Withdraw Terrorist Fighters over Whom You Wield Influence, Permanent Representative Tells Foreign Nations Involved in Conflict
The humanitarian response to fighting in north-western Syria, including Idlib, is stretched and further military action will overwhelm all ability to respond, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs warned the Security Council today, appealing to the 15-member body to take immediate action.
Ursula Mueller, who is also Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, said there is no doubt that Council members are aware of the tragic situation in Syria, where the conflict is now in its ninth year. “The question today is what you will do to protect civilians in Idlib, the latest example of an entirely known, predictable and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes,” she said.
In Idlib alone, she reported more than 160 confirmed civilian deaths, the displacement of 270,000 people and attacks on heath-care facilities, schools and markets. Another 60,000 civilians will receive help in the coming days and weeks, in addition to the 1.2 million already being reached every month, she said.
Elsewhere, she expressed grave concern about the situation in Rukban, strongly urging Syrian authorities to grant permission for a third humanitarian convoy to the southern city. She also discussed the plight of 74,000 civilians at the Al Hol camp, 92 per cent of whom are women and children, and many of them foreigners, stressing that solutions for such foreign nationals must be found urgently.
In the ensuing debate, Belgium’s representative — speaking also on behalf of Germany and Kuwait as co-sponsors of humanitarian-related Council resolutions on Syria — urged all parties to honour their obligations under international humanitarian law, recommit fully to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire arrangements for Idlib, ensure access to aid workers and ensure the safe, voluntary return of refugees. Those responsible for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be held accountable, he stressed.
Sharing such concerns, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation said the terrorist group Hayat Tahir al-Sham controls 90 per cent of Idlib. In April and May alone, his country identified 398 ceasefire violations involving terrorist groups, while terrorist groups continue to threaten Russian military personnel with rockets and combat drones. Responding, the Russian Federation air forces are supporting Syria to undermine such terrorist activities in the south of Idlib, he stated.
Noting that it has been 111 days since the last delivery to the Rukban camp, the representative of the United States said the Assad regime could approve the access tomorrow. Indeed, preventing deliveries is nothing short of starving the population. Syria and the Russian Federation’s activities in Idlib also exacerbate difficulties around aid delivery. They should instead work to ensure that the ceasefire holds, he said, underscoring the need for accountability for those who plan and conduct strikes on civilians.
Holding the ceasefire remains an absolute priority to avoid Idlib becoming another Aleppo, France’s delegate added. Calling on signatories to the ceasefire to honour their agreements, he said the Russian Federation must put all necessary pressure on Syria’s regime. At the same time, Iran must take action to foster stability in the region.
The United Kingdom’s representative welcomed Turkey’s ongoing efforts to de‑escalate the situation and set up a working group on Idlib. Most worrisome is that violence escalated only one day after Syria declared a unilateral ceasefire. She condemned ceasefire violations by terrorist groups, also voicing concern over attacks on media, including most recently a Sky News crew, and asking Syria to commit to not attacking journalists.
Syria’s representative said the humanitarian situation is being used by Member States inside and outside the Council as a tool with which to target his country. Emphasizing that the presence of any foreign military forces on its territory without approval is an act of aggression that will be dealt with accordingly, he called on all countries concerned to withdraw from Syria those foreign terrorist fighters who are its nationals, hold them accountable for their crimes and ensure they do not go on to pursue terrorism in Africa and elsewhere.
Also speaking today were representatives of Equatorial Guinea, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Poland, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia and Germany.
The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 12:25 p.m.
URSULA MUELLER, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reminding Council members that “you all know the statistics of this conflict”, said that, despite the announcement of a temporary ceasefire on 17 May, fighting in Idlib has continued, with more than 160 confirmed civilian deaths and the displacement of 270,000 people. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 25 attacks on heath‑care facilities since 28 April in north-western Syria. Some 25 schools are reported to have been impacted by the violence, as well as markets and at least three sites for displaced people.
In response, she said the humanitarian community this month has distributed more than 170,000 ready-to-eat meals to those fleeing the violence and provided shelter to 25,000 newly displaced people. Another 60,000 civilians will receive help in the coming days and weeks, in addition to the 1.2 million already being reached on a monthly basis. Despite best efforts, however, the response is stretched, and further military operations will overwhelm all ability to respond. Many humanitarian partners are part of the affected population and have, themselves, been displaced, resulting in the suspension of operations, she said, emphasizing that all parties to armed conflict must comply with international humanitarian law.
While fighting in Idlib is perhaps the most distressing front in the conflict today, it is not the only place where humanitarian needs are growing, she said, expressing grave concern about deteriorating conditions inside Rukban, where 29,000 people still require sustained assistance. “People are exhausted,” she said, with food, medicine and other supplies running out, fuel scarce and prices skyrocketing. Deploying a third humanitarian convoy to Rukban remains critical, she said, strongly urging Syrian authorities to facilitate access for a convoy as requested in March and again on 9 May.
She went on to discuss the plight of 74,000 civilians at the Al Hol camp, 92 per cent of whom are women and children, and most of whom have been exposed to extreme violence and trauma under Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). Living in extremely difficult conditions, they face an uncertain and disconcerting fate. Many are foreigners who risk being denied repatriation, rehabilitation, re‑integration, a fair trial and even statelessness. They also face the risk of family separation, and given the absence of men and boys over the age of 12 in the camp, not knowing the whereabouts of family members. Emphasizing that all children are entitled to special care under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, she said the children of Al Hol must be treated first and foremost as victims. Solutions for foreign nationals must be urgently found, she added, calling on Member States to take all measures necessary to ensure that their nationals are repatriated.
Turning to the south of Syria, which has been under Government control since mid‑2018, she said the level of violence remains high, despite the end of active hostilities. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has received reports of at least 380 people arrested or detained in recent months, including 230 who have been forcibly disappeared, and at least two people have died in detention. Many families have limited or no information about missing or detained relatives, she said.
There is no doubt that the Council is aware of the tragic humanitarian situation in Syria, she said. “The question today is what you will do to protect civilians in Idlib, the latest example of an entirely known, predictable and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes.” Could the Council not take action when attacks on schools and hospitals continue, and when barrel bombs are dropped indiscriminately on civilian areas, she asked. Millions cannot wait for another Geneva round of negotiations to succeed. They need protection — and Council action — immediately.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) delivered a statement also on behalf of Germany and Kuwait, as co-sponsors of humanitarian-related resolutions on Syria, asking all parties to honour their obligations under international humanitarian law, recommit fully to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire arrangements, ensure access to aid workers and ensure the safe, voluntary return of refugees. Those responsible for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be held accountable. The group has called for two meetings on Idlib in May, expressing concern about the situation in north-west Syria and a military campaign that is having devastating effects on the ground. Condemning the actions in Idlib committed by members of United Nations-designed terrorist groups, he said the fight against terrorism cannot justify indiscriminate attacks on civilians and infrastructure. Raising fresh concerns about an attack on a press crew last week, the situation in the overcrowded Al Hol camp and deteriorating conditions in the Rukban camp, he said the United Nations must have continued access to those in need. He urged the Astana guarantors to ensure that de-escalation takes place. No lasting peace in Syria is possible without justice and accountability, he said, emphasizing that to end the hostilities, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 must play its crucial role, as it has become a central repository of information and evidence of the crimes committed in Syria.
SERGEY VASILYEVICH VERSHININ, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, sharing concerns about the situation in Idlib, said the terrorist group Hayat Tahir al-Sham controls 90 per cent of the territory. In April and May alone, the Russian Federation identified 398 ceasefire violations involving terrorist groups, resulting in civilian deaths and injuries, as well as destruction of infrastructure. Meanwhile, terrorist groups continue to threaten Russian military personnel by deploying multiple rocket launchers and combat drones. Terrorist fighters are also taking over civilian structures and using civilians as human shields. Responding, the Russian Federation air forces are supporting Syria to undermine such terrorist activities in the south of Idlib. Raising concerns about terrorist groups using fake news to deflect blame for their actions, he pointed at Al-Qaida affiliates’ allegations of chemical weapon use levied against the Government of Syria and said the United Nations and its agencies must carefully check reports for their veracity.
Also concerned about tensions on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, he said talks must settle differences, and the United States occupation of parts of Syria must end. Turning to the situation in the Rukban and Al Hol camps, he highlighted growing needs for health‑care and basic services. He urged Member States to call on parties who are attacking the camps to stop immediately. Efforts must focus on reaching a political settlement and addressing humanitarian needs. Citing recent achievements in rebuilding critical infrastructure — from water treatment stations to repaving roads — he also described gains in demining and opening schools. Recognizing members’ concerns, he said immediate action is needed to protect civilians. He wondered what could be done to change the situation in Idlib, where millions are being held hostage by terrorists, and asked whether these terrorists were, in fact, obliged to follow international human rights law.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said the Bashar al-Assad regime has carried out a punishing campaign against its people over the last eight years and continues to block the delivery of critical assistance. Noting that it has been 111 days since the last delivery to the Rukban camp, he said the Assad regime could approve the access tomorrow, calling for immediate access and pledging the United States support for aid deliveries. Indeed, preventing deliveries is nothing short of starving the population. Syria and the Russian Federation’s recent activities in Idlib also exacerbate aid delivery and they should instead work towards ensuring that the ceasefire holds. There must be accountability for those who planned and conducted strikes on civilians. In addition, those using chemical weapons, including the regime, must also be brought to justice.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) emphasized that holding the ceasefire remains an absolute priority to avoid Idlib from becoming another Aleppo. Calling on the signatories to the ceasefire to honour their agreements, he said the Russian Federation must put all necessary pressure on the regime. At the same time, Iran must do its part and take action to foster stability in the region. Respecting international humanitarian law is not negotiable; parties must actively protect civilians, humanitarian personnel and medical staff — as attacks on them constitute war crimes — and guarantee immediate access to aid workers so they can reach those in need. Deliveries must be allowed to reach the Rukban camp, he said, urging Member States with influence to strongly encourage Syria to provide access to the area. Only a long-term political solution can end the suffering of the Syrian people and lead to the stabilization of the country and region. However, a political solution depends on more than just a constitutional committee and must include such measures as a national ceasefire, implementation of trust‑building measures and the holding of free elections, he said, calling on all Council members to support these goals.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea), warning that the possible use of chemical weapons by at least one of the parties in Syria cannot be ruled out, urged moderation and respect for international humanitarian and human rights law. Cooperation between the Russian Federation and Turkey is needed to reduce tension in the Idlib de-escalation zone in the context of the Sochi agreement. Recalling the final episode of the HBO television series Game of Thrones, he said there is no need to use dragons to destroy entire cities when land and air strikes cause very real damage. That metaphor should be food for thought for those who can exert influence on the parties to the conflict, he said.
MA ZHAOXU (China), expressing support for the United Nations’ untiring efforts to improve the humanitarian situation, said there will be no peace for the Syrian people without eliminating the threat of terrorist organizations in Idlib. China supports the Russian Federation and Turkey in the implementation of their memorandum. On Al Hol, he said humanitarian efforts must be scaled up and proper arrangements put in place for the resettlement of its occupants. He went on to press the international community to support Syria’s reconstruction, and advance a political solution under United Nations auspices.
KACOU HOUADJA LÉON ADOM (Côte d’Ivoire) called for the 2018 Russian-Turkish agreement to be fully implemented and for the parties to respect their commitments to protect civilians, while removing all obstacles to the provision of humanitarian assistance. Peace in Syria is still possible so long as the parties want it and enter into negotiations in good faith. Such a process should be based on sustained support from the Council, which should establish unity on the topic, he said.
MARIUSZ LEWICKI (Poland), also invoking Game of Thrones, said those who fail to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law must be held accountable. The fight against terrorists cannot justify indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The international community, especially the Council, should vigorously advocate for the protection of civilians, including those with disabilities. He urged Syrian authorities to swiftly authorize a new inter-agency convoy to Rukban, and called on all parties to ensure full implementation of the Idlib de-escalation zone agreement, forged between the Russian Federation and Turkey in 2018.
SHERINA SARAN (South Africa) remained concerned about the suspension of humanitarian aid to Idlib, calling on all parties to take the necessary actions to allow convoys to reach those in need. She also urged parties to respect international humanitarian law, emphasizing the critical need to protect civilians and related infrastructure. Counter-terrorism activities must take place within the boundaries of international humanitarian law. Raising concerns about the safe return of refugees, she said efforts must address the current humanitarian needs in camps, where conditions are deteriorating. The presence of any foreign military forces operating in Syria without the permission of Damascus violates and undermines the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. She also urged Member States to identify their nationals, take them back to their countries of origin and use their local laws to deal with such individuals. South Africa remains deeply troubled by reports of the spread of ISIL/Da’esh affiliates into the African continent as the group seeks new areas of operation and recruitment following its territorial defeat in Syria.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) welcomed Turkey’s ongoing efforts to de-escalate the situation and set up a working group on Idlib. Most worrisome is that violence escalated only one day after Syria declared a unilateral ceasefire, she said, citing recent reports of multiple attacks on hospitals in the area. She wondered if the reports are correct and if the locations are covered by the deconfliction mechanism, which aims at protecting such infrastructure. She condemned ceasefire violations by terrorist groups and underlined that all State and non-State actors are bound by international humanitarian law. Also concerned about attacks on media, including most recently a Sky News crew, she called for action to ensure journalists’ safety. Recalling questions she had asked her Syrian counterpart at previous meetings, she now asked for Syria to commit to not attacking journalists, to honour international humanitarian law and to allow aid to be delivered to the Rukban camp. The peace process goes beyond a constitutional committee, she said, reiterating messages delivered earlier by her counterparts from France and the United States that the United Kingdom stood ready to provide assistance in this regard and also in addressing the regime’s use of chemical weapons.
JOSUÉ ANTINOE FIALLO BILLINI PORTORREAL (Dominican Republic), echoing concerns about the Rukban camp, said the recent military escalation is having a grave impact on civilians. As such, all efforts must be made to comply with humanitarian law and provide critical assistance. If the world does not consider this a catastrophe, it must think again. Another onslaught and military attack could tip the situation towards a disaster. While international humanitarian laws are not being upheld, jeopardizing the safety of millions, he said efforts must prioritize providing aid to those most in need, pointing to mounting statistics and reports on attacks against civilians and related infrastructure.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) regretted to note the ever-growing needs of thousands of people displaced by ongoing hostilities. The safety of humanitarian workers must be guaranteed, and Syria must allow access to populations in need. The safe return of internally displaced persons must also unfold on a voluntary basis. Building a better climate for understanding is indispensable, particularly in addressing detained persons and those who have “disappeared”. Given the intensified violence, he said urgent strides must be made to advance a political solution. Soon, the constitutional committee must begin its work towards this goal.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia), Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, saying that growing humanitarian needs must be met with concrete actions. He urged all parties in Syria to fully respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians, stressing that humanitarian responses by the United Nations and its partners must be supported. Acknowledging that the situation will not be resolved overnight, he said the international community must secure all efforts to alleviate suffering and prevent another humanitarian tragedy. He went on to stress the urgent need for a humanitarian preparedness plan that would give the United Nations and other humanitarian actors the ability to respond quickly with life-saving responses to affected populations.
Mr. VERSHININ (Russian Federation), taking the floor a second time and noting that he has not watched Game of Thrones, said that what is happening in Syria is not a game, but the reality of a sovereign country trying to survive and build the future its people wish to see. The international community bears an obligation to eradicate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, he said, cautioning that Idlib risks becoming another Raqqa, bombed and razed by an international coalition led by the United States. His country is very committed to all the obligations outlined in its memorandum with Turkey, and he asked what signal the Council is sending to the 3 million civilians in Idlib who are being held hostage by terrorist organizations. Regarding the use of chemical weapons, he insisted on the need to act sensibly on the basis of tried and true information.
BASHAR JA'AFARI (Syria), stating that “words may lie, but actions will always tell the truth”, said the humanitarian situation is being used by Member States inside and outside the Council as a tool with which to target his country and ruin the reputation of its State institutions. He wondered how long the Council will remain unable to compel aggressor States to stop their actions and hold them accountable. He recalled his statement to the Council on 17 May, when he asked what Council members would do when faced with a similar situation, and discussed a photograph depicting a meeting of terrorists in Idlib two days ago — sponsored by Turkish intelligence, chaired by the head of Al‑Nusra Front and including individuals who were part of the Astana process.
Regarding a third humanitarian convoy to Rukban, he said the two previous convoys, approved by Syria’s Government, had been denied entry for many days by occupying United States forces. Under the Geneva Conventions, occupying forces are required to protect civilians, and he asked what the United States is doing in Syria. Regarding the situation in Al Hol, he said that camp is under the control of a United States proxy militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. He went on to urge the Council to take action against the Turkish regime and end President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s delusions of restoring the Ottoman Empire. He recalled that the presence of any foreign military forces on its territory without approval is an act of aggression and occupation that will be dealt with accordingly. He called on all countries concerned to withdraw from Syria those foreign terrorist fighters who are its nationals, hold them accountable for their crimes and ensure they do not go on to pursue terrorism in Africa and elsewhere.
Ms. PIERCE (United Kingdom), taking the floor for a second time, said she has not received a commitment from her Syrian counterpart on questions raised during her earlier intervention. In addition, she reiterated concerns about the Sky News crew, noted the good work done by the White Helmets and emphasized that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs works towards the interests of the people. As such, Syria would do well to work with the Office, she said. There are more babies than terrorist fighters, she said, wondering how exactly the Russian Federation and Syria respond to terrorist threats in Idlib.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), speaking also on behalf of Belgium and Kuwait, said all Council members must respect international humanitarian law and condemn the use of chemical weapons.
Mr. JA’AFARI (Syria) replied that the questions posed by the United Kingdom’s delegate are not unilateral and he would answer them. However, his delegation has posed many questions that, if answered, would reduce the length of these discussions. Syria is being asked to support the work of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — yet the Government has already begun to implement a humanitarian response plan with that Office, renewing agreements every six months and endorsing its efforts to provide aid to millions of Syrians. Also, the White Helmets have been the subject of many Western reports that elucidate the reality of this organization, which is led by a British man. The group — if it is indeed a humanitarian one — would not have travelled through Israel, through occupied Golan. On other matters, he said that, while the Council, through resolution 2133 (2014), agreed to prohibit ransom from being paid to terrorists, Qatar had, in fact, paid ransom on some occasions. To the statement that all Council members respect international humanitarian law, he said they should also respect the Charter of the United Nations, particularly the principle of non‑intervention in sovereign State affairs. Damascus respects the media, including the Sky News team, which, like all other journalists, must obtain proper visas to enter Syria and refrain from crossing borders in terrorist-held areas. Syria’s Government is jeopardizing itself to protect the accredited press in his country, he said, yet, those wishing to act in a Hollywood style will regret it.
Ms. MUELLER, responding to questions, said inter-agency convoys to Rukban delivered assistance in February. In March and May, requests for convoys were not approved, she said, noting Council members’ call for a new convoy to deliver life‑saving assistance. She said she will review the report on recent attacks, whether they were confirmed by the United Nations and whether they are located in deconflicted zones. On funding, she said about 16 per cent — $544 million — of the total estimated cost of the 2019 response plan is financed. Details will be discussed and soon published, she said, stressing that the humanitarian community stands ready to respond in a neutral manner based on needs.