Crisis in Syria Likely to Turn Catastrophic Unless Global Community Mobilizes to Conflict, Senior United Nations Officials Warn Security Council

SC/14114
19 February 2020
8727th Meeting (AM)

Crisis in Syria Likely to Turn Catastrophic Unless Global Community Mobilizes to Conflict, Senior United Nations Officials Warn Security Council

Damascus Representatives Blames Sanctions for Hindering Anti-terrorism Efforts, as Others Say Astana Process No Longer Works

The humanitarian crisis still unfolding in Syria will probably deteriorate in a catastrophic manner unless the global community swiftly unites and mobilizes all tools to end the nine-year-long conflict in that country, senior United Nations officials told the Security Council today.

Geir Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, briefed members by video-teleconference, saying there has been no progress since he last addressed the Council two weeks ago, citing ongoing military operations in Idlib Governorate that are in violation of ceasefire agreements, terrorist attacks on civilians and alarming humanitarian conditions.

More than 900,000 people have been displaced in Idlib since 1 December 2019, and children are dying from cold, he reported.  Meanwhile, the Constitutional Committee remains deadlocked, reflecting a stalled process that could have fostered trust and advanced a sustainable solution to the conflict.  “We are a long way from finding a way to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for peace, security and a better future are realized,” he added.  Urging key international players to intensify contacts in order to restore calm on the ground, he called upon Council members to throw their weight behind the quest for a political way forward, he said, emphasizing that much more must be done to ensure implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, also delivered a briefing, providing an overview of the situation on the ground.  Reporting that air and ground-based strikes in north‑western Syria killed at least 100 civilians, including 35 children, between 1 and 16 February, he noted that more than 90 per cent of those deaths occurred in areas not controlled by the Government of Syria.  He added that 160,000 people were recorded fleeing the front lines from 13 to 16 February, with almost 50,000 of them sheltering under trees or in open spaces.  While the delivery of aid from Turkey continues, agencies are overwhelmed.  In the next few days, the Office of Special Envoy will publish a revised appeal requiring $500 million — up from the $336 million announced on 6 February — to help at least 1.1 million Syrians, he said.

As delegates took the floor, the representative of the United States cited several media headlines describing the current situation as “the end of the world” and “the breaking point”.  Noting that a million people have been displaced in the past 90 days, she demanded:  “How much longer do we tolerate these headlines?”  The Russian Federation’s representative speaks with a straight face about a ceasefire while his country’s warplanes bomb hospitals, she said, adding that the United Nations has outsourced efforts to end the violence to the Astana group — the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey.  It is time the Organization took full charge of that effort since the Astana process has failed, she said, warning that the United States will spare no effort to isolate the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, both diplomatically and economically.

Concurring, the United Kingdom’s representative noted that, while 13 or 14 Council members are willing to act, the Russian Federation uses its veto power to prevent action.  She called upon that country to end its support for the Syrian Government while expressing disappointment over the current impasse within the Constitutional Committee.

France’s representative said the Syrian regime is responsible for the current impasse, adding that the intention of its attacks in Idlib is clear — to take the governorate by force, without negotiations, no matter the cost.  He called upon the Special Envoy to inform the Council when he can no longer move the Constitutional Committee process forward, emphasizing that France supports efforts to end impunity in Syria.

Germany’s representative described the situation as the biggest humanitarian horror of the twenty-first century.  The Astana formula no longer works, he said, echoing the representative of the United States, adding that it is time for the Secretary-General to “step up to the plate”.

However, the Russian Federation’s representative rejected those remarks, insisting that the Astana process is the right approach.  Recalling that the Special Envoy recently visited Damascus to help advance progress, he characterized the imposition of ready-made solutions as a violation of international law.  He went on to point out that Western sanctions are hindering the rebuilding of hospitals and schools, while reminding members that it took a day for Syrian authorities to respond to a Council request for an alternative cross-border route for aid delivery, yet the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs remained silent on the Government’s offer.  The Russian Federation will not end its support for the legitimate Government of Syria, he stressed.

Syria’s representative said his country will continue fighting terrorism, including in Idlib, and has already liberated many areas from terrorist control.  Unfortunately, some Governments have imposed sanctions aimed at hindering that effort, he said.  Calling upon humanitarian organizations to provide aid instead of publishing reports that do not reflect reality, he expressed disappointment that some agencies are not delivering medical supplies across certain borders.  More broadly, he stressed that all Member States must respect Syria’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Dominican Republic’s representative emphasized that there must be a way to find a midpoint from which to deal with the alarming situation on the ground and advance the political process.  There are 900,000 reasons to find that midpoint, he said, noting that civilians are suffering on a mass scale.  History will judge the Council’s actions or lack thereof, he declared.

Turkey’s representative said that his country will continue working with partners to address humanitarian concerns.  Noting that Syria’s relentless air and ground attacks continue under the pretext of combating terrorism, he said that Damascus has killed more than 1,700 civilians since May 2019.  Such actions constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, he said, adding that Turkey will continue working with the Russian Federation to ensure that Syria complies with existing frameworks on Idlib.

South Africa’s representative urged external Powers to end their support for armed groups and to stop using the conflict as a proxy for the advancement of their own interests.

Also speaking today were representatives of Indonesia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, China, Niger, Viet Nam, Estonia, Tunisia and Belgium.

The meeting began at 10:02 a.m. and ended at 12:07 p.m.

Briefings

GEIR PEDERSEN, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, briefed by video-teleconference from Geneva, reporting that there has been no progress since he last addressed the Council two weeks ago.  Reiterating the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate ceasefire in north-west Syria, he said heavy air and ground strikes continue, triggering a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation, and displacing 900,000 civilians since 1 December 2019.  Hostilities are approaching heavily populated areas and young children are dying from cold, he added, warning about the potential for further mass displacement and even greater catastrophic human suffering.

On the ground, the Government of Syria regained control of the eastern side of the M5 highway, he continued.  At the same time, violent confrontations between Turkish and Syrian Government forces were observed near Idlib, where terrorist groups maintain a major presence.  As sponsors of the de-escalation arrangements in Idlib, Turkey and the Russian Federation can and must play a major role in finding ways to de-escalate the present situation, he said, emphasizing that serious international cooperation could produce a solution for Idlib that addresses the threat posed by terrorist groups without causing unacceptable humanitarian suffering.

Worrying developments elsewhere included renewed hostilities reported in rural Aleppo, Afrin and other areas, as well as the resurgence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in the north-east, he reported.  Last week, a Syrian military statement reported that Government forces responded to “enemy missiles” from the occupied Syrian Golan, he said, adding that unresolved tensions involving the United States-led coalition and other actors persist in the north‑east.  The conflict is causing immense humanitarian suffering, he reiterated, noting also that the economy continues to face challenges.

All those developments are a reminder that the conflict is compromising Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, he said, adding:  “We are a long way from finding a way to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for peace, security and a better future are realized.”  Expressing hope that the launch of the Constitutional Committee could open the door for building trust, he pledged to remain fully engaged in efforts to unlock progress on the political track, while continuing to engage the parties to the conflict.  He went on to report that he recently hosted the working group on the release of detainees — comprising Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey — in Geneva.

Progress is essential to building trust, but a lasting political settlement, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), needs a broader process, he said.  Given the levels of violence on the ground, as well as the human suffering and heightened international tensions over Syria, an immediate priority is to reverse a set of dynamics that could further undermine trust, entrench divisions and render any political process even more difficult.  There is need to find a way forward on the basis of reciprocal and mutually reinforcing actions, he said, adding that he will continue to pursue that discussion with Government, opposition and international stakeholders.

The chronic suffering of Syrians is a reminder that such a political approach is the only sustainable way forward, he said, stressing that much more must be done to implement resolution 2254 (2015), given the dire situation.  Urging full respect for international humanitarian law and for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib, he called upon key international players to intensify contacts in order to restore calm, and Council members to put their weight behind the search for a political way forward.

MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, reported that air and ground-based strikes in the north-west killed at least 100 civilians, including 35 children, between 1 and 16 February, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  More than 90 per cent of those deaths occurred in areas not under Government control, he said, noting that advancing front lines in Idlib and western Aleppo have driven huge population movements in a matter of days as families try to escape the relentless air and ground bombardments.  From 13 to 16 February, 160,000 people were recorded fleeing mostly from Asareb and Daret Azza subdistricts, away from the front lines, he reported, adding that nearly 900,000 have been displaced, including more than 500,000 children, since 1 December 2019.

He went on to report that almost 50,000 people are sheltering under trees or in other open spaces, noting that babies and other young children are dying in the cold.  “Imagine the grief of a parent who escaped a war zone with their child, only to watch that child freeze to death,” he said, adding that 72 hospitals and other health-care facilities have ceased operations since December 2019.  While cross-border humanitarian operations continue to provide assistance from Turkey, the aid effort is overwhelmed.  He said that, in the next few days, his office will publish a revised appeal requiring $500 million to assist at least 1.1 million Syrians, up from the $336 million announced on 6 February.  Recalling that the Security Council voted unanimously in favour of a 30-day ceasefire in Syria two years ago, he expressed support for yesterday’s renewed call by the Secretary-General for an immediate ceasefire and for upholding international humanitarian law.

Statements

KELLY CRAFT (United States) cited several media headlines on the situation in Syria, describing it as “the end of the world” and “the breaking point”.  She also noted media reports that the standoff between the Russian Federation and Turkey has left Syria in a state of chaos.  A million people have been displaced in the past 90 days, she said, demanding:  “How much longer do we tolerate these headlines?”  The Russian Federation’s representative speaks with a straight face about a ceasefire while his country’s warplanes bomb hospitals, she added.  The United Nations has outsourced efforts to end the violence to the Astana group — Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey — and it’s time for the Organization to take full charge of that effort since the Astana process has failed.  She said that, in the coming days, the United States will spare no effort to isolate the Assad regime, both diplomatically and economically.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) described the situation as the biggest humanitarian horror of the twenty-first century.  Echoing the representative of the United States, he said the Astana formula no longer works and it is time for the Secretary-General to “step up to the plate”.  Emphasizing that there is no military solution to the conflict, he noted that Syria and the Russian Federation are trying to prove the opposite — that there is indeed a military solution.  However, there is no alternative to the political process, he reiterated, urging Moscow to end its support for Syria.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) asked the representatives of the Russian Federation and Syria how they can continue to carry out attacks and what they are doing to protect civilians and medical facilities when the international community, except three countries, are condemning what is going on in Idlib.  While 13 or 14 Council members are willing to act, the Russian Federation is using its veto power to prevent action, she noted.  At the same time, Turkey has made efforts to ease tensions and is hosting millions of fleeing refugees.  She called upon the Russian Federation to end its support for the Government of Syria, and for an immediate ceasefire.  As for the political process, she expressed disappointment with the impasse in the Constitutional Committee, as well as hope for efforts to overcome that “roadblock”.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said that a negotiated political solution depends on reconvening the Constitutional Committee, emphasizing that there must be a way to find a midpoint from which to deal with the alarming situation on the ground and advance the political process.  Noting that that there are 900,000 reasons to find that midpoint, he said civilians are suffering on a mass scale and a complete ceasefire in the north-east must end that suffering.  Calling for efforts to re-establish calm, he said the fight against terrorism in Idlib cannot be conducted in the present way, stressing that civilians must be protected and humanitarian workers granted access to those most in need.  “We must break the cycle and make progress” in the Constitutional Committee, he reiterated, underlining that history will judge the Council’s actions or lack thereof.

DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said that re-establishing calm on the ground is the key to advancing the Constitutional Committee’s work.  Emphasizing the importance of avoiding provocative rhetoric or actions, he called for avoidance of unnecessary actions that could complicate and provoke matters further.  “We must focus on saving people’s lives,” he stressed.  “Concrete actions are needed to end the suffering of the Syrian people, and it can begin from this Council,” he added, reiterating:  “Let us be united in saving people’s lives.”

HARSHANA GOOLAB (South Africa), recognizing Syria’s right to restore control over its entire territory, expressed concern about the conflict in the north-west of that country.  She urged external Powers to end their support for armed groups and to stop using the conflict as a proxy for the advancement of their own interests.  Concerning the political process, she urged all members of the Constitutional Committee to make a concerted effort to agree on an agenda for genuine discussion on the drafting of a constitution that will form the essential component of a sustainable solution to the conflict.  She went on to emphasize the importance of building trust, encouraging all sides to engage in that effort.

INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said that continuing along the current military path will neither end the conflict nor accomplish the objectives of resolution 2254 (2015).  Further, it will neither end the humanitarian crisis nor restore Syria’s stability.  Joining other delegations in calling for an immediate ceasefire in the north-west, she welcomed efforts to broker an end to the violence.  She went on to emphasize the need to respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and right to self‑determination, while expressing support for confidence-building measures like resolving the issue of missing and detained persons as the key to the success of the political process.

WU HAITAO (China) said his delegation will continue to help advance the political process, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015).  Emphasizing the need to focus on using the Constitutional Committee as a platform for support of the political process.  Differences among the parties must be resolved through dialogue, he said, stressing the need to create the conditions for that in the work of the Constitutional Committee.  Turning to other concerns, he said terrorism must be eradicated to create a favourable environment for the political process.  Noting the acute problems that terrorist groups and foreign terrorist fighters are causing in Syria, he said long-term solutions to the problems in Idlib must be found.  He went on to urge the international community to increase humanitarian assistance and the United Nations to continue to provide shelter for displaced persons, encouraging enhanced communication and coordination with the Syrian Government on aid delivery.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), emphasizing that the protection of said civilians must be a priority, called upon the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to work towards re-establishing calm on the ground.  The political and humanitarian situations cannot be handled independently, he said, adding that the conflict must be resolved on a political footing.  Calling upon all parties to respect the ceasefire, he said now is the time to act.  The Council must rise to shoulder its responsibilities, he added.

DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam) said that a comprehensive and credible solution, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), is the only way to restore peace in Syria.  While welcoming ongoing discussions, he expressed his delegation’s regret to note the lack of progress, month after month.  Viet Nam is deeply concerned about the escalation in the north-west, he added, pointing out that the longer the conflict continues, the graver the suffering of innocent civilians becomes.  All parties must exercise maximum restraint to avoid further deterioration of the situation, he said, stressing that, despite the imperative to fight terrorism, protecting civilians and preventing their suffering must always be a priority for all.  The Council and the broader international community must continue to support further diplomatic efforts to find a way to end the conflict, he reiterated.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) asked why the Emergency Relief Coordinator was invited to brief the Council today, especially after the latter has already discussed Syria’s humanitarian situation twice this month.  Next time, the Council should invite the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, he said.  Turning to the political track, he said that his own country, as well as Turkey and Iran facilitated the establishment of the Constitutional Committee, recalling that the Special Envoy recently visited Damascus to help advance that process.  This is the right approach, he said, rejecting remarks by several delegations about the Astana process and emphasizing that imposing ready-made solutions is a violation of international law.  He went on to caution that the Council-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remains a major challenge to the protection of civilians in Idlib, warning against attempts to protect such terrorists.  He noted that schools in areas not under Government control have been turned into military posts armed with Western weapons, and reminded members that he explained the Russian military’s efforts to protect civilians during the last meeting on Syria.  Post-conflict reconstruction must start today, he emphasized, while warning that Western sanctions are hindering the rebuilding of hospitals and schools.  He also reminded members that it took a day for Syrian authorities to respond to a Council request for an alternative cross-border route for aid delivery, yet the United Nations, namely the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, remained silent on the Government’s offer.  Responding to Germany’s representative, he stressed that the Russian Federation will not end its support for the legitimate Government of Syria.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said it is unfortunate that the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation have chosen a military solution over a political one.  It is a grave mistake, he added, noting that the so-called “liberation” of demolished cities is one thing, but actually to rebuild a country is a completely different matter.  “Our Syrian colleagues here need to understand that Russian and Iranian bullets will not feed their nation,” he said, emphasizing that Estonia and other members of the European Union remain fully committed to finding a lasting and credible political solution to the conflict, as defined in resolution 2254 (2015).

TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) emphasized the need to accord priority to de‑escalation efforts leading to a ceasefire.  Ongoing contacts between the Russian Federation and Turkey and the United Nations must result in effective solutions that exclude terrorist groups.  Calling for the resumption of the Constitutional Committee’s work this month, he urged all sides to find a common denominator without preconditions, stressing in that regard the vital need for confidence-building measures such as the release of detainees.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) condemned the recent bombardments and called for concerted action to address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis.  Emphasizing the need to prevent an escalation of the present situation, he said it is the international community’s collective responsibility to mobilize in a united manner to implement a sustainable ceasefire in Idlib.  If the Astana guarantors cannot do that, then such collective efforts must, he stressed, calling upon Council members with direct influence on the Syrian regime to end the massacre in that governorate.  He also called upon the Special Envoy to submit proposals to that end, noting that guaranteeing a ceasefire would create the necessary environment to advance a credible political process.  He went on to express his delegation’s great concern over the lack of progress in the Constitutional Committee, urging the United Nations to play its part in that regard.  Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is responsible for the current impasse, he said, stressing that the intention of its attacks in Idlib is clear — to take the area by force, without negotiations, no matter the cost.  Calling upon the Special Envoy to inform the Council when he can no longer move the Constitutional Committee process forward, he said France supports efforts to find a political solution and to end impunity in Syria, which is essential to forging a lasting peace.  In the meantime, the Council must be able to overcome its paralysis, he added.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), Council President for February, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing that in no case can anti-terrorism efforts exonerate the parties from their obligations under international law.  Concerned about the international dimension of the conflict, Belgium calls upon all parties to exercise restraint amid the present rising tensions, he said.  The Astana format is not working, and it is up to the United Nations and the Special Envoy to pursue an immediate, lasting ceasefire in order to protect civilians.  Ending hostilities is essential to advancing progress in the Constitutional Committee, he said, reiterating that a credible political solution, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), is the only path towards stability.

Ms. PIERCE (United Kingdom) took the floor a second time, affirming that her delegation does indeed listen carefully to statements issued by the Russian Federation.  Reiterating her question as to why the attacks were conducted, she went on to emphasize that the perpetrators of crimes will be held personally responsible one day.  She went on to state that the United Kingdom has given $2 billion to Syria, adding that since reconstruction costs are mounting amid the ongoing attacks, it will be for Russian and possibly Chinese taxpayers to foot the ever-growing costs.

LOUAY FALLOUH (Syria), pointing out that the Council has met six times in 20 days to examine the situation in his country, said such meetings may seem to reflect an interest in Syria and its people, but they do not.  The Governments of other countries are trying to take advantage of the Council’s attention to undermine the Government of Syria, which is, in fact, protecting its citizens against terrorist organizations, he said, emphasizing that all Member States must respect Syria’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Unfortunately, despite the launch of the Constitutional Committee, some Governments have taken economic actions to hinder efforts by Syria and its allies to fight terrorism, he continued, noting that the Erdoğan regime in Turkey has launched military operations in Syria and continues to protect terrorists crossing the border through Turkish territory.  It also provided weapons to terrorist groups that use Syrian civilians as human shields.  He went on to reaffirm that Idlib is Syrian territory controlled by terrorist organizations, stressing that Syria must and will continue to fight terrorism on its own territory.

Having liberated territory occupied by terrorists for years, millions of Syrians demonstrated their joy, in Aleppo and elsewhere, after having been bombed daily by terrorist organizations, he said, adding that many Syrians are returning to their homes and the Government will guarantee their protection.  Calling upon humanitarian organizations to provide assistance instead of publishing reports that do not reflect reality, he expressed disappointment that the World Health Organization (WHO) and other United Nations agencies are not delivering shipments through agreed crossing points.  He also pointed out the presence of United States forces in his country Syria.  The Government must continue its fight against terrorism, he reiterated.

FERIDUN SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey), noting that relentless air strikes and ground attacks are continuing under the pretext of fighting terrorism, said the mass murderers in Damascus have now killed more than 1,700 civilians since May 2019.  Such actions constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, he emphasized.  He went on to note that the Government of Turkey is cooperating with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to increase the capacity of the cross‑border humanitarian mechanism and with Germany to alleviate shelter needs in Idlib.  As President Erdoğan announced last week, Turkey will hit all targets that pose an immediate threat.  “We will not withdraw our forces and will not abandon our observation posts,” he said, adding that it is the Syrian regime that should withdraw from its current positions.  A lasting ceasefire is the only option to end the biggest humanitarian horror story of the twenty-first century, he said, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, full implementation of the Sochi Memorandum on Idlib, and a return to the status quo ante.  Turkey’s Government will continue its contacts with the Russian Federation to ensure that the Syrian regime acts in compliance with existing frameworks on Idlib, he stressed.

Mr. FALLOUH (Syria), also taking the floor a second time, asked how the terrorist, murderous Erdoğan regime can claim that it is keen to protect the interests of Syrian people, since thousands of terrorists cross from Turkey to commit the worst crimes in his country.  Turkey also pillages Syria’s natural resources, he added.

Mr. SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) said the previous speaker does not represent the people of Syria, adding that his delegation represents the bloody regime does not deserve a seat behind Syria’s nameplate.

Mr. FALLOUH (Syria) said his delegation does not derive legitimacy from the murderous Erdoğan regime.

Mr. SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) expressed regret that the previous speaker has exploited his presence to repeat the same delusions over the last nine years.

For information media. Not an official record.