict to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib, respect international humanitarian law and step up diplomatic efforts towards a political solution to the Syrian crisis in line with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Astana and Sochi processes.
Also delivering statements were representatives of France, China, South Africa, Indonesia, Poland, Peru, Dominican Republic, United Kingdom and Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting began at 10:38 a.m. and ended at 12:33 p.m.
REENA GHELANI, Director for Operations and Advocacy, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, briefed on behalf of Mark Lowcock, Under‑Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Presenting the latest report of the Secretary-General on implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015), 2332 (2016), 2393 (2017), 2401 (2018) and 2449 (2018) (document S/2019/157), she described the situation in Syria as dire. Although a recent 10-day-long mission to the Rukban camp, involving 133 trucks, arrived with essential aid, food supplies are expected to last no more than 30 days and about 95 per cent of the people living there said they wish to leave, she said.
Citing the recent statement released by the Russian Federation’s and Syria’s Joint Coordination Committees on the repatriation of Syrian refugees — on opening humanitarian corridors from the Rukban settlement — she said the United Nations welcomes all efforts to ease the people’s suffering and identify lasting solutions. However, serious concerns persist over the protection of civilians in areas held by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and elsewhere, she emphasized, noting that displacement in certain areas is compounded by flooding and severe cold weather throughout the country.
While response efforts are being scaled up, more than 37,000 people fled to the Al-Hol camp since late 2018, she said, adding that women and children under the age of five make up 75 per cent of its population, with thousands expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks. More broadly, millions across the country require urgent assistance, she continued, underlining a critical need for sustainable humanitarian access in the north-west, where 40 per cent of children are out of school, 2 million rely on water supplies delivered by truck and 1.7 million are reached with critical aid through cross-border operations out of Turkey.
The United Nations and partners are closely monitoring the recent expansion of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s areas of influence, with a number of measures in place to mitigate any risks of interference with aid operations, she continued. While the September 2018 Russian-Turkish agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in the north staved off immediate military operations, the last few weeks have witnessed increased fighting and shelling, which led more than 36,000 displaced persons to seek safety, she said.
She went on to stress that the risk of military escalation persists, with potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences, which makes it critical to sustain and fully implement the Russian-Turkish agreement. Meanwhile, staggering levels of need persist throughout Syria, she noted, underlining that an estimated 11.7 million people will require aid in 2019. The United Nations and partners continue to deliver life-saving assistance to millions every month, with support from the more than $5 billion in contributions to the humanitarian response plan, she said, urging Member States to ensure timely funding while noting that the 12‑14 March donor conference in Brussels will be a critical marker in this regard.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), speaking also on behalf of Kuwait and Germany, said that, while the Rukban humanitarian convoy was a much-needed step, a more durable solution is needed. The internally displaced persons at Rukban must be able to relocate to places of their choosing and United Nations humanitarian staff must have access to the population at all stages. Family units must be safeguarded, with women, children, the elderly and persons with special needs receiving special protection. He urged all parties to grant regular, safe, sustained and unconditional humanitarian access throughout Syria. Regarding the situation in Idlib, he called on all parties to engage in the full implementation of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire memorandum of understanding, which has been instrumental in preventing the catastrophic consequences of a military offensive. He welcomed the installation of a transit centre halfway between Hajin and Al Hol and expressed support for all efforts to all United Nations humanitarian access in Deir-ez-Zor. He called for tangible progress on the release of Syrians who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, and condemned the reported use of torture and sexual violence.
With the conflict soon to enter its eighth year, and humanitarian needs still high in both Syria and the region, he said the Brussels conference in mid‑March will enable the international community to renew its focus on the plight of those affected by the conflict, as well as refugees in the region. It will be a forum to discuss the most critical humanitarian issues, as well as for making new financial pledges. “The people of Syria deserve to live in peace. Only peace — grounded in strong, inclusive foundations — can break the cycle of violence,” he said. He emphasized the need for progress on the political process in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), the 2012 Geneva communiqué and other relevant Council resolutions, as well as accountability for all those responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Reiterating support for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, he said no sustainable peace is possible without an inclusive political solution or without accountability.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) urged the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Russian Federation to facilities a new humanitarian convoy to Rukban by the end of March. If they have the will, those two parties can ensure regular United Nations assistance so long as there are vulnerable people at Rukban. The United States insists that any process for the departure of internally displaced persons from Rukban must be planned in coordination with the United Nations. Those who wish to return must be provided with information about departure options and the security situation in the places where they intend to go. Guarantees against arbitrary arrest and detention must be made, and any conscription requirements for returnees must be explained. Humanitarian assistance must be ensured for those who opt to remain at Rukban. Speaking to the wider situation in Syria, he said it is unacceptable that the Assad regime is regularly hindering humanitarian access for the United Nations and its partners. When civilians cannot count on the regime and its allies, it is clear that conditions for the return of internally displaced persons do not exist and the time is not ripe for reconstruction assistance in regime-held areas. He added that the United States will keep working with its coalition partners to stabilize the situation in those areas in north-east Syria once held by ISIL/Da’esh. Turning to Idlib, he called on the parties there to uphold the ceasefire to protect both the 3 million civilians in that area and the border with Turkey, his country’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said several priority areas must urgently be addressed, including the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers, with all parties respecting their obligations to international law. Everything must be done to preserve the ceasefire in Idlib, with Turkey and the Russian Federation playing their role. Guaranteeing humanitarian access is also essential, he said, emphasizing that authorities have approved only 40 per cent of 200 requests at a time when concerns persist about conditions in the Rukban camp and other areas. In zones outside the authorities’ control, the international community must respond to the population’s urgent needs. Another priority is to launch a sustainable political process to end the tragedy in Syria and open a path to reconstruction. Calling on all Council members to assume their responsibilities to advance such a process in line with resolution 2254 (2015), he said the only way forward is a political solution that provides justice for Syrian victims. His country issued international arrest warrants for those in the Syrian regime that are responsible for war crimes, having recently arrested three suspects in France and Germany, he said, expressing support for an international, impartial and independent mechanism and a commission of inquiry.
KACOU HOUADJA LÉON ADOM (Côte d’Ivoire) said his country is putting great hopes in the Brussels conference that will take stock of the humanitarian situation in Syria and set out priorities for 2019. He urged all parties involved in military operations in Deir-ez-Zor and elsewhere in Syria to respect international law regarding the protection of civilians and medical infrastructure. Swift and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need in Rukban and other areas must be guaranteed. He called on parties to the conflict to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib, respect international humanitarian law and step up diplomatic efforts towards a political solution to the Syrian crisis in line with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Astana and Sochi processes.
WU HAITAO (China) said the Syrian parties should put the future of the country and the well-being of its people first by implementing agreements reached and advancing the political process. The international community should support the mediating role of the United Nations and encourage the parties along a Syrian‑owned, Syrian-led process based on relevant Council resolutions. Council members should engage in thorough consultations and create conditions for resolving the conflict. He said the United Nations needs to scale up assistance to the Syrian people “in cash and in kind” and improve humanitarian operations on an ongoing basis, fully respecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He added that the international community must actively support Syria’s Government and people in reconstruction, emphasizing that steady progress in that area can give hope to the country’s people and ease the pressure on those nations hosting Syrian refugees.
JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa) said the humanitarian crisis in Syria has particularly impacted women and children, as well as people with disabilities. Five million children are at heightened risk of undernourishment, dehydration, diarrhoea, infectious diseases and injury. Calling for the full implementation of resolution 2449 (2018), he also welcomed the successful humanitarian operation undertaken in Rukban. “We should be mindful of the fact that there is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance in the north-east of Syria, such as the Al-Hol camp, of which three quarters of its population are women and children under the age of five,” he stressed. Expressing concern for the situation of civilians trapped in the last ISIL‑controlled area of Hajin, he called on all parties to uphold their obligations under international law. He welcomed the de-escalation agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation, which has averted catastrophic humanitarian consequences. It is also important for Syria’s authorities to allow sustained access to humanitarian assistance, he added.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said that it is deeply disturbing to learn that many civilians have been reported killed and injured in Hajin. Thousands have been moved from Hajin to Al-Hol camp. Sixty-one children were reported to have died while in transit or after arriving at the camp. “This could and should have been prevented,” he stressed, urging all parties to take the steps to protect civilians. The urgency to sustain life-saving assistance to millions of people in need in Syria cannot be overemphasized. He reiterated the call made by the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey during the Tripartite Summit in Sochi, on 14 February, concerning the importance of creating a safe and voluntary return for refugees. All parties must redouble their efforts and respect their commitment to maintain the existing ceasefire agreements. “We cannot afford to witness more children losing their parents because of the crisis or more people trapped without food, water and shelter,” he stressed.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said that the conflict in Syria has brought enormous and unspeakable suffering to civilians. More specifically, she expressed deep concern about challenges to protecting persons with both physical and psychological disabilities in humanitarian emergencies. Continued impunity for serious violations of international humanitarian law remains a grave concern. Military operations must always be fully in line with international law. “Protection of civilians is not a choice,” she stressed. Those who do not comply should be held accountable. She also emphasized the need for a long-term, safe, voluntary and dignified solution for thousands of people, many of whom have been staying in the Rukban refugee camp for more than two years. In March, the European Union will organize the third Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, which will demonstrate the international community’s unwavering commitment to the Syrian people.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru), expressing alarm that 11.7 million Syrians require critical humanitarian aid to survive, raised concerns about instability in several zones, some caused by the presence of terrorist groups. However, stamping out these groups is not a justification for putting millions of people at risk. Fully implementing the Turkey-Russian Federation ceasefire accord is fundamentally important at this point. Commending the humanitarian corridors the Russian Federation has helped to facilitate, he said this will ease the return of displaced persons. Meanwhile, the United Nations and humanitarian agencies must continue to deliver life-saving assistance to internally displaced persons wherever needed. Highlighting concerns about humanitarian conditions in several areas, he emphasized that only a political solution that fosters sustainable peace can end the disastrous conflict.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), noting the unstable situation in the north-west, said the threat from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham cannot disappear by itself and any attempts to “freeze” the situation will only encourage these terrorists. A recent summit in Sochi reiterated that efforts led by the troika — Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey — was the only way to work towards a solution. Assistance provided to Syria is critical, and as a result, must be depoliticized, with the shameful use of unilateral sanctions only bringing suffering to the population. Instead, efforts should focus on improving the humanitarian situation by, among other things, rebuilding the economy. However, not inviting Syria’s authorities to the Brussels donor conference was unconstructive. Citing many recent gains, he said that, with the help of the Russian Federation, 12 checkpoints have been set up and Syria’s authorities are making strides in ensuring safe returns of refugees, with amnesty granted to more than 55,000 people. Raising concerns about several areas, he said conditions are dire in the Al-Hol refugee camp and particularly in zones occupied by the United States are worsening the general situation in Rukban. International law requires the occupying Power, the United States, to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered, if the occupied territory has inadequate supplies, and it must work with national authorities to ensure that proper health and medical services are provided, he said, pointing out that on 19 February, two evacuation corridors were established, with help from the Russian Federation.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said that meeting conditions for safe and rapid humanitarian work remains an enormous challenge. Equally concerning is the recent displacement of thousands of people, with reports of 61 children dying during a weeks-long march to the Al-Hol camp. Calling on all parties to adhere to international humanitarian law, he asked them to fulfil their obligations to protect civilians. Practical, realistic steps must guide the way to peace; first among them must be efforts to ensure the population’s safety. Citing reports of massive school destruction and greatly reduced health services, he said the immediate future of many people is uncertain, with 6.5 million suffering from food insecurity and millions of children out of school. The 2019 humanitarian response plan must have a “razor sharp” focus on working towards a brighter future for the Syrian people. Expressing concern about conditions in the Rukban camp, he insisted that humanitarian workers must be able to make regular deliveries and urged Syrian authorities to provide access. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts must be ramped up to find a political solution.
STEPHEN HICKEY (United Kingdom) said that, given the dire humanitarian situation, more efforts are needed for a diplomatic solution. Raising several concerns, he welcomed news that aid has arrived in Rukban and said delays must be prevented for future deliveries. Concerns expressed by returning and displaced persons must be addressed prior to their return, which should be safe, voluntary and dignified, in line with international protection standards and with humanitarian staff present during all phases of relocation. However, civilians say they are resisting returning to areas controlled by the Government of Syria, whose returnee plan includes reports of expropriating property and forcing individuals to fight a war they just escaped. Turning to other areas, he said there remain “more babies than terrorists” in Idlib and called on Syria and the Russian Federation to facilitate humanitarian access there. A political solution must be found, with a plan for a transition and the establishment of credible governance.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea), Council President for February, speaking in his national capacity, said the situation in Syria remains extremely serious, with the risk of military escalation, especially in Idlib, growing. Air strikes and fierce fighting are having a direct impact on schools and hospitals, leaving scores of dead and wounded, while the humanitarian crisis drags on. Strongly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, he endorsed the idea of the Syrian authorities closely cooperating with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Welcoming the humanitarian convoy to Rukban, he said the ceasefire in Idlib must be maintained, and international humanitarian law respected, as efforts for a political solution continue.
BASHAR JA'AFARI (Syria), reiterating what he told the Council when it adopted resolution 2139 (2014) on the humanitarian situation in his country, said humanitarian aid can only be delivered effectively and correctly if Member States refrain from politicizing humanitarian action and put an end to terrorism, which is the main source of suffering in Syria. Humanitarian assistance can only be delivered if words and actions are aligned, he added. He wondered how it was possible that some Member States, including some permanent Council members, could claim to worry about the humanitarian situation while supporting terrorists and maintaining their armed forces illegally in Syria. Unilateral sanctions on Syria are causing unimaginable suffering, particularly in winter, he said, adding: “This is economic terrorism, which is unfair and illegitimate”.
He wondered how the three Council penholders on the humanitarian situation in Syria could discharge their duties while failing to consult and coordinate with his Government. Council members have the responsibility to consult and engage with conflict-affected countries that are on the Council’s agenda. Referring to the Belgian representative’s remarks on refugees travelling from Hajin to Al-Hol, he said those people were not Syrians, but terrorists from Europe and their families. He added that it is “bizarre” that Belgium failed to invite Syria to the upcoming Brussels conference. That spoke volumes about the designs and intentions of the conference and its two predecessors. He wondered how it could be that some States, including some on the Council, sought to hamper the return of refugees to areas liberated from the clutches of terrorism.
He went on to say that some Council members are refusing to take back nationals who have been engaged in terrorism, preferring to leave them in Syria for it to deal with. That runs against counter-terrorism resolutions adopted by the Council and the Organization, he said, calling for a frank and open dialogue with the Syrian authorities with full respect for Syrian sovereignty. Stating that Rukban is located in an area occupied by United States forces that is dear to the Syrian nation, he said his Government, in cooperation with the Russian Federation, has opened two corridors for both humanitarian convoys and the dignified passage of civilians. He added that France’s representative was wrong to say that his Government only approved 40 per cent of requests for humanitarian access. All such requests had been approved, he stated. He concluded by saying that the Council must uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter and the standards of international law by ensuring that humanitarian assistance is not used for political pretexts, as is also being currently seen in Venezuela.