Senior United Nations officials sounded alarms in the Security Council today over increased fighting in north-west Syria among parties trying to advance their military interests, pointing to “unimaginable” consequences if critical players do not exert the political will needed to end the protracted conflict.
“Our unflagging efforts to mediate a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot move forward in an environment of open conflict,” the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacekeeping Affairs said as she provided an update on current events.
Despite air strikes continuing unabated, barrel bombing, use of cluster munitions and exchanges of mortar and artillery fire — all of which have caused massive civilian displacement — the front lines have hardly shifted, she continued. While welcoming efforts by the Russian Federation and Turkey to contain the violence, she warned of “unimaginable” consequences if a solution is not found. Syria’s recent shelling of Turkish observation posts, and the subsequent retaliation, are indeed military exchanges that illustrate how fighting in Idlib threatens regional security.
She called on all international stakeholders to exert their utmost efforts to end the violence. For Moscow, the presence in the de-escalation area of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — which the Council designates as a terrorist group — is not tolerable. For Turkey, time is required to effectively isolate and address that group’s most hard-line fighters.
Describing an unfolding humanitarian crisis, the Emergency Relief Coordinator said the last six weeks have seen more than 230 civilian deaths. Since 1 May, 330,000 people have fled their homes, moving north towards Turkey’s border. Hospitals, schools and markets have been hit and crops have been burned. United Nations humanitarian workers are doing all they can, but the response is stretched. With a significant presence in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is contributing to the suffering, he said, while nonetheless stressing that counter-terrorism efforts cannot absolve States of their obligation to uphold international humanitarian law.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates decried the deteriorating conditions in the north-west. “It seems as if we’re losing the very essence of humanity,” said Germany’s delegate on behalf of Belgium and Kuwait. He expressed alarm over the use of incendiary weapons to destroy farmland. The United Kingdom’s delegate meanwhile asked why hospitals in the de-escalation zone were bombed, citing a clause outlining that the protection of medical facilities may cease only after due warning has been given. “People are being killed but no advantage is being gained militarily,” she said.
The representative of the United States demanded a prompt end to the Assad regime’s reckless escalation in Idlib. He called for pushing ahead with a political transition and urged both Syria and the Russian Federation to abide by the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding to avoid a large-scale military offensive.
On that point, the Russian Federation’s representative said some countries distort the situation in Idlib as a way to prevent Damascus from controlling the territory. The Memorandum of Understanding reached between Moscow and Ankara does not ban, but rather encourages, the fight against terrorism, as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is attacking Government forces and striking villages near the de-escalation zone.
Turkey’s delegate called for a sophisticated long-term strategy that targets Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ideology. “Ongoing attacks by the [Syria] regime clearly aim at the collapse of the political process,” he asserted, warning that Turkey will not hesitate to protect its military personnel. Iran’s delegate said the Idlib de-escalation area was created to protect civilians from terrorists, not provide a haven for the latter. He urged the United States to immediately end its illegal presence in Syria.
Rounding out the discussion, Syria’s delegate said all towns in the north-west have been targeted by missiles and rockets, as have the positions of the Syrian and Russian armies. He asked the Council to consider where terrorists get their weapons. Turkey allows Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to commit the most heinous crimes, turning hospitals and schools into military sites and killing anyone who rejects their Islamic ideology.
He disputed claims that 27 hospitals in Idlib were destroyed, insisting that the city has only four facilities. Noting that the United States and European Union are in their eighth year of an export ban of medical supplies to Syria, he accused countries of overlooking war crimes and crimes against humanity to advance their own interests. “Some invest in terrorism to build a partnership against the Syrian State, instead of building a partnership with the Syrian State.”
Also speaking today were representatives of Poland, France, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, South Africa, Peru and China.
The meeting began at 3:31 p.m. and ended at 5:29 p.m.
ROSEMARY A. DICARLO, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacekeeping Affairs, said violence in north-west Syria continues unabated as parties attempt to advance militarily. “Our unflagging efforts to mediate a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot move forward in an environment of open conflict,” she emphasized. Efforts will stall if the Russian Federation and Turkey cannot uphold their ceasefire agreement — and suffer further if the Council cannot find a way to work in common support of the Special Envoy. For the Russian Federation, the presence in the de-escalation area of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which the Security Council designated as a terrorist group, is not tolerable. For Turkey, time is required to effectively isolate and address that group’s most hard-line fighters.
She went on to stress that air strikes and use of both barrel bombs and cluster munitions persist amid continued exchange of mortar and artillery fire, resulting in civilian casualties and massive displacement. It is imperative to address Hayat Tahrir al-Sham without exacerbating the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of people are being pushed towards Turkey’s border. Despite the violence, the front lines have hardly shifted, suggesting a stalemate. “Undoubtedly, the situation in Idlib is complex,” she said, reiterating in the same vein that counter-terrorism efforts cannot overtake obligations under international law. Civilians should not pay the price.
She welcomed efforts by the Russian Federation and Turkey to contain the violence, warning against “unimaginable” consequences if a solution is not found. The recent shelling of Turkey’s observation posts by Syria’s forces and Ankara’s subsequent retaliation are indeed military exchanges that underscore how Idlib poses a grave risk to regional security. Looking forward to the upcoming Group of 20 (G-20) meeting, she called on international stakeholders — particularly the Russian Federation and Turkey — to exert the efforts needed to end the violence and restore calm. “All that is required is the political will,” she stressed.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that despite the announcement of a truce on 12 June, violence and destruction in Idlib has continued. The last six weeks have seen more than 230 civilian deaths, including 69 women and 81 children. Hundreds more people have been injured. Since 1 May, an estimated 330,000 people have fled their homes, moving north towards Turkey’s border, almost double the number of newly displaced people since his previous briefing — many of whom have already moved several times since the conflict began. Camps for the displaced are overcrowded, with many people forced to stay in the open, he said, adding that those who remain in towns and villages live in constant fear of the next attack. Hospitals, schools and markets have been hit, power stations have been affected, crops have been burned and children are out of school. “In short, we are faced with a humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes,” he said.
In response, he said the United Nations and its partners have distributed emergency rations, reaching more than 190,000 people in May. General food assistance has gone out to nearly 800,000 people. Water, health and sanitation supplies have reached to 180,000 displaced people, while water delivered by truck is available in 342 camps and informal settlements. None of this would have been possible without the Council’s renewal of resolution 2165 (2014), which authorized relief deliveries across conflict lines and border crossings, he said. The United Nations and brave humanitarian workers are doing all they can, risking their lives to help others — but the response is stretched, and if more fighting creates more need, it could be overwhelmed, he warned.
Turning to the impact on civilian infrastructure, he said 37 schools have been affected since April, with more than 250,000 children out of school and 400,000 students having their exams cancelled. Ninety-four schools are being used as shelters. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 26 incidents affecting health-care facilities in north-western Syria since late April, including two in a Government-controlled area. Many hospitals have closed out of fear of being attacked. It is appalling that some of the hospitals that came under fire were part of the United Nations’ de-confliction mechanism, he said, noting that some partners feel that supplying geographical coordinates to be passed along to warring parties is tantamount to painting a target on their backs. That raises deep questions about the de-confliction system, he said, explaining that the matter now is being discussed internally and that he will provide the Council with conclusions at its regular monthly humanitarian briefing next week.
He went on to say that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which the Council lists as a terrorist group, has a significant presence in Idlib and contributed to the suffering. Countering that group is a major challenge, but counter-terrorism efforts cannot absolve States of their obligation to uphold international humanitarian law. The bottom line is that international humanitarian law must be upheld and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure must stop immediately.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), also speaking on behalf of co-penholders Belgium and Kuwait, condemned the indiscriminate aerial bombardments and shelling in Idlib which have led to significant loss of life and to a flow of more than 300,000 internally displaced persons since April. “It seems as if we’re losing the very essence of humanity,” he stressed, adding that the use of incendiary weapons to destroy farmland adds a new dimension to the suffering. Reminding all the parties of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and other relevant international laws, he said those who have committed violations must be held accountable. Welcoming all efforts to reinstate the Russian Federation-Turkey Memorandum of Understanding in Idlib, he urged all parties to implement that agreement and protect the lives of some 3 million civilians. While the co-penholders stand unified against any attacks by terrorist groups, he emphasized that counter-terrorism operations do not override parties’ responsibilities to protect civilians and should not impede impartial humanitarian action.
RODNEY M. HUNTER (United States) demanded a prompt end to the reckless escalation by the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Idlib. The latest ceasefire appears to have broken down and the relentless push into Idlib continues, he said, expressing alarm over the threat posed by that offensive to Turkey and Turkish forces. Noting that it also places millions of civilians at risk inside Syria, he voiced strong support for Turkey’s efforts to restore the 2013 Sochi ceasefire agreement. The Assad regime and its allies have violated at least 10 such agreements, using those breaches to their strategic advantage. Meanwhile, their brutal actions impede humanitarian access. The immediate restoration of the ceasefire agreement is essential to ensuring the United Nations’ ability to deliver aid throughout Syria. Emphasizing that there is no military solution to the Idlib situation or that in Syria more broadly, he called for pushing ahead with a political transition and urged Syria’s regime and the Russian Federation to abide by the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding and avoid a large-scale military offensive.
MARIUSZ LEWICKI (Poland), expressing concern about increased air strikes in Idlib province and northern Hama over recent weeks, stressed that protection of civilians and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance are not a choice, but rather a legal obligation of all sides to the conflict. Those who do not comply should be held accountable, he said, stressing that there is no military solution to the conflict. A political agreement in line with Council resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva Communiqué remains the only way towards peace.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) declared that “we are witnessing a fresh humanitarian disaster” in north-west Syria. Underlining the need to prevent Idlib from “becoming a second Aleppo”, he said France plans to disburse €5 million to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the coming days. Civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected, he said, stressing that attacks against hospitals and medical staff, in particular, amount to war crimes. All the parties, including the Russian Federation and Iran, must work to re-establish the ceasefire. Warning that France will respond “with all possible resolve and rigour” should there be another chemical weapons attack, he agreed that counter-terrorism cannot be invoked to violate international legal obligations. Pointing out that the current violence comes just as progress is being made in convening Syria’s constitutional committee, he called the Idlib escalation a deliberate obstruction by the Assad regime intended to hold those discussions hostage. Calling for progress in that regard — as well as towards free, fair and transparent elections — he said the European Union’s sanctions and reconstruction assistance policies will remain unchanged until more political progress is made.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) expressed concern over the Syrian regime’s recent targeting of Turkey’s personnel, calling it an absolute inversion of Member States’ responsibility to help maintain international peace and security. “People are being killed but no advantage is being gained militarily,” she said, calling on all parties to respect the Sochi agreement. As Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin agreed to that accord with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, she asked: “Why then can’t the Russian authorities persuade the Syrian authorities to follow it?” Turning to the bombing of a hospital, she asked again why no warning was given to the hospital, citing a clause outlining that the protection of medical facilities “may cease only after due warning has been given naming reasonable timing”. The United Kingdom will continue to provide significant humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria. “We will, however, not provide reconstruction assistance or the eventual rehabilitation of Syria into the international community without a viable and meaningful political process,” she asserted, adding that the United Kingdom will join its partners in responding swiftly to any chemical weapons use.
GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) said the destruction of hospitals and schools illustrates the imperative need to protect civilians, noting that the parties should be fully aware that they may need to answer to international courts if found guilty. They must also ensure safe, unimpeded access to people in need of humanitarian aid. Peace is still possible within a political framework, he said, expressing full support for the Secretary-General’s efforts to prioritize dialogue.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) said the international community’s inactivity has caused an increase in indiscriminate attacks against civilians, hospitals and schools. He underscored the need for a “genuine international awakening” and for all parties to publicly reiterate their commitment to restoring the ceasefire. He commended Turkey and Lebanon for bearing the financial burden after taking in many refugees, underscoring the imperative that the United Nations agencies and donor countries intervene immediately to address the abhorrent conditions in which many refugees live. All parties must show restraint and commit to existing agreements, he said, underscoring the overwhelming importance of diplomacy.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) expressed grave concern that most of Syria’s population lives in extreme poverty and the humanitarian situation “is on its knees”, with the 2019 appeal only financed at 20 per cent. Despite solemn words of concern, the Council’s inability to act is viewed around the world as indifference. “Let us not deceive ourselves, or pull the wool over our eyes,” he stressed, noting that air strikes continue and forced displacement has now reached unprecedented levels. “How much more can we stomach before enough is enough?”, he asked, urging the parties, as well as those with influence over them, to finally end the fighting. The Council must push forward a strategic turnaround as soon as possible, he said, noting that its weak response does nothing to resolve the conflict. “We cannot continue to fail those that depend on us for their lives and their futures,” he stressed.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) appealed to all parties to end the violence, exercise maximum restraint and respect the ceasefire brokered last week by the Russian Federation and Turkey. Underlining the urgent need to respond to affected people in Idlib and surrounding areas — especially those who are internally displaced — he pointed out that the provision of health care is crucial as many health facilities have suspended their services. All parties must ensure safe, unhindered and unimpeded humanitarian access and redouble their efforts towards reaching a peaceful political solution to the conflict. The Council’s action is increasingly needed as the violence in north-west Syria continues to escalate, he said.
HARSHANA BHASKAR GOOLAB (South Africa), expressing concern about the increased violence in an already fragile humanitarian situation, urged the full implementation of all relevant agreements, including the September 2018 ceasefire memorandum and the recent ceasefire brokered by the Russian Federation and Turkey. The presence of any foreign military forces in Syria without permission from the Government undermines and violates the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said, and only further destabilizes the situation.
HUMBERTO VELÁSQUEZ (Peru) said the fighting in Idlib is exacerbating the suffering of the Syrian people and stoking regional tensions, reiterating his country’s condemnation of any terrorist acts. “We underscore the point that under no circumstance can fighting terrorists be used as a pretext to violate international law,” he said, expressing concern over the loss of life, particularly among children. Reiterating full respect for Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, he warned against de facto partition of the country.
YAO SHAOJUN (China) expressed support for the continued implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Russian Federation and Turkey. China supports the United Nations and other humanitarian actors providing relief to people in north-west Syria. When discussing the situation there, it is impossible not to discuss the activities of terrorists, who continue to destabilize the region. Expressing concern over the humanitarian crisis, he called for “tailor-made solutions” to address civilian needs. The international community must do its utmost to end the mass displacement of Syrians and support Syria’s Government in its reconstruction efforts. Humanitarian work should respect international law, he said, including the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
VASILY NEBENZYA (Russian Federation), expressing support for today’s meeting, said there is a need to openly discuss the situation in Idlib as some actors are attempting to distort it. Recalling that deadly military operations led by Western nations in Raqqa and elsewhere resulted in no urgent Council meetings, he said no one even questioned such strikes. Today, there are attempts to keep territory out of the control of Damascus as long as possible. Noting that the Memorandum of Understanding reached between Moscow and Ankara does not ban, but rather encourages, the continued fight against terrorism, he emphasized that terrorists from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group are bombarding civilian territory, attacking Government forces and striking towns and villages on the borders of the de-escalation zones. Indeed, on 6 June, jihadists struck a hospital emergency room, while yesterday their mortars killed 11 people in Aleppo province. While the Emergency Coordinator mentioned that incident in his briefing, he somehow failed to mention who perpetrated it. While the Russian Federation remains firmly committed to all agreements on Idlib, he warned that it will not turn a blind eye to escalations by terrorist groups. Rejecting accusations of indiscriminate strikes or attacks against civilians, he said only confirmed terrorists are being targeted. Meanwhile, the White Helmets — working with Al Nusra Front — are preparing new chemical weapons attack “stagings”, and Western partners led by the United States are carrying out “demographic engineering”. Stressing that the terrorists in Idlib must be liquidated, he warned that they have already begun to spread to Libya and Afghanistan and could also return to their home countries around the globe.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said many terrorist attacks occur in the north-west, including recently during a wedding. “The normal life of these villagers became a nightmare as missiles were launched by Al Nusra Front supported by the Erdoğan regime,” he said. The Council must unequivocally condemn these crimes. All towns in north-west Syria have been targeted by missiles and rockets, as have the positions and posts of the Syrian and Russian armies. “Where do these terrorist groups get their weapons?” he asked, listing all the missiles, tanks and mines under the control of terrorists. Stressing that more than 100,000 terrorist fighters entered Syria from Turkey, he said the Council itself confirmed that 101 Member States have their citizens operating as terrorists in the country.
He blamed Turkey and its allies for allowing Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to commit heinous crimes and spread terror, turning hospitals and schools into military sites and killing anyone who rejects their Islamic ideology. To the claim that 27 hospitals were destroyed in Idlib, he explained that Damascus — which is home to 8 million people — only has 17 public hospitals. There are only four public hospitals in Idlib. “Please tell me what sources of information you have used,” he said, as that which was provided today is based on lies. Eight years have passed since unilateral measures against Syria were imposed, yet the United States and the European Union continue to ban medical equipment exports to Syria, including tools to sew wounds. “I don’t know how you can talk about humanitarian issues while banning the export of medical supplies,” he said. “Shame on you.”
Underscoring Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, he called for ending selective policies and biased approaches. Certain countries overlook war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by terrorists, as well as the detention by United States troops of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians in a territory controlled by terrorist groups. The international community must stop the crimes committed by the so-called coalition and the burning of agricultural crops, he said, accusing Turkey’s “regime” of disrespecting good-neighbourly relations and allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria from its borders. He has written 800 letters to the Security Council but its members “do not want to listen”. Condemning the presence of the United States and Turkey on Syrian soil and the politicization of humanitarian work, he decried that “some invest in terrorism to build a partnership against the Syrian State, instead of building a partnership with the Syrian State”.
FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey), underscoring the country’s commitment to the Sochi memorandum, said Turkish observation posts in the Idlib de-escalation area have recently come under fire from the Syrian regime, wounding five soldiers. Warning that Turkey will not hesitate to take decisive action to protect its military personnel, he said it will keep working with the Russian Federation to end regime violations. Emphasizing that combatting terrorism does not absolve any party from its obligations under international law, he said the problem of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — aggravated by the presence of foreign terrorist fighters — is acute, but it cannot be overcome by targeting civilians. It must be addressed with a more sophisticated long-term strategy that targets its ideology and structure.
He said progress on the political front would be a key element to that end, with the establishment of the constitutional committee being a first step. Work on forming that committee is at a critical stage, and when it convenes, it will mark an essential first step in international efforts towards a democratic Syria. Turkey wants to see a stable, peaceful and democratic Syria that preserves its political unity and territorial integrity, and which is governed according to the legitimate aspirations of its people. That can only come about through a political solution based on resolution 2254 (2015), he said, warning that if the Idlib de-escalation area does not hold, prospects for a political solution will diminish. “Ongoing attacks by the regime clearly aim at the collapse of the political process,” he said. Responsibility for preventing a catastrophe in Idlib lies with the Council, as well as the parties to the Sochi memorandum.
MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI (Iran) said that his country, along with other guarantors of the Astana Format, continues to support the inherent right of Syria’s Government to fight terrorists designated by the Security Council. Idlib’s de-escalation area has been created to protect civilians from terrorists, not provide a safe zone for the latter. Strongly condemning the violation of international law, particularly international humanitarian law, by the United States, he called on that country to immediately end its illegal presence in Syria. The right to determine Syria’s future belongs exclusively to Syrians themselves, he added.
The representative of the United Kingdom, taking the floor a second time, responded to a question from his Russian counterpart who asked about the difference between hospitals attacked in Government-held territory and those attacked in rebel-held territory. The answer, he said, is that in the latter case a hospital’s coordinates are provided through the United Nations “deconfliction mechanism” but are still somehow disregarded.
The representative of the Russian Federation replied by expressing serious doubt about coordinates provided by the deconfliction mechanism. Indeed, he said, such data are based on statements by individuals linked to the World Health Organization but not confirmed by anyone else.
The representative of the United Kingdom expressed concern over the Syrian delegation’s expectation that the data it provides to the Council should be trusted — and that information provided by the United Nations own mechanisms should not.