Amid Rising Violence in North-West, Building Trust, Confidence among Syrian Parties Key to Advancing Political Process, Deputy Special Envoy Tells Security Council

SC/14090
29 January 2020
8708th Meeting (PM)

Amid Rising Violence in North-West, Building Trust, Confidence among Syrian Parties Key to Advancing Political Process, Deputy Special Envoy Tells Security Council

The building of trust and confidence is a key component of a successful political process to bring about peace and stability in Syria, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Envoy for the country told the Security Council today, cautioning that increasing violence in the north-west threatened to stall negotiations before they had properly begun.

“De-escalating violence, leading to a cessation of hostilities across Syria, is more critical than ever,” said Khawla Matar — who spoke on behalf of Special Envoy Geir Pedersen — pointing to the alarming scale of military operations in the north-west and its devastating humanitarian consequences for the 3 million people in the Idlib area.

She highlighted the Special Envoy’s work with the Government of Syria and other stakeholders to achieve the implementation of Council resolution 2254 (2015), noting that he is working to narrow differences among the parties and hopes to be in a position to convene the newly established Constitutional Committee soon.  While the Committee is a vital component of the process, it is not the only part.  

“There is a need for a broader process that builds trust and confidence step-by-step,” she said, emphasizing that such a process could deliver concrete results for the Syrian people, who might one day expect to live in a safe, calm and neutral environment.  Such a process would provide assurances to refugees hoping to return and assist with the country’s reconstruction.

Noting that five foreign armies currently operate in Syria, and terrorist groups such as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, among others, are a major force in Idlib, she said that countering groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council is imperative.  In addition, the work of the Working Group on the Release of Detainees/Abductees, Handover of Bodies and Identification of Missing Persons, set to convene in February, is of “enormous significance” to many Syrians.

Council members taking the floor after the briefing pointed to serious impediments to the political process, with the representative of the United States deriding the adoption of “ceasefires in name only” that are instantly broken by fresh violence.  Rather than aiding the process, the Governments of Syria and the Russian Federation are actively impeding it, while denying humanitarian aid to civilians.  Escalating violence in the north-west of the country is unacceptable, she said, stressing:  “The Council must be united in telling them that we will not abide by their pursuit of a military solution.”

In a similar vein, Germany’s delegate highlighted the Government of Syria’s delaying tactics regarding the work of the Constitutional Committee.  Meanwhile, Syria’s military offensive continues, joined by Russian Federation forces in the north-west of the country.  Since the beginning of the conflict in Idlib, some 1,500 civilians have died, including 290 children, he said.

Several delegations took the opportunity to mention the new proposed peace plan for the Middle East, which was unveiled by the Government of the United States on Tuesday.  The representative of the Russian Federation noted that the plan’s maps contain a serious mistake in including the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Echoing those words, Indonesia’s delegate said that his country rejected the recognition of the Occupied Syrian Golan as part of Israel.  The top priority for the political process should always be the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people themselves.

The representative of Syria also referred to the plan proposed by the United States, calling it a “pathetic attempt” to introduce a proposal of settlement activity.  Not only that, but it failed to respect various Council resolutions regarding occupied Syrian territory, as well as its calls to return to pre-1967 borders.  Such a plan was an assault on the United Nations itself, he said.

He also spotlighted the fact that, following the Council’s morning deliberations on the humanitarian situation in his country, his Government had informed the World Health Organization (WHO) that it would grant access to a medical assistance convoy that was waiting at the Iraq-Syria border.  The Government of Syria will work with the WHO and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to distribute the aid to hospitals, pharmacies and citizens in need, he said.  On the political process, he said that it was vital that it respect Syria’s sovereignty and be Syrian-owned.

Also speaking today were representatives of Estonia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominican Republic, China, South Africa, France, Belgium, Niger, United Kingdom, Tunisia and Viet Nam.

The meeting began at 3:03 p.m. and ended at 4:39 p.m.

Briefing

KHAWLA MATAR, Deputy Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, speaking on behalf of Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, noted that the latter is in Damascus, where he is seeking to de-escalate the situation in the north-west and to renew progress in the United Nations-facilitated political process.  The Special Envoy continues to engage the Syrian parties and key international stakeholders to unlock progress on the path out of the Syrian conflict and towards implementation of Council resolution 2254 (2015).  The Constitutional Committee is part of that effort.  It has been convened twice in Geneva, and comprises representatives nominated by the Government of Syria, the Syrian Negotiations Commission and a middle third of civil society.  She noted that disputes between the Co-Chairs over the agenda prevented the meeting of the small body during the second round.

In Damascus today, the Special Envoy and Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem agreed on the importance of the strict observance of the agreed terms of reference and rules of procedure, she said.  They also discussed all issues related to the overall political process.  After negotiations with the Co-Chair nominated by the Syrian Negotiations Commission in December and talks today in Damascus with the Co-Chair nominated by the Government of Syria, the Special Envoy is working to narrow differences and hopes to be in a position to convene the Constitutional Committee soon.  In addition, for the first time, the Working Group on the Release of Detainees/Abductees, Handover of Bodies and Identification of Missing Persons will convene in Geneva in February.  While progress on this is not easy, it would be of enormous significance to many Syrians to see the pace and scale of releases increase.

“The alarming scale of military operations in the north-west has resulted in devastating humanitarian consequences for the 3 million people in the Idlib area,” she continued, which also included hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.  She reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate ceasefire and pressed all parties for a sustained de-escalation for the entire north-west, along with all other areas of Syria.  Countering Security Council-listed terrorist groups is imperative.  Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and other proscribed groups, including foreign fighters, are a major force in Idlib.  Countering such groups must be done through an approach that ensures the protection of civilians and fully respects international law, she emphasized.  In the north-east, the various ceasefires and understandings that have been reached continue to provide relative calm.  However, “the situation remains turbulent, with some impact on civilians”, she noted, underscoring that a sustainable arrangement, inclusive of all actors and in the framework of respect for Syria’s sovereignty, remains imperative.

“De-escalating violence, leading to a cessation of hostilities across Syria, is more critical than ever,” she said, noting that the presence of five foreign armies operating in the country is a reminder of the continuing dangers the crisis presents to international peace and security and the challenges to the restoration of Syria’s sovereignty.  As well as the serious humanitarian challenges, the economic situation has continued to decline sharply, with a number of factors combining to increase economic hardship.  This issue was raised by the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, which convened in Geneva earlier in January and shared first-hand experiences of the daily suffering of Syrians living with severe shortages of basic commodities.

In all of his engagements over the past month, the Special Envoy has continued to stress the importance of all stakeholders working together to support a broader process, she said, adding that it is apparent from his consultations that the Constitutional Committee is not sufficient to address the real concerns of all parties.  “There is a need for a broader process that builds trust and confidence step-by-step,” she said.  Such a process could develop with reciprocal actions by Syrians and outsiders, delivering tangible improvements for Syrians, leading towards the establishment of a safe, calm and neutral environment.  Such an environment would also help to give confidence to refugees for safe, voluntary and dignified returns and to those who wish to support the reconstruction of a war-torn country.  The Office of the Special Envoy continues to prioritize accommodating the full range of Syrian voices in the process, she said, noting that last week it welcomed Syrians from inside and outside the country to consultations in Geneva.  The Special Envoy continues to press for an end to the violence and work for the resumption of the Constitutional Committee to achieve a lasting political settlement that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and respects and restores the country’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and independence, in line with resolution 2254 (2015).

Statements

CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States) said that every facet of the United Nations-led political process called for in resolution 2254 (2015) remains paralyzed, as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues attempts to impose a military end to the conflict.  Noting that Damascus and Moscow are deliberately stalling the political process and denying civilians humanitarian aid, she described escalating violence in the north-west Syria as unacceptable.  “The Council must be united in telling them that we will not abide by their pursuit of a military solution,” she stressed, pledging to maintain Washington’s economic pressure on Syria until the day such attacks end.  In line with its newly adopted Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the United States is ready to impose sanctions on foreign paramilitary or mercenary forces operating in Syria. 

Rejecting the adoption of “ceasefires in name only” — which are repeatedly followed by fresh rounds of attacks — she noted that the Russian Federation has also publicly threatened to end the United Nations cross-border aid instrument in July, when its mandate is set to be renewed.  Stressing that the Assad regime wastes its fuel and resources on acts of war even as the Syrian people go hungry, she warned that instability and insurgency will not abate unless a political solution is pursued.  The United States will continue to withhold reconstruction funding until the political process mandated by resolution 2254 (2015) is complete, she said, urging the United Nations to do the same.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) joined other speakers in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib and across Syria.  Challenges are growing in the Constitutional Committee’s work, and little progress has been made since the Council’s briefing in December.  “The apparent deadlock is a direct result of the Syrian authorities’ unwillingness to commit themselves fully to the political process,” he said, adding that while some insist that no artificial deadlines should be set on the Committee’s work, “no deadlines should not mean no results”.  He underlined the importance of confidence-building measures which can bring the political process more substance, agreeing with other speakers that the issue of missing and detained persons is a crucial one in that regard.  However, as the Syrian Government currently holds eight times more prisoners than the other groups and parties combined, it is clear that equal prisoner exchanges will not be sustainable in the long-term.  Instead, what is needed is a unilateral release of arbitrarily detained people, especially political prisoners, women and minors, he said.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that despite the trend towards stabilization of the situation in Syria, much work remains.  The political process demands utmost attention, he said, noting that there should be a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis and that the Constitutional Committee began its work on 30 October in Geneva.  Combating terrorism is also a priority.  One of the last terrorist strongholds continues to be Idlib and its citizens being held hostage there.  Terrorists violate the ceasefire daily, he said, noting that such armed provocations cannot go unanswered.  He also expressed concern about the spread of terrorists in Idlib to other parts of Syria, as well as to other countries.  Noting that Washington published its vision of a Middle East peace plan yesterday, he said he is forced to note that there was a serious mistake in the maps in that plan, as the Golan Heights were shown as part of Israel.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said that it is not a surprise that, starting with the second round of talks, the Syrian regime decided to obstruct and delay the work of the Constitutional Committee.  “I am not as complacent as my Russian colleague, who says this was to be expected,” he said.  There is still the belief that peace and security can be achieved by military means, he said, pointing to the advance by Syrian and Russian Federation forces in the north-west of the country.  Since the conflict in Idlib started, 1,500 civilians have died, including 290 children.  Syrian children have suffered immeasurably and their lives have been cut short by bombs and torture.  Their schools have been destroyed and some children in Syria have never had any kind of formal education.  Children in Idlib are dying, being displaced and, in some cases, being recruited to join armed groups.  The Syrian regime has called ordinary citizens terrorists in order to create a pretext for their arrest and torture, he said.

INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said that the only solution to the conflict is a Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, credible, balanced and inclusive political process.  Applauding efforts to render the Constitutional Committee representative and to engage all segments of Syrian society, she voiced hope that the Committee’s small body will reconvene soon amidst a spirit of compromise.  Noting that the security situation remains vital to the Committee’s success, she voiced concern about the violence in the north-west and said all parties must abide by the ceasefire agreement as well as their international legal obligations.  Describing confidence-building measures as a critical element of the success of a wider political process, she urged the Government of Syria to address the issue of missing and detained persons and to ensure the conditions for the safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons.  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines supported the renewal of Syria’s cross-border aid mechanism and will support optimal access arrangements going forward, she said, urging Council members to respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in their actions and to take into account the perspectives of the Syrian Government.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) reiterated his delegation’s support for efforts to consolidate the long-sought political process in Syria, in order to pave the way for lasting peace.  Deploring the lack of progress in dialogue between the three groups represented in the Constitutional Committee, he said that only authentic and meaningful discussions will lay the foundations for meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people.  The needs of refugees and displaced persons, especially women, must be central in that dialogue process, which is threatened every time thousands of people are forced to flee, seeking shelter from attacks and bombardments.  The parties must abide by international law and respect all human rights, he stressed, noting that unabated violations being committed against civilians in the north-west are unacceptable and must be addressed by the Council.  Humanitarian access to vulnerable people must be ensured not only in that region but across the whole of Syria.  “This is the bare minimum that the parties must do to protect a population traumatized by almost a decade of conflict,” he stressed.

WU HAITAO (China) welcomed that, on 28 January, Special Envoy Geir Pedersen arrived in Damascus to further engage with the Government of Syria.  Underlining the need to ensure the independence of the Constitutional Committee process, he said it is natural that disagreements will arise given the longstanding differences between the parties, and that time will be needed to work them out.  He warned against the imposition of artificial deadlines, also stressing that Syria should never be divided or fragmented.  Calling on the parties to remain engaged in talks and to fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, he expressed concern that Idlib has become a breeding ground for terrorism.  All States should stand firm in combating terrorism — which particularly threatens the Middle East and parts of Asia — and they should lift all unilateral sanctions and help fund Syria’s reconstruction without preconditions, he added.

HARSHANA BHASKAR GOOLAB (South Africa) urged all segments and groups of the Constitutional Committee to recommit to constructively contributing to that process.  Calling on the parties to make every effort to work together with the support of the Special Envoy, and to reach agreement on an agenda before the start of the next round of talks, she encouraged them to demonstrate flexibility as discussions advance.  The work of the Constitutional Committee is but one aspect of the larger political process laid out in resolution 2254 (2015).  However, she welcomed its work and efforts to ensure its inclusivity, reiterating that the conflict in Syria can never be resolved through military means.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said that his country remains committed to the full implementation of the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process in order to end the conflict in Syria, in line with resolution 2254 (2015).  The number one priority must always be the Syrian people and the foundation of the political process must be based on their interests and aspirations.  In the context of sovereignty, he reiterated Indonesia’s position regarding the Occupied Syrian Golan and rejected recognition of the area as part of Israel.  On the work of the Constitutional Committee, he expressed hope that the third round of negotiations will soon materialize in Geneva.  The work of the Constitutional Committee must be administered by consensus and constructive engagement.  A substantive discussion is necessary to achieve positive outcomes that will serve the aspirations of all Syrian people.  There is also an urgent need to prevent further escalation that would disrupt efforts to reach a political settlement.

ANNE GUEGUEN (France) said that a tragedy is playing out in Idlib.  It is a humanitarian catastrophe, with Syrians being exposed to attacks by the regime and its allies.  There is a pressing need to find a political solution to what is happening.  She condemned the bombing carried out by the Syrian regime and its allies and reiterated France’s call for the cessation of hostilities.  The fight against terrorism cannot be used as a pretext to unleash violence on such a scale.  On the political process, it is crucial that meaningful work by the Constitutional Committee begin without delay.  After nine years of war, the Assad regime continues its approach of systematic destruction.  France expects the United Nations to keep account of impediments to the process.  Stating that the political process extends beyond the work of the Constitutional Committee, she said that the Special Envoy must work to implement all elements of resolution 2254 (2015).

KAREN VAN VLIERBERGE (Belgium) said that the only solution to the conflict is a political solution.  Without the political commitment of Syrian authorities, the cycle of violence will continue in Syria.  The Constitutional Committee sparked cautious hope of a new momentum but that hope risks being extinguished.  She called on the Syrian Government to reengage in the process and urged all Member States with influence to bear to exercise it to that end.  Detainees must be freed and families must be able once again to hold their loved ones in their arms, or at the very least obtain information on their whereabouts and their state.  This is a right enshrined in international law, she said.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) called for an immediate ceasefire, which he said would help create the conditions needed for dialogue, and urged the parties to recommit to confidence-building measures, including the release of prisoners.  Syria’s political solution must also take into account the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict, he said, urging the parties to consider the needs of all segments of society.

JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) recalled that, on 28 January, his Government hosted envoys from each of the Constitutional Committee’s small group.  However, it remains clear that the key ingredient to a political solution — the genuine will of the Syrian regime — is missing.  Expressing disappointment that the regime is once again refusing to engage after just two meetings of the Committee, he recalled that in August 2019 the parties laid out various confidence-building steps for the Government — including releasing prisoners, providing information on their whereabouts and granting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to detention centres.  Rejecting allegations of double standards levelled against his country by other delegations, he pointed out that the United Kingdom has provided over $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria since 2012, supporting all parts of the country — including areas held by Government forces.  A real double standard is pretending to care about humanitarian issues even as Idlib continues to be bombed.  Describing such attacks as outrageous, he said all parties — including those seated around the Council table today — must uphold their obligations under international law.

MONCEF BAATI (Tunisia) said that the launch of the Constitutional Committee was an important step within the political process in Syria to achieve a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned transitional period.  Constitutional reforms will surely pave the way for free, fair and pluralistic elections under the supervision of the United Nations.  He called on all parties to maintain and support this positive momentum.  As long as the negotiations are going in this direction, any diversion in views will be normal and even healthy.  He welcomed talks between the Special Envoy for Syria and the Syrian Government today to move forward with the work of the Constitutional Committee.  He urged all parties to give precedent to the interests of the Syrian people and to look for common ground.  The political process in Syria cannot prosper without security, stability and national reconciliation, he said, which would allow for a voluntary return of refugees and migrants.

DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), Council president for January, spoke in his national capacity, saying that a long-term balanced solution remains the only way to address a conflict that has devastated Syria for almost a decade.  Commending progress in the facilitation of dialogue among parties, he urged the Government of Syria and other actors to build upon recent gains.  However, his delegation remains concerned about the Constitutional Committee’s lack of action while hostilities continue to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.  The Council must be united in finding viable solutions to related issues, including humanitarian support for those in need.  At the same time, all parties must exercise restraint and refrain from any actions that could complicate the current situation.  Noting the efforts of all parties in the Geneva, Astana and Sochi peace processes, he urged the Council, regional countries and the international community to join hands to address such common concerns as terrorism, extreme violence, internally displaced persons and refugees.

BASHAR JA'AFARI (Syria) said that following deliberations this morning in the Council on the humanitarian track, his Government conveyed an official message to the regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO) to inform him that his country’s Government will grant access for a medical assistance convoy currently waiting at the border with Iraq.  The Government of Syria, in cooperation with the WHO and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, will work to distribute this aid to hospitals, pharmacies and citizens in need.  Turning to the political process, he said that it should be Syrian-owned and respect the country’s sovereignty.  None of the four different Special Envoys over the past nine years have succeeded in their task because certain Council members give priority to the maxim “might is right” rather than upholding the primacy of law.  “This has redounded to the woe of the Syrian people,” he said, “and has led to the shedding of blood of our children.”

On Tuesday, there was a pathetic attempt by the current United States Administration to introduce a proposal of settlement activity in the region, using the same blueprint to repeat the crimes of the United Kingdom 100 years ago, he said.  The United States plan fails to respect all the references to Council resolutions pertaining to occupied Syrian territory and the calls for the withdrawal of forces to pre-1967 borders.  It is a unilateral action and an assault on the United Nations.  Syria is bearing the brunt of interventionist policies and lies from domineering powers in the region and this has led to death and instability.  Some have sought to stall Syria in its own fight against terrorists.  The Government of Syria has exhibited the patience of Job for years, he said, as it wishes to protect the Syrian people and ensure that their needs and their interests prevail.  Idlib and the surrounding region is Syrian territory currently under the authority of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaida.  Some seek to give Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham the moniker “moderated Syrian armed opposition”, attempting to downplay the fact that they are terrorists.  This is seen in the activities of Turkey and is an investment in terrorism.

For information media. Not an official record.