Fighting in North-Western Syria Presents ‘Powder Keg’ for Regional Escalation, Special Envoy Warns during Briefing to Security Council

SC/13865
27 June 2019
8567th Meeting (AM)

Fighting in North-Western Syria Presents ‘Powder Keg’ for Regional Escalation, Special Envoy Warns during Briefing to Security Council

Permanent Representative Demands End to Foreign Presences, Economic Measures

Fighting in Syria’s Idlib Governorate presents a powder keg for regional escalation, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in that country warned the Security Council today, as he urged the Russian Federation and Turkey to help stabilize the area and called more broadly for renewed support for the creation of a constitutional committee as a central component of plans for peace.

Briefing from Geneva, the Special Envoy reported that conditions in and around the Idlib de-escalation area are characterized by air strikes, mortar attacks and other assaults, all involving indiscriminate use of force.  The front lines have not shifted significantly, and protection must be afforded to Idlib’s 3 million people amid reports of military exchanges between Syrian and Turkish observation posts.

He said assurances from the Russian Federation and Turkey that they will uphold commitments outlined in their September 2018 Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib must be reflected on the ground and a nationwide ceasefire must be pursued.  If achieved, parties must also avoid a “no war, no peace” scenario in which Syria’s sovereignty would continue to be violated, refugees would still not return, and the fate of detainees and missing persons would remain unresolved.  “A political process must be about more than meeting in Geneva,” he emphasized, saying it must also involve actions to inspire trust and confidence.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates deplored the escalating tensions in north-western Syria and urged the parties concerned to create the conditions for both a nationwide ceasefire and a political settlement, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).

The representative of the United States said Syria and the Russian Federation have repeatedly broken assurances to uphold ceasefires and advance the political process, also citing the Astana group’s failure on that front.  A viable political process starts with a ceasefire in Idlib, he emphasized, adding that Turkey should be responsible for removing terrorist forces from the north-west.

In similar vein, the United Kingdom’s representative questioned Syria’s commitment to the political process, citing its continued prevarications regarding the constitutional committee.  She advocated other routes to a political solution if progress proves elusive.

France’s representative expressed support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to forge a credible, balanced constitutional package while pressing Syria to stop obstructing that process.  France will allocate an additional €50 million to alleviate the situation in north-western Syria, he added.

Meanwhile, the Russian Federation’s representative said his country is working for progress on the political front and to restore confidence among the parties, both inside Syria and around it.  Senior Russian representatives were engaged in consultations in recent days — including with the opposition and the Syrian authorities — on the formation of the constitutional committee, with the goal of launching a process in Geneva under the Special Envoy’s auspices and based on resolution 2254 (2015).

Syria’s representative objected to Turkey’s occupation of his country’s territory, emphasizing that the Charter of the United Nations does not allow others to intervene in sovereign affairs.  He said that, although his country is ready to work with the Special Envoy in facilitating an intra-Syrian dialogue, the formation of a constitutional committee is “the tip of the iceberg”.  Any political track that does not consider support for Syria, end illegal foreign presences and economic measures, or respect Syria’s sovereignty is unrealistic, he stressed.

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

The meeting began at 10:45 a.m. and ended at 12:40 p.m.

Briefing

GEIR PEDERSEN, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, briefed via videoconference from Geneva, reporting that conditions in and around the Idlib de‑escalation area are characterized by air strikes, mortar attacks and other assaults, all involving indiscriminate use of force.  Civilians continue to be held and the front lines have not shifted significantly.  The Security Council‑designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a significant presence in the area, he noted.  “Its attacks must cease,” he said, emphasizing that protection must be afforded to Idlib’s 3 million people.  Calling for full compliance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law, he said reports of military exchanges between Syrian and Turkish observation posts are of serious concern, describing the area as a potential powder keg of regional escalation.

Hostilities must stop, he continued, calling upon key stakeholders to engage in anti-terrorism and civilian-protection efforts.  Turkey and the Russian Federation have assured their commitment to their 17 September 2018 Memorandum of Understanding and have established a working group, he noted, stressing that their assurances must be reflected on the ground while urging them to stabilize the situation without delay.  A nationwide ceasefire must be pursued, as per resolution 2254 (2015), he added.

Citing exchanges of fire in northern Aleppo and continuing instability in the south-west, he said there are immense humanitarian and protection needs across Syria, exacerbated by grinding poverty and a spate of fires currently jeopardizing the country’s food security.  In addition to Idlib, there are grave humanitarian situations in Al-Hol and Rukban, he noted, underlining that the unrest sends exactly the wrong signal to Syrian refugees.  “We must stabilize the situation in Idlib,” he reiterated.  If that is achieved, the parties must avoid a “no war, no peace” scenario in which Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would continue to be violated, internally displaced persons and refugees would still not be returning, the fate of detainees and missing would remain unresolved, and there would still be no political solution.

He went on to outline his priorities for reviving the political process on the basis of resolution 2254 (2015) and for launching a credible United Nations‑facilitated constitutional committee — with full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity — comprising representatives of both the Government of Syria and the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission.  The path to concluding such a committee’s composition and rules of procedure may be open, he said, adding that he looks forward to testing whether his formula can advance its creation, while welcoming the support of senior Russian officials for the United Nations process.  It is time to finalize the outstanding issues that will enable the United Nations to help establish the constitutional committee in Geneva, he said, while cautioning that, although the committee can be a door‑opener, it will not alone solve the challenges ahead.  Only real trust and confidence, as well as reciprocal steps on the ground, can do so, he emphasized.

Progress on such issues as missing persons could make such an impact if done on a meaningful scale, as could expanding access to information, he continued, pledging to continue to press Turkey, Iran and the Russian Federation to exert their influence for more concrete results.  A series of steps are needed if a cycle of trust is to be developed, he said, adding that, having met with many civil society actors, he can say that all of them — both inside and outside Syria, and irrespective of their political orientations or backgrounds — are eager, even desperate, for a political solution.  Yet, they do not believe a process to set such a scenario in motion is likely.  He noted that, although the Women’s Advisory Board stresses the critical importance of 30 per cent female participation in the constitutional committee, it has no faith that will happen.  “This is why a political process must be about more than meeting in Geneva,” he said, stressing that it must also involve actions on the ground to inspire trust and confidence.

It falls upon the parties themselves to take such actions, he continued, emphasizing that international discussions and cooperation can only help Syrians to overcome distrust.  Pointing out that there is currently no international grouping that brings together all key international players whose support can guarantee trust across all those dimensions, he said that he is currently working to invite such a group to lend practical support to a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process.  He expressed hope that the Russian Federation and Turkey can work at the highest level to stabilize Idlib, and that the Russian Federation and the United States can also cooperate, while urging the parties more broadly to pursue a nationwide ceasefire.  It is past time to launch the constitutional committee, he stressed, adding:  “We clearly need renewed international support format.”  Such actions would signal that the parties are at least moving down the path outlined in resolution 2254 (2015), in a safe, calm and neutral environment.

Statements

JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said his country will not accept any attempt by the Bashar al-Assad regime to use military means to stop or delay the Special Envoy’s work.  Nor can the Council tolerate delays in implementing resolution 2254 (2015).  The Assad regime’s attacks on humanitarian actors demonstrate its continuing belief that force will make a solution possible, he said, pointing out that Syria and the Russian Federation have repeatedly broken their own assurances to uphold ceasefires and advance the political process.  The Astana group’s efforts to advance a political process have failed, he said, emphasizing that progress is likely to remain out of reach for some time because that is where the regime wants it.  Indeed, the fate of the political process depends on whether the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation will work with Turkey to stop the fighting in the north-west.

He went on to emphasize that progress on the political front requires the Assad regime to recognize that the political system incorporates more than just one view.  A viable political process starts with a verifiable ceasefire in Idlib, he said, adding that Turkey should be responsible for removing terrorist forces from the region.  He called upon the Russian Federation to de-escalate military actions, press Syria to do likewise and work with the United States to implement resolution 2254 (2015), warning that his country will continue to increase the pressure on the Assad regime if progress on the humanitarian and political tracks continues to stall.

Taking issue with comments in which Syria’s delegate vilified the Executive Director of the Syrian American Medical Society on 25 June, he described claims that the group is a branch of the Government of the United States as “offensive and ludicrous”, and a shameful attack on a humanitarian organization.  He went on to reject those remarks as an affront to the Council and the rules-based international order.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the use of indiscriminate force in Idlib ought to worry the Council an appealed to all parties to stabilize the situation and implement resolution 2254 (2015), including the nationwide ceasefire.  Echoing the position of the United States on comments by Syria’s representative on 25 June, she pointed out that humanitarians do their work because a country’s own institutional services are unable or unwilling to help.  “They deserve our protection, as well as our thanks,” she said.  On the political process, she expressed hope that all those with whom the Special Envoy is working to bring the parties together will approach that goal in good faith.  “We also need progress on the ground,” she added.  Questioning the Syrian Government’s commitment to that process, she cited its continued prevarications regarding the constitutional committee, advocating other routes to a political solution if progress proves evasive.

Beyond the formation of a constitutional committee, the bigger prize is implementation of resolution 2254 (2015), including preparations for nationwide elections, securing the release of detainees and establishing a nationwide ceasefire, she said, emphasizing that a political process will not prosper without such progress on the ground.  Syria must stop its repression in formerly opposition-held areas that it now controls, among others, and end arbitrary detentions and rampant discrimination.  Recalling that the authorities issued death certificates for more than 700 people who died while detained in Hama, she said their families have not received the bodies of their loved ones, the circumstances around their deaths or the location of their burial.  “There is a real sense the Syrian authorities are holding their own people to ransom,” she said.  That affects conditions for the return of refugees and fails to provide a life free of violence and fear, she added, urging Syria to engage more speedily and positively with the Special Envoy.

FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) emphasized the need to silence the guns in Syria once and for all, and to turn instead to a credible political process.  “We must prevent Idlib from becoming a new Aleppo,” he stressed, condemning the deliberate attack that killed several White Helmet workers on 26 June, as well as attempts to paint that group’s personnel as accomplices in international crimes.  While the fight against Council-designated terrorist groups remains a top priority, it must not be used as an excuse to violate international law, he said.  Calling upon the Syrian Government to halt the fighting as prerequisite for the political process to move forward, he said France will allocate an additional €50 million to support the situation in the country’s north-west region.  Expressing support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to pursue a credible and balanced constitutional package, he voiced regret that little progress has yet been made in that regard due to the regime’s continued obstruction.  Only a political solution based on resolution 2254 (2015) will allow Syria’s ultimate stabilization, he emphasized, associating his delegation with the European Union’s position on reconstruction assistance to Syria.

MA ZHAOXU (China), emphasizing that promoting the political process is the only way forward, said that establishing a representative constitutional committee is the most viable path, and a secure and stable environment is required for the Special Envoy’s continuing efforts to succeed.  Expressing support for the Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib between the Russian Federation and Turkey, he warned that terrorism remains a major threat to the people in Syria.  China supports a resolute crackdown on terrorist groups, he said, emphasizing that all efforts to promote a political solution should be Syrian-owned, Syrian-led and taken with full respect for the country’s sovereignty.

TIEMOKO MORIKO (Côte d’Ivoire) called upon the Astana guarantor States to continue to ensure that the parties respect all ceasefire agreements.  Actions intended to give new momentum to efforts for resolution of the conflict should be coupled with increased confidence-building measures, including the reciprocal release of detainees.  Noting that a lasting settlement of the conflict will create the conditions required to better address the population’s humanitarian needs, he called for the safe, rapid and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance to all parts of Syria.

JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said the humanitarian situation is unacceptable, emphasizing that further military escalation must be avoided.  “The lives of 3 million civilians, including children, are at stake,” she noted, urging full respect for the Russian Federation-Turkey Memorandum of Understanding.  It remains of utmost importance as the political process is still failing to gain traction, she added.  Emphasizing that such a political process requires the full and constructive engagement of all parties, she declared:  “It may only succeed if the Syrian authorities participate in the negotiations in good faith and without preconditions.”  She urged all parties to condemn arbitrary detention, hostage‑taking and forced disappearances — in addition to protecting humanitarian workers and journalists — and reiterated the European Union’s common position on the reconstruction of Syria, noting that the bloc will only assist when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive negotiated political transition is firmly under way.

JERRY MATTHEWS MAJTILA (South Africa) said the only path forward is a comprehensive political solution that emerges from a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned dialogue.  He called on the Council to unite in fully implementing resolution 2254 (2015) and expressed support for the creation of a common forum to advance the common purpose of peace in Syria.  He also expressed support for the Geneva process, including finalization of a constitutional committee, which should see 30 per cent representation for women.  Emphasizing that escalating violence in the north-west undermines gains made in the political process, he said that similarly, progress on the political front will enable Syrians to live in a safe environment, free from terrorism.  The Council is obliged to ensure that a political process indeed takes place and that normality returns to Syria.  He went on to stress that the annexation of any seized land is a violation of international law, calling upon Israel to leave occupied territories.

GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) underlined the need for progress on the membership and decision-making process of a constitutional committee, saying all efforts must lead to free and fair elections.  Seventeen months after the Sochi conference, the parties must work to create the conditions for better understanding, notably by releasing detainees, identifying the disappeared and handing over those who have died, he said, adding that there is need for more substantial progress on that track.  In that context, preservation of the Turkey‑Russian Federation agreement on Idlib is all the more important, he said, condemning violations of international humanitarian law there.  He called for financial resources to be made available and for the demonstration of political will to help the millions of internally displaced and refugees.

VLADIMIR K. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) said his country is working for progress on the political front and to restore confidence among the parties, both in Syria and around it.  The Russian Federation cooperates with Iran and Turkey in the Astana format, as well as in coordination with Syria’s Government and opposition, he pointed out.  Recalling the “useful and substantive” briefing by the head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre on 25 June, regarding the military and political situation, he said the briefer paid particular attention to the Idlib de-escalation zone.  Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters continue to attack Syrian armed forces, civilians and a Russian airbase he pointed out.  “Demanding us to do nothing in this situation is dishonest,” he said, stressing that the military operation is being carried out exclusively on the basis of confirmed targets.

He went on to underline Al-Nusra’s attempts to style itself into a moderate opposition, pointing out, however, that rebranding does not mean it has rejected its terrorist activities.  The Council’s fight against recognized terrorists must continue, he stressed.  Underscoring the Astana group’s commitment to the agreement on Idlib, he said the Russian Federation has cooperated extensively to that end with Syria, Iran and Turkey, notably by implementing the Sochi memorandum.  He expressed concern over the fighting in the north-west, emphasizing that peace will only be achieved on the basis of respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  In recent days, he said, senior Russian representatives consulted with the opposition and the Syrian authorities on the formation of a constitutional committee, with the goal of launching a process in Geneva under the Special Envoy’s auspices and on the basis of resolution 2254 (2015).

Emphasizing that he remains optimistic about Syria’s future, he said the Russian Federation is working in full accordance with international law at the invitation of Syria’s legitimate Government.  With terrorism ended and the country returning to normal life, humanitarian assistance must be provided to all Syrians without preconditions, he said, emphasizing that assistance must be provided for reconstruction, in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and in cooperation with central authorities.  He went on to urge all present to reject unilateral sanctions, pointing out that the Russian Federation will support Syria’s reconstruction and provide humanitarian assistance, including through the United Nations system.  He also urged the parties to avoid openly flirting with terrorist groups, observing that “clearly nobody” has learned the lessons of past foreign interventions in Arab countries.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), pointing out that parties in conflict are obliged to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality under international law, urged them to reaffirm the ceasefire agreements outlined in the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding, and appealed for a cessation of hostilities at the national level.  All concerned must take every opportunity, including the G20 meeting, to achieve a lasting solution, he said, emphasizing that there is no military solution to the crisis, only a political one.  The constitutional committee must be led and owned by Syrians themselves and facilitated by the United Nations, he said, expressing support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to create a balanced and inclusive entity comprising all elements of Syrian society, with clear working procedures.  “This process is moving too slowly,” he said, calling for redoubled efforts in that regard.  In addition, efforts must be made to hold free and democratic national elections that include the Syrian diaspora, he emphasized, also urging the Special Envoy to continue his efforts to help those arbitrarily arrested or detained.

DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) reiterated that the escalation in north‑western Syria cannot be allowed to undermine the Special Envoy’s efforts to reinvigorate the political process.  Respecting the ceasefire and de-escalating tensions must therefore be a priority, he said, advocating a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process.  While recognizing obvious challenges, he said it is critical to maintain open lines of communication between the parties, as well as to establish and nurture confidence-building measures.  The Council should create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations, he said, adding that a meeting of the constitutional committee would be a tangible first step towards unlocking the door for the political process.  Pointing out that such a meeting would also send a positive signal to the international community and to the Syrian people, he warned that any delays on the political front will only result in more suffering and lives lost.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said the Council must ensure that conditions paving the way for a broad, credible and inclusive political process are present in Syria.  However, it is impossible to build confidence when the population is still living in conditions of insecurity, instability and anxiety, he noted, stressing:  “This Council must do its utmost to guarantee the protection of the civilian population all over Syria.”  He called upon all the parties to abide by international law and to take the necessary measures to end attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools.  Efforts to push a constitutional committee forward should also continue apace, he said, adding that the United Nations should be engaged in that process as a facilitator.  He went on to call upon the parties to exercise the greatest flexibility possible and not to lose sight of the needs of a population long beset by conflict, and who deserve a new future.

AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) said the worsening humanitarian situation should compel all international parties to renew their efforts towards a political solution in accordance with resolution 2254 (2105).  In that context, she called for the expedited formation of a constitutional committee and urged the parties to refrain from attempts to undermine the Special Envoy’s work.  Instead, they should step up diplomatic negotiations and engage in dialogue, she said, expressing hope that talks set for July will prove decisive in paving the way for the convening of that entity.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), referring to the statement by the United States in defence of the head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre, asked:  “What can you expect from the representative of a Government that bombs its own citizens?”  Rejecting the approach outlined by the Russian Federation’s representative, he emphasized his preference to live in a world in which human rights are respected.  Noting that indiscriminate air strikes and the barrel-bombing of civilians continues in Syria, he said such attacks can never be justified by counter‑terrorism prerogatives.  He strongly condemned those “intelligence‑confirmed targeted attacks”, and called upon the Russian Federation to cease its military support, if only for a few days, saying that such a pause could push forward significant progress in the Geneva-based political process.  “There is no military solution,” he said, stressing that the sanctions imposed on Syria are not outdated, but rather critical to resolving the crisis.

MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, encouraging all parties to work with the Special Envoy, saying that a United Nations-facilitated, Syria-owned political process based on resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva communiqué is the only solution to the crisis.  The formation of a constitutional committee must be done in a balanced, inclusive and credible manner, he emphasized.  Condemning the targeting of civilians by any side stressing the importance of adherence to international humanitarian law, he said Security Council-listed terrorists are not exempt from such obligations.  He went on to underscore to importance of the principle of proportionality and the need to end the targeting of civilian infrastructure.  He also expressed concern over the lack of political progress, calling for confidence-building measures in terms of progress on detainees, prisoners and he disappeared, and citing resolution 2474 (2019) on persons reported missing during armed conflict.  He said that attaining peace will be impossible without ensuring justice and combating impunity.  He went on to underline that the Golan is Syrian territory occupied by Israel, which seeks to take the area by force, in contravention of the Charter of the United Nations.

BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria), underscoring his country’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy, declared:  “We are not here to personalize issues.”  While the work carried out by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is purely humanitarian, he said, it is unacceptable that others are working with Turkey under the pretext of humanitarianism.  Days ago, in objecting to an interruption by the United Kingdom’s delegate, he recalled, he did so on the basis of procedure as anyone wishing to interrupt must seek a point of order from the Council President, he explained.  “We have to show respect to each other, even if we disagree politically.”

He went on to state that the occupation of the Syrian Golan encouraged the United States to backtrack on upholding resolution 497 (1981), which considers Israel’s decision to impose its administration on that area null and void, and without legal effect.  Such backtracking is also embodied in Washington, D.C.’s, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan, “riding roughshod” over the positions of all previous United States administrations and encouraging Israel to continue its occupation of Arab territory, he said.

To Germany’s representative, he said the White Helmets were smuggled out of the separation area and asked why a country would receive those terrorists.  In addition, he noted, Israel has escalated tensions with its announcement of a new settlement in Syria’s Golan.  Moreover, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process exceeded his mandate by ignoring, in a provocative manner, any discussion of the situation in the occupied Syrian Golan, despite dozens of resolutions adopted on the matter.  Nor does he discuss Israel’s violations in that area, he added.

He went on to cite attempts by the President of Turkey to replace religious Islam with political Islam, as well as that country’s occupation of Syrian territory, reiterating that the United Nations Charter does not allow others to intervene in sovereign decisions.  A return to such noble principles would give impetus to the Special Envoy’s work and to the efforts of all those who are serious about fighting terrorism, he said.  While Syria is ready to work with the Special Envoy in facilitating a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned dialogue, he said, current efforts cannot be reduced to disagreements over names and the rules governing a potential constitutional committee, he emphasized.  The formation of the constitutional committee is “the tip of the iceberg”, he said, adding that any political track that does not duly consider support for Syria, ending illegal foreign presences and economic measures, and respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unrealistic.

MARK POWER (United Kingdom) took the floor a second time to clarify that his delegation spoke on a point of order on 25 June in objection to Syria’s delegate calling humanitarian workers “terrorists”.  The length of that delegate’s intervention today further demonstrates his disrespect for the Council, he added.

For information media. Not an official record.