Permanent Representative Demands End to Violations of Syria’s Sovereignty by Useless Cross-Border Aid Operations
More than eight years into Syria’s complex and evolving conflict and despite an uptick in air and ground strikes, a growing number of people — including millions in hard‑to‑reach areas — receive food, medicine and other aid through a closely monitored cross‑border assistance mechanism, whose mandate renewal remains crucial to ward off an even worse humanitarian crisis, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council today.
Mark Lowcock, who is also Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs, briefed the 15‑nation Council on recent developments across north‑east and north‑west Syria — both of which saw increased violence in recent months. Although hostilities in the north‑east have decreased following recent agreements signed between the United States, Turkey and the Russian Federation, air and ground‑based strikes around the north‑west Governorate of Idlib have increased.
However, millions across northern Syria — including 2.7 million who cannot be reached from within the country — continue to receive support from the United Nations cross‑border humanitarian assistance mechanism, first authorized under Council resolution 2165 (2014). “It is through these operations that we have been able to stave off an even worse humanitarian crisis in northern Syria,” he said, noting that the cross‑border mechanism has grown by over 40 per cent in the last year.
Describing them as some of the world’s most closely scrutinized aid delivery systems, he recalled his own recent trip to Turkey, where he saw monitors climbing into trucks, opening boxes and cutting into bags of rice. While “nothing in life is completely risk‑free”, he expressed confidence that help is reaching civilians who need it and urged the Council to reauthorize the cross‑border operation when its mandate expires in early January.
As Council members took the floor, many echoed that call, with some speakers citing a lack of viable alternatives to the cross‑border instrument. Several welcomed the recent agreements that halted hostilities in the country’s north‑east, while appealing to parties to end violence and honour their international obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Belgium’s representative, also speaking for Kuwait and Germany, stressed that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners should be allowed to continue to deliver humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need in a timely, safe, sustained and unimpeded manner using all means, including cross‑border, cross‑line and regular programming. Since those operations began in July 2014, they have brought life‑saving aid to millions of people.
The representative of the United States said the Council has an obligation to respond to the suffering brought about by the Assad regime. Affirming the continuing need for the cross‑border mechanism, she called for its technical rollover for another 12 months, while also condemning Russian Federation air strikes that have killed civilians and humanitarian workers and demanding that the regime stop withholding humanitarian aid as a weapon.
The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for November and speaking in her national capacity, said that humanitarian actors must have unrestricted access to those in need. Joining other speakers in calling for a technical rollover of the cross‑border aid mechanism, she also paid tribute to the humanitarian volunteer organization known as the “White Helmets” and its founder, James Le Mesurier, who passed away this week.
Several speakers struck a different tone, underlining the need to prioritize Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and describing illegal occupation by other actors as the root cause of the country’s humanitarian crisis.
In that vein, the representative of the Russian Federation warned foreign military forces that “[Syria’s] oil does not belong to you, it belongs to Syrians”. A return of oil resources will improve the Government’s ability to provide humanitarian aid, he stressed, noting that Idlib remains a hotbed of terrorism with civilians held as human shields. As the situation in Syria continues to normalize and the country’s Constitutional Committee begins its work, he pledged the Russian Federation’s support.
Syria’s delegate, stating there was “a big elephant in Syria”, expressed similar concerns, particularly about a United States occupation and the armed robbery of his country’s oil, as well as the recent Turkish presence along the Turkish‑Syrian border aimed at changing demography. Calling for an end to foreign forces in his country — and for Governments to cease sponsoring militias — he decried the unilateral, coercive economic sanctions imposed against Damascus and demanded an end to violations of Syria’s sovereignty by useless cross‑border aid operations.
Also speaking today were representatives of France, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Poland, Côte d’Ivoire, Peru, Dominican Republic and Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting began at 3:18 p.m. and ended at 4:54 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that after eight and a half years of war some 11 million people in Syria — more than half the population — require humanitarian assistance. The United Nations and its partners have reached an average of 5.6 million people each month in 2019, with over half of that response in areas under Government control. Expressing concern over the situation in the north‑west of the country, he outlined a recent increase in air strikes and ground‑based strikes — mostly in parts of southern and western Idlib Governorate — and cited reports from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which found a high number of civilian casualties. In the last two days, over 100 air strikes were reported in Idlib and surrounding areas, and OHCHR noted that four separate health facilities were damaged on 4 and 6 November.
“Civilians in those areas not only have to endure the impact of hostilities, but they continue to suffer under the presence of Hayat Tahrir al‑Sham, a United Nations‑listed terrorist organization,” he continued. Civilians in Kafr Takharim were besieged and shelled following protests against that group, and there are reports that civilians have been killed and civilian infrastructure dismantled and sold. Removing such infrastructure affects basic services now, but will also make any future recovery more difficult. More than half of Idlib’s residents have already been displaced from other parts of the country and hundreds of thousands are living in camps and informal shelters close to the border with Turkey. “There is little space left to absorb additional displacement,” he warned, adding that the onset of winter — and the rain, cold and mud it brings — will compound the dire humanitarian situation.
The internal United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry established by the Secretary‑General has begun working to investigate a series of incidents that occurred in north‑west Syria since September 2018, he continued. The Organization continues to closely follow developments in the north‑east, where hostilities have decreased since the agreements reached on 17 and 22 October. However, clashes continue in border areas, and OHCHR verified reports that 49 civilians were killed by a combination of air strikes, ground‑based strikes, sniper fire and executions by armed groups. An additional 31 civilians were killed by improvised explosive devices or explosive remnants of war since the beginning of October. Expressing concern about the impact that changes in administrative control could have on humanitarian operations in north‑east Syria, he said that continuity in aid delivery must be ensured.
Meanwhile, millions of people — including 2.7 million who cannot be reached from within Syria — are supported by the United Nations cross‑border humanitarian assistance mechanism, he said. Describing his recent visit to Turkey, he said he witnessed aid delivery and assessed the work of the United Nations Monitoring Mission. More trucks are using the cross‑border mechanism today than ever before and the operation has grown by over 40 per cent in the last year. “It is through these operations that we have been able to stave off an even worse humanitarian crisis in northern Syria,” he said, adding that they are one of the world’s most closely scrutinized aid delivery systems. Monitors in Turkey climb into every truck, open boxes and cut into bags of rice; aid is then examined by third‑party monitors when upon arrival in Syria and tracked using geotagging and other technologies. “Nothing in life is completely risk‑free”, but he is confident that help is reaching the civilians who need it. Emphasizing that there is no alternative to the cross‑border operation, he said the Council’s renewal of resolution 2165 (2014) — which first authorized it — is critical.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), also speaking for Kuwait and Germany, stressed that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners should be allowed to continue to deliver humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need in a timely, safe, sustained and unimpeded manner using all means, including cross‑border, cross‑line and regular programming. Since the United Nations began these operations in July 2014, pursuant to resolution 2165 (2014), this mechanism has allowed the Organization and its partners to ensure that life‑saving assistance reaches millions of people. The current mandate for these operations ends by the beginning of 2020. Therefore, its renewal is of primary importance. He urged the international community to renew the resolution so that the Organization and its humanitarian partners can continue to alleviate the humanitarian needs of all people in Syria.
Turning to the situation on the ground, he called on all parties to ensure the functioning of the Allouk water station, as it provides water to almost half a million people in Al‑Hassakeh. He also called for continued, full humanitarian access to the Al‑Hol camp — where 68,000 residents remain, 94 per cent of whom are women and children — and for the specific protection needs there to be addressed. No lasting peace is possible without justice and accountability, he added, expressing support for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism in Syria. He called for all returns of refugees to be safe, voluntary, dignified and well informed and for a nationwide cessation of hostilities in accordance with Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2401 (2018).
KELLY CRAFT (United States), recalling the large number of meetings devoted to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, said that the Council has an obligation to respond to the suffering that has been brought about by the Assad regime. Affirming the continuing need for the cross‑border mechanism, she called for a technical rollover for another 12 months. She also condemned Russian air strikes that have killed civilians and humanitarian workers, underlining the need for accountability for those who committed such crimes and adding her support for the Board of Inquiry’s effort in that regard. The regime must cease using the withholding of humanitarian aid as a weapon; aid must go to all those in need. She saluted humanitarian workers who risk their lives for the Syrian people every day, in particular the late founder of the “White Helmets” organization. She also called for the soonest possible resolution to the suffering of the Syrian people through a sustainable political solution.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France) said that cross‑border humanitarian assistance remains vital in Syria. In that light, she called for another technical rollover of its authorization, particularly on the eve of the eighth winter of the Syrian conflict. Stakeholders with influence on Damascus must encourage unfettered access to all of Syria, including areas where the regime had regained control. She also condemned all attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, and extended her full support to the related Board of Inquiry. In the north‑east of the country, it is essential to continue to combat terrorism while facilitating the humanitarian response. The fight against terrorism must not be invoked to allow egregious violations of international law. Only an inclusive political solution can end the suffering of the Syrian people. The Constitutional Committee alone will not bring that about; also needed is a safe, neutral environment and confidence‑building mechanisms such as release of detainees. Until those conditions are in place, neither France nor its European Union partners will contribute to rebuilding in Syria, she warned.
ZHANG JUN (China) said that the onset of winter should spur action to prevent further suffering. At the same time, it is necessary to safeguard Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Affirming that a political settlement is the only way out of the conflict, he welcomed steps towards convening the Constitutional Committee, leading to a Syrian‑led peace process. He called on the international community to support the Syrian Government in reconstruction and humanitarian aid and in assisting the voluntary return of refugees. He also called for the lifting of sanctions on the country. Outlining aid that China has provided to Syria, he recounted a recent ceremony celebrating the latest deliveries of needed technologies. In addition, terrorist forces must be countered and all parties must refrain from actions that allow gains against terrorism to be lost. On cross‑border aid operations, he said that they must respect Syrian sovereignty and prevent abuse of such activity. Neutrality must be agreed and all provisions of related Council resolutions must be respected, he stressed, calling for greater transparency and enhanced cooperation with the Syrian Government for that purpose.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said that OHCHR reports of 49 civilian deaths in the north‑east and more than 1,000 casualties in the north‑west due to hostilities since early October are extremely troubling. “These numbers are not merely statistics that need to be put in regular reports. We are talking about people’s lives, and it is important to ensure that these numbers do not increase,” he said, appealing to “those with guns” to permanently cease hostilities and attacks affecting civilians. He commended United Nations efforts to continue delivering humanitarian aid to people in need, emphasizing the importance of efficient cross‑border assistance, with a strong monitoring mechanism. The Security Council must address the humanitarian situation in Syria through a common response, he said, adding that Member States’ opposing and contradictory positions should not prevent them from saving lives. Dialogue and consensus are critical to ensure a well‑targeted aid operation. He commended efforts by Special Envoy Geir Pedersen to facilitate dialogue and build trust between all relevant parties. Indonesia is closely following progress regarding the Constitutional Committee talks in Geneva and looks forward to the next round of discussions later in the month.
MARTHINUS VAN SHALKWYK (South Africa) said the sustained threat of violence and destruction, particularly against women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities, is not acceptable. He reiterated his call for all parties to comply with their obligations under international law, including the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Security Council members must ensure the recent developments in northern Syria do not jeopardize the cross‑border humanitarian operations of the United Nations. Commending the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its partners for their vital work in challenging environments, he said that the mandate for this cross‑border assistance is scheduled for renewal at year’s end. In that regard, South Africa will work with all interested parties to find common ground and unity, he said.
PAWEŁ RADOMSKI (Poland) said that it is civilians, including children, who have been killed and injured by the dozens in hostilities in north‑eastern and north‑western Syria in air strikes and ground‑based attacks, and by improvised explosive devices. He called again upon all parties to the conflict to implement ceasefire agreements and ensure unhindered humanitarian access to the entire Syrian territory. All parties must fully comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, including the obligation to protect civilians and children. He reiterated strong support for the cross‑border humanitarian assistance mechanism, the only way to ensure lifesaving aid for millions. With over 6 million internally displaced persons in a highly vulnerable population, he stressed the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, including a serious threat of sexual violence.
GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) expressed his concern regarding the protracted, persistent violence that continues in north‑east and north‑west Syria, which threatens to stymie attempts to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need. Spotlighting recent agreements that halted hostilities in the country’s north‑east, he appealed to parties to end violence and honour their obligations vis‑á‑vis civilians and civilian infrastructure. He also welcomed efforts to ensure that deliveries of cross‑border humanitarian assistance reach those in need and called for the renewal of the mandate. Meanwhile, he expressed hope that the ongoing Geneva talks will advance a political solution to the conflict more broadly.
PAUL DUCLOS (Peru) noted his concern over the suffering and risks facing Syrian civilians every day, which makes the delivery of aid — including cross‑border aid — even more crucial. Adding his support for the United Nations Monitoring Mechanism overseeing the delivery of that aid, he highlighted the lack of viable alternatives and called on the Council to address the matter by renewing the mandate of the cross‑border mechanism in the next few weeks. It is also crucial to prioritize the basic needs of civilians in Al‑Hol and Rukban camps and to ensure the conditions for their safe, voluntary and dignified return home, he said.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) added his support for the renewal of the cross‑border aid mechanism, which has been a fundamental instrument for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria since 2014. Noting with regret the new uptick in hostilities in Idlib Governorate — where the imminent arrival of winter imposes a moral obligation to meet the needs of the population — he stressed that hampering aid and attacking civilians’ health, water and other infrastructure are flagrant violations of international law. Meanwhile, the situation in the country’s north‑east has become a source of grave concern, as has the plight of millions of Syrians displaced to neighbouring Turkey. In that regard, he called for arrangements to ensure their safe, dignified and voluntary return to their homes.
AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea), expressing continued concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria, surveyed the harms done by continued attacks in areas of conflict. She said that international humanitarian law must be adhered to by all parties. She also expressed concern about conditions facing women and children in displaced person camps in Syria and called on the United Nations to respond appropriately through an adequate response plan for water, hygiene and nutrition. She affirmed that cross‑border aid continues to be a priority. A consensus renewal of the authorization would be welcomed. Welcoming political progress in the formation of the Constitutional Committee, she urged further progress towards reaching a peace under the provisions of Council resolution 2254 (2015).
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) concurred with the assessment of the humanitarian difficulties in areas not under the Syrian Government’s control. The root cause, he argued, is largely the illegal occupation of those areas and the perilous experiment to undermine the Government. He called for respect for the country’s sovereignty and for liberation from the foreign military presence. “The oil does not belong to you. It belongs to Syrians,” he stated, calling for the return of oil resources to improve the Government’s ability to provide humanitarian aid. Describing the Russian Federation’s contributions to stabilizing areas from which Kurds have withdrawn, he said Idlib remains a hotbed of terrorism, with civilians held as human shields and bombardments that inflict civilian casualties.
He cautioned against playing into the hands of terrorists by choosing good and bad ones. The White Helmets, in fact, were the source of allegations of Russian and Syrian attacks against hospitals, which had been shown to be fake. He said his country would continue to work with OCHA in fine‑tuning the deconfliction information, assist the Mine Action Service and support voluntary returns of refugees. He called on the United Nations and its partners to assist in the latter effort and to press for relief from sanctions. Meanwhile, he said that the situation in the country continues to normalize as the Constitutional Committee begins its work. The Russian Federation will continue to support the work of the Secretary‑General’s Special Envoy to make further progress.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom), Council President for November, speaking in her national capacity, said that the situation in Syria does not sound like normality to her, listening to the latest humanitarian report. She echoed all those who have urged a technical rollover of the authorization for cross‑border aid. Noting that her country is one of the largest donors in the humanitarian response, she pledged to ensure that those contributions are delivered and that the structures to do that are maintained. Humanitarian actors must have unrestricted access. She also said she shared deep concern about returnees, lack of respect for humanitarian laws and the resurgence of attacks in Idlib and its consequences on civilians. In that context, she called for the findings of the Board of Inquiry to be made public. She finally paid tribute to the White Helmets, defending them and their founder against accusations of the Russian Federation. “James Le Mesurier was not a spy, he was a humanitarian,” she said.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), responding to the statement by the Russian Federation, said that there was news today that there was Russian pressure to keep the findings of the Bboard of Inquiry secret. He asked the representative of the Russian Federation if he will support publication of the important findings.
Mr. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), replying to the comment of the representative of Germany, advised him to read more reliable sources than The New York Times for his information. It is up to the Secretary‑General to do what he wants with the information, he asserted.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) called attention to the “big elephant in Syria” that some in the Council did not see, pointing to a United States occupation and armed robbery of Syrian oil; a Turkish occupation aimed at changing the demography along the Turkish‑Syrian border; terrorism in Idlib; and Governments, represented in the Council, encouraging separatist groups in Syria while refusing to take back terrorists from that country. This “big elephant” is ignored by some who only care about extending resolution 2165 (2014) and its mandate for cross‑border operations, he said. These attempts reflect a sad reality about the Council; it does not seek to implement its own resolutions that stress respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. He called for an end to the presence of foreign forces in his country and for Governments to cease sponsoring militias and colluding to rob Syria of its resources.
He also observed that the boasting of some countries regarding operations in Idlib that led to the death of the leader of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) reaffirms what the Government of his country has said regarding terrorist control of that city. It is hypocritical for some in the Council to represent themselves as heroes for operations there while, at the same time, targeting the Syrian army as it attempts to reach the eastern Euphrates to eradicate ISIL/Da’esh. Further, the unilateral coercive measures on the Syrian people must be lifted as they constitute an act of economic terrorism. The efforts of his country’s Government and its institutions at the humanitarian level must be recognized for improving the situation despite challenges. Indeed, the Organization and its agencies would not have been successful but for the help of the Syrian Government. Calling for the end of violation of Syrian sovereignty by useless cross‑border operations, he spotlighted the link between the occupation of Baghdad and al‑Baghdadi, the occupation of the Golan Heights and al‑Golani and the claims of chemical weapons and the founder of White Helmets James Le Mesurier, a British military officer.
Ms. PIERCE (United Kingdom), taking the floor a second time, stressed that the late James Le Mesurier was not a serving British officer. Though he did begin his career with the British military, he later left the armed forces and became a humanitarian with the White Helmets. Regarding the point raised by the representative of Syria that the Council’s resolution authorizing cross‑border operations somehow contravenes Syrian sovereignty, she emphasized that the resolution exists precisely because of respect for sovereign equality and territorial integrity.