Political Process in Syria Long, Difficult, but Still Possible, Special Envoy Tells Security Council, Outlining Steps to Build Trust, Create Constitutional Committee

SC/13797
30 April 2019
8520th Meeting (PM)

Political Process in Syria Long, Difficult, but Still Possible, Special Envoy Tells Security Council, Outlining Steps to Build Trust, Create Constitutional Committee

Briefing the Security Council on a range of priorities today, Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen detailed efforts to build trust among warring parties, facilitate the creation of a constitutional committee and clarify the fate of persons missing since the start of the conflict, now in its eighth year.

Describing efforts to open the door to a political process in Geneva for Syria’s Government and opposition, he said that after eight years of fighting, “this process will be long and difficult”, but nonetheless possible.  He is committed to engaging the Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission in a sustained comprehensive dialogue — the foundation of a Syrian-led and -owned process.

The fate of tens of thousands of persons missing must also be clarified and his Office is elaborating procedures for compiling, consolidating, safeguarding and exchanging information, as well as undertaking searches.  “The scale of this issue is of unprecedented proportions,” he said, requiring months, if not years, of meticulous work.  He also called for faster action on the release of detainees and abductees, pressing both sides to ensure their protection.

More broadly, he said the convening of a constitutional committee could unlock a broader political process if approached in the right spirit.  He continues to work towards a final agreement on its composition and terms of reference.  Many earlier differences have been narrowed and an understanding clarified on:  balanced co-chairing arrangements; a formula for decision-making; shared acceptance of the United Nations facilitation role; and a political commitment to the safety of all involved.

In the ensuing debate, delegates agreed that the constitutional committee must be balanced in its formation and work methods, with the United Kingdom’s delegate recalling that resolution 2254 (2015) set a deadline of six months — 34 months ago — for a schedule to draft a new constitution.  “We really can’t allow Syrian authorities to drag this out indefinitely,” she said, calling on those with influence to encourage the Syrian regime to engage in the political progress.

Along similar lines, the United States representative said the Council must remain united behind the Geneva negotiations as the single path forward.  While a balanced and credible constitutional committee will be an important first step and a possible confidence-building measure, work must also continue on the issues of detainees and missing persons, elections and the maintenance of a safe and stable environment.

The Russian Federation’s delegate meanwhile described the outcome of the most recent meeting of the Astana guarantors — Iran, Turkey and his own country.  As the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terror group has intensified attacks against Government forces in Idlib, the guarantors are committed to implementing agreements on stabilizing that governorate.

In turn, France’s delegate pressed the Russian Federation to abide by its ceasefire commitments in Idlib and urged Syria’s Government to end its strikes in the north-west.  A credible political process involves a nationwide ceasefire, confidence-building measures and the conduct of free and fair elections, he asserted.

Also speaking today were representatives of Kuwait, Dominican Republic, Peru, Belgium, Indonesia, China, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Côte d’Ivoire and Germany.

The meeting began at 3:09 p.m. and ended at 4:48 p.m.

Briefing

GEIR PEDERSEN, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, said he is doing everything he can to help rebuild trust and confidence, opening the door to a political process in Geneva between Syria’s Government and the opposition.  “After eight years of conflict, this process will be long and difficult”, but possible to move forward “step by step”.  To that end, he has sought to advance the five priorities he outlined to the Council in February and remains committed to engaging the Government and the Syrian Negotiation Commission in a sustained comprehensive dialogue — the foundation of a Syrian-led and owned process.

He said in March and April he met twice with Syria’s Foreign Minister in Damascus and twice with the Syrian Negotiation Commission leaders, in Riyadh and Geneva, noting that in all interactions, he stressed the importance of working on the full range of issues outlined in resolution 2254 (2015).  He expressed hope such regular engagement will evolve into a sustained dialogue towards building a safe, calm and neutral environment.  However, action is needed amid a troubling surge of violence in and around the Idlib de-escalation zone.  While welcoming the recommitment of the Astana players to implement the Idlib memorandum, more must be done, notably in the north-east, where underlying dynamics remain unresolved, and in the south-west.  Terrorist groups listed by the Council remain a major threat, and only a week ago, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) claimed attacks on Government forces.  Hayat Tahrir al-Sham meanwhile still controls large swathes of territory.

He underscored the desperate need to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of Syrians across the country, notably the 73,000 people in al Hol and civilians remaining in Rukban who are in dire need of food and medicines.  Recalling his appeal for action on the release of detainees/abductees, and clarification on the fate of missing persons to both Syria’s Government and the opposition, he said progress on that key humanitarian file would be an important confidence-building measure.  Noting that his Office participated in two meetings of the Working Group on the matter — involving Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey, with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — he said:  “We need to scale up and speed up the release of detainees/abductees,” pressing the Government and opposition to ensure their protection prior to and following their release.  The fate of tens of thousands of persons missing must be clarified and his Office is elaborating procedures for compiling, consolidating, safeguarding and exchanging information, as well as undertaking searches.  “The scale of this issue is of unprecedented proportions”, he said, requiring months, if not years, of meticulous work.

More broadly, he said in efforts towards a political solution, he has engaged a wide spectrum of Syrians, from refugees in neighbouring countries to people living in shelters in Homs.  As most will judge a political process on its ability to deliver improvements on the ground, he intends to advance his outreach with Syrian refugees, civil society, women’s groups and other Syrian actors through the Civil Society Support Room.  Convening a constitutional committee could be a first sign of real movement, and if approached in the right spirit, unlock a broader political process, towards United Nations supervised elections in a safe, calm and neutral environment.  He continues to work towards a final agreement on the composition and terms of reference for an inclusive constitutional committee.  Many earlier differences have been narrowed down and an understanding clarified on:  balanced co-chairing arrangements; a formula for decision-making; shared acceptance of the United Nations facilitation role; and a political commitment to the safety of all involved.  It has also been agreed that six names on the earlier civil society list must be removed.  Work continues to identify names that, when viewed in totality, can garner the support of all concerned.  “These are all elements that I believe are now possible,” he said, stressing the need for deepened international dialogue on Syria, as the conflict is “highly internationalized”.

Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity must be respected and restored, he said, noting that five international armies operate across Syria’s land and airspace, in tension or even in conflict, creating the risk of dangerous escalation.  Various formats also exist as expressions of international cooperation on resolving Syria’s conflict.  He will hold formal consultations with the Astana guarantors in Geneva this month.  International players agree on far more than it may seem, he said, noting that he will use his good offices to help those with influence to join in one active conversation.  “I believe we are making progress,” he said, on the long road to a political settlement of the conflict in Syria.

Statements

JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said that because of the urgency of the humanitarian situation in the Rukban camps, a third aid convoy must be allowed to enter immediately.  “People are starving,” he stressed, adding that Damascus could demonstrate goodwill by allowing in such aid.  Further, because the Astana track has once again failed to achieve tangible steps towards peace, the Council must remain united behind the Geneva negotiations as the single path forward.  While a balanced and credible constitutional committee will be an important first step and a possible confidence building measure, work must also continue on the other baskets - including the issues of detainees and missing persons, elections and the maintenance of a safe and stable environment.  The Russian Federation and the Assad regime must halt their military activities in Idlib and uphold the ceasefire, he said, also underlining the importance of maintaining stable security conditions in the north-east of the country in order to prevent ISIL/Da’esh from regaining its foothold.  Meanwhile, the token prisoner swaps brokered by the so-called Astana guarantors are not meaningful ones, as hundreds of thousands of people remain in prison without cause and the Assad regime continues to detain people arbitrarily.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) outlined his delegation’s efforts to move Syria’s political process forward under the auspices of the Astana format, as well as alongside the Syrian Government, opposition representatives and the Special Envoy.  Rejecting the representative of the United States’ description of the “so-called” Astana guarantors – Iran, Turkey and his own country – he described the outcome of their most recent meeting.  With the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terror group having intensified its attacks against Government forces in Idlib, the guarantors are committed to implementing agreements on stabilizing that governorate.  It was also important to ensure stability and security, as well as Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the country’s north-east region.  Eradicating hotbeds of terrorism and helping people return to a normal life is crucial, he stressed, warning against putting any preconditions on humanitarian assistance.  Calling on Council members to join efforts to resettle the people still residing in Rukban camp – which the United States has long opposed – he said the unilateral sanctions adopted by some countries have led to a fuel crisis and much suffering among the Syrian people.  Damascus should be returned to the Arab family as soon as possible, he added, underlining the Astana guarantors’ openness to interactions with other States “without anything going on behind the scenes”.

BADER ABDULLAH N. M. ALMUNAYEKH (Kuwait) said resolution 2254 (2015) lays out the practical phases of Syria’s peace process, including the drafting of a constitutional committee and the holding of free and fair elections under the auspices of the United Nations.  Calling on all parties to respect international law, as well as the Astana ceasefire in Idlib, he said all actors must take into account the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and support the Special Envoy in discharging his mandate.  Urging them to make progress towards the release of detainees and to assure all refugees of their safe and signified return, he underscored his rejection of all efforts to make demographic changes in Syria and insisted on accountability for the perpetrators of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.  No peace is possible without justice and a lasting solution cannot be a military one, he stressed.

JOSÉ MANUEL TRULLOLS YABRA (Dominican Republic) said it is imperative for the Council to help avoid a military escalation in Syria’s north.  The political situation and process in Idlib are not mutually exclusive; the success of each depends on efforts by the Council and international community to avoid further tragedy.  Rejecting breaches of the demilitarized zone, he urged parties to recommit to the ceasefire.  Not enough has been done to form a constitutional committee, he noted, expressing hope that the next round of talks expected in Geneva will yield results and a new momentum to revitalize the political process.  Success lies in forming an inclusive constitutional committee that involves women as agents for peace and progress, he said, reiterating support for the full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) and for strengthening the United Nations’ role in fostering a rapprochement.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom), citing reports today that Syria’s authorities had deployed barrel bombs - the first in some seven months – she stressed that the use of indiscriminate weapons is unacceptable.  Because Syria does not appear serious about protecting Syrians, she asked the Special Envoy whether that calls into question its commitment to a political settlement.  She also spotlighted correspondence to the Council which alleged activity by armed terrorists, chemical weapons attacks and the involvement of White Helmets.   “The White Helmets are humanitarian organization,” she asserted, pressing Syrian authorities to abide by their chemical weapons obligations and refrain from use of those arms.  On Idlib, she voiced concern over reports of regime shelling in the demilitarized zone.  Turkey and Iran should ensure that the ceasefire agreed at Sochi is respected.  As well, those States with influence to use it should ensure the ceasefire is respected.  Resolution 2254 (2015) set a deadline of six months — 34 months ago — for a schedule to draft a new constitution.  “We really can’t allow Syrian authorities to drag this out indefinitely,” she said, calling on those with influence to encourage the Syrian regime to constructively engage in the political progress, including by creating conditions for humanitarian access.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France), responding to those claiming that that war in Syria is over, emphasized that the terrorist threat is still there, whether in the form of ISIL/Da’esh or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.  The humanitarian situation is disastrous, and security is volatile.  Advocating for a ceasefire throughout the country, he expressed concern over recent regime strikes in the north-west.  He also called on the Russian Federation to abide by its ceasefire commitments in Idlib and urged the regime to end its strikes.  Welcoming the continued presence of the United States, he noted that areas under regime control are particularly worrying as the regime continues its policy of repression.  He called on the Russian Federation to use its influence to ensure a third convoy can be authorized to Rukban as soon as possible. The return of refugees presupposes the Government commits to the safety of people and restitution of their goods and land.  Restrictions on access for those who have returned home are unjustifiable.  That is proof the regime wants to continue its policy of repression and is hostile to the idea of refugees returning to their homes.  In addition, the constitutional committee must be balanced in its formation and work methods.  A credible political process involves a nationwide ceasefire, confidence-building measures and the conduct of free and fair elections.  The Special Envoy should take the lead on those issues, he said, emphasizing the need for such confidence-building measures as progress on the issues of prisoners, forced conscription and reform of property laws.

GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru), welcoming the possible formation of a constitutional committee, noted the sense of urgency to make progress on the issue.  Further delay will have a negative impact on the legitimacy of the process.  The committee must include all segments of civil society, notably Syrian women, and have transparent, democratic decision-making mechanisms.  It is essential for parties to work on measures that foster understanding, especially the release of detainees, identification of disappeared, and the handover of remains.  Another challenge is to tackle the situation faced by internally displaced persons and refugees, he said, pressing the Council to monitor events on the ground and ensure the Idlib ceasefire brokered by the Russian Federation and Turkey is maintained.  Indeed, the success of any peace efforts will depend largely on preventing Idlib from becoming a staging ground for another humanitarian tragedy.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), noting that his delegation is particularly worried about the escalation of violence in Idlib, called on the Astana guarantors to uphold the agreement reached for that city, as well as the ceasefire throughout the country.  “It is difficult to qualify developments as positive ones, but it is our duty to keep hope,” he said, adding that it is the Council’s responsibility to support the Special Envoy’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful solution.  Urging Member States to exert their influence over the parties to compel them to release all those arbitrarily detained, he also called for the convening of a constitutional committee as soon as possible.  However, the United Nations cannot grant that process its imprimatur of legitimacy unless it is fair, inclusive and transparent.  “Syria and its citizens deserve a peaceful and inclusive future,” he emphasized, also calling for efforts to meet the necessary conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees.  Belgium will only provide support to Syria’s reconstruction once it sees a genuine political transition, he added.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said ongoing dialogues on the formation of the constitutional committee are indeed promising.  As such a committee would serve as a “door opener” for a lasting political solution in Syria, the international community must always ensure its support for advancing the political process and finding ways to create a middle ground for all involved.  “Building trust is key,” he asserted.  The international community must invest more for maintaining the ceasefire and creating a road map to resolve the conflict in a manner acceptable to all.  The situation in Idlib also requires the Council’s special attention, he said, pressing it to continue to encourage all parties to abide by the ceasefire agreements and prevent civilian casualties.  The issue of safe and dignified refugee returns will require serious discussions, he said, stressing that compromises are required for realizing a comprehensive political solution to the conflict.

MA ZHAOXU (China) said the international community should continue to support efforts to achieve peace in Syria, as well as providing reconstruction assistance.  To continue to leverage the United Nations as the main channel of negotiations, the Organization should push forward a constitutional committee that balances the needs of the parties while also supporting the Astana process and the Special Envoy’s mediation work.  Council members should remain united and speak with one voice to create an enabling atmosphere for a political solution.  Meanwhile, they must also crack down on terrorism, which threatens Syria’s security and stability.  In addition, he said, the international community should strengthen cooperation and unified standards for tackling all designated terrorist groups.  Urging the parties to meet each other halfway, he said an inclusive political process must be both Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.  Indeed, the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, and its future must ultimately be determined by its own people.

HARSHANA BHASKAR GOOLAB (South Africa) agreed that the only sustainable resolution of the crisis will be the realization of an inclusive, Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process.  Syria’s constitutional committee must be convened without delay, she stressed, calling upon the parties to maintain their commitment to ensure a 30 per cent representation level for women in that process.  Expressing hope that the outcome of the recent Astana guarantors’ meeting in Nur-Saltan will help achieve the goals laid out by the Special Envoy, she warned that some parties have taken advantage of the situation in Syria to advance their own interests and lay claim to territory occupied illegally.  “This cannot be allowed,” she stressed, adding that the United Nations and the Council in particular must honour its responsibilities to condemn such actions.

AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) said efforts to tackle the terrorist forces operating in Idlib and elsewhere across Syria should be conducted alongside work to reach a political solution in line with resolution 2254 (2015).  Joining other speakers in calling for the convening of a constitutional committee, she welcomed the recent Astana guarantors meeting aimed at ensuring that the parties reactivate their commitment to the peace process.  Given the current situation, she stressed that “we must face the facts” and leave nothing to chance.  The parties should improve their cooperation with the Special Envoy and push for a successful conclusion of the constitutional committee process.  Meanwhile, she said, there is also a case to be made for strengthening the Astana process by bringing other States into it.

JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) stressed that the Council’s utmost priority should be the protection of the Syrian population and its collective response to the country’s humanitarian challenges.  “The demand for accountability for war crimes cannot override the simultaneous responsibility to protect civilians,” she said, calling on all parties to refrain from and condemn arbitrary detention, hostage taking and forced disappearances.  While actors must remain resolute in preventing and combating terrorism, they should also avoid military action at all costs, especially in the north-east where it could easily lead to the re-emergence of ISIL/Da’esh.  The only way forward is the intra-Syrian framework political agreement in line with resolution 2254 (2015), she stressed, also urging the Russian Federation and Turkey to follow through on their de-escalation commitments in Idlib and to protect civilians as a matter of urgency.

TIEMOKO MORIKO (Côte d’Ivoire) supported any initiative to bring warring parties together to restore peace and create conditions for shared prosperity, welcoming the talks held in Nur-Sultan on the political process.  He welcomed the joint communiqué from that meeting, outlining the urgency to operationalize the constitutional committee and underscoring the desire of parties to support the Special Envoy.  He welcomed the reciprocal release of detainees in November 2018 and February 2019, urging parties to continue with such cooperation.  While the Nur-Sultan process and United Nations peace efforts allowed for hope, he voiced apprehension over resumed hostilities in Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere, and appealed to parties to cease hostilities and create the conditions for humanitarian aid delivery.  He also called on parties to abide by resolution 2254 (2015) which defined the road map for the political process in Syria.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity to voice concern over hostilities in the north-west, requesting the Special Envoy to comment on reports of chemical weapons use.  On the issue of refugees, particularly in Rukban, he said returns can only take place when safe, well-informed, voluntary and dignified.  A credible political settlement can only be achieved through the formation of a balanced and inclusive constitutional committee involving a minimum of 30 per cent women, he said, stressing that Germany will not consider providing reconstruction support until genuine political process is under way.  The regime continues to arrest people in the south-west, with some 10,000 people incarcerated under the flimsiest explanations.  Noting that ICRC does not have access to these prisons, he urged the Russian Federation to press upon the Assad regime the need to allow access to all detention facilities, especially those controlled by the intelligence agency.  Reports of torture and violence against children must also be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice, he said, stressing that accountability is a precondition for sustainable peace in Syria.  He encouraged the Secretary-General to provide sufficient means for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to do its job.

Mr. PEDERSEN underscored the need for a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned process, as well as strong international support, stressing:  “I am encouraged by what I have heard here today.”  All Council members share concern over increased violence in the north-west and in Idlib.  The situation is relatively more stable following the Turkey-Russian Federation ceasefire and he encouraged those countries to increase patrolling in that area.  All counter-terrorism activities must respect international humanitarian law.  As for the constitutional committee, he said:  “We are making progress.  It is a package.  It is a discussion on names and the rules of procedure.”  Progress has been made on the rules of procedure and it should be possible to find agreement.  There also has been agreement that six names must be replaced.  Discussions have centred on a format agreeable to the Government and opposition to move forward on that issue.  On the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons — a priority from day one — he underscored the need for unilateral actions, a point he raised with the Government and on which he has received good responses.  Tangible results are needed.  It is difficult for warring parties to take the first step, he said, stressing the need for parties to continue to hear the Council is united behind his mandate.

For information media. Not an official record.