Deadly Attacks on Civilians in Syria’s Idlib Region ‘Happening in Plain Sight, Under Our Watch’, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

SC/14132
28 February 2020
8738th Meeting (PM)

Deadly Attacks on Civilians in Syria’s Idlib Region ‘Happening in Plain Sight, Under Our Watch’, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

The security situation in and around Idlib continues to deteriorate, the United Nations top official for peacebuilding told the Security Council today, noting the severe impact on civilian populations as targeted attacks on populated areas continue to be carried out in plain sight.

Briefing Council members, Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said that the last nine days had seen the Syrian Government forces, along with the Russian Federation air force, advance in southern Idlib, while a counter-attack was launched in eastern Idlib by non-State armed groups.  In the midst of a broader military escalation in the north-west of Syria, air strikes on Turkish troops on 27 February left 33 soldiers dead and 32 wounded, strikes that Turkey has attributed to Damascus.  For months, bombing and shelling in Idlib have left nearly 1 million civilians displaced since December 2019, more than half of whom are children.

She went on to cite Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) statistics that show at least 1,750 civilians have been killed since April 2019.  While most of these deaths occurred in opposition-held areas, some occurred in Government-held areas, a reminder that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other non-State armed groups also strike populated areas, killing civilians in camps, schools and hospitals.  “This is happening in plain sight, night and day, day in and day out,” she cautioned, noting that “it is all happening under our watch”.  Such attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are simply unacceptable, she said.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, underscored that, due to the “very meaningful escalation” of hostilities in recent days, the very nature of the Syrian conflict has changed.  With that in mind, he reiterated his call for a ceasefire, both for humanitarian reasons and also because continued escalation could lead to a conflict with more dramatic impacts.

Members of the Security Council took the floor to decry the current situation in Idlib, with many noting that the latest round of hostilities was a sign that the Astana format no longer presents a viable route towards a political solution to the crisis.

The representative of the United Kingdom, noting the “real risk of escalation” of hostilities in Idlib, said that the Astana format is not capable of achieving a lasting ceasefire and that its “fatal flaw” is the Russian Federation’s support of the Syrian regime.  Members of the Council have a duty to work to prevent further escalation, he said, noting his shock at hearing of the death of 33 Turkish soldiers on 27 February.

France’s delegate said that the Astana format had its limits and could not replace a process led by the United Nations.  With that in mind, the Secretary‑General and his Special Envoy should be personally involved in bringing about both an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of an intra-Syrian process to end the conflict.

The representative of Indonesia called for a dialogue to help de-escalate the situation, noting that the protection of civilians must be the top priority.  The international community should support the delivery of emergency aid, such as shelter, food and logistical support.  The cross-border aid‑delivery mechanism authorized by the Security Council remains urgently needed and should not be politicized.

Estonia’s delegate spotlighted the high toll paid by the civilian population due to the escalation in hostilities, underscoring that “fighting terrorism by waging terror against a civilian population must stop”.  Humanitarian access to millions of people must be a priority, he said.  Noting that draft resolutions in the Council calling for a nationwide ceasefire have been blocked, he urged the Russian Federation to reconsider its position and allow for a humanitarian truce.

The representative of the Russian Federation highlighted that his country was currently conducting discussions to stabilize the situation as part of the Astana format.  Furthermore, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be meeting in person at the beginning of March to address the issue.  Expressing his regret over the deaths of the Turkish soldiers on 27 February, he noted that the coordinates of Turkish forces are given to Syria to ensure their security, but the area where the soldiers died was not included in those coordinates.

Syria’s delegate said that the aim of the meeting seemed to be to target the Astana format and to distort the concept of international law.  The guarantors of the Astana format, including the Government of Turkey, agreed in 2017 to establish temporary de-escalation zones, while affirming his country’s sovereignty and independence.  However, Turkey has leveraged the agreement to bolster its own presence in Syria, he said, imposing a “terrorist reality” as it did so, turning its observation posts into hubs for terrorist organizations.  Proof of this can be found in the fact that the Turkish soldiers killed on 27 February were some distance away from these posts.  Turkey wants to revive the Ottoman Empire, he said, asking the Council members who called the meeting to explain why the presence of Turkish forces in Syria does not constitute military aggression.

The representative of Turkey, describing the 27 February air strikes that killed Turkish troops, said that, while the nationality of the aircraft involved had not yet been identified, radar tracks show that Syrian and Russian Federation aircrafts were flying in formation at the time.  “Let me underline that Turkish forces were alone in the area.  They were deliberately targeted,” he said.  The Turkish contingent that came under attack was deployed to contribute to a nationwide ceasefire and gives hope to millions of civilians stuck in the area, he said.  The Council needs to put a stop to the regime’s war crimes, he said, otherwise the repercussions will reverberate across Europe, the region and beyond.

Also speaking today were representatives of the United States, Dominican Republic, Germany, South Africa, China, Viet Nam, Tunisia, Niger and Belgium.

The meeting began at 4:03 p.m. and ended at 5:37 p.m.

Briefings

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said it is important to acknowledge that, beyond the dramatic humanitarian situation in Idlib, the nature of the Syria conflict has changed following a “very meaningful escalation” in the past few days.  Noting that the Presidents of Turkey and the Russian Federation spoke to each other this morning, and that a Russian delegation has been in Ankara this week, he said the risk of escalation getting out of control cannot be taken lightly.  He insisted on the need for a ceasefire, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also in response to the enormous risk that a potential escalation could led to a conflict of a different nature with more dramatic impacts.

ROSEMARY DICARLO, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, briefing the Council, said that the security situation has continued to gravely deteriorate in and around Idlib.  In the last nine days, Syrian Government forces, with support from the Russian Federation air force, have continued to advance, taking a large swath of villages in southern Idlib.  Air strikes also continue in both front‑line areas and population centres far removed from the fighting.  During the same period, non-State armed groups launched a counter‑attack in eastern Idlib, retaking the city of Saraqib, which they lost to Syrian Government forces in recent weeks.  This action cut the Syrian Government’s control of the strategic M5 highway.  Turkish forces reportedly played a supporting role in this operation.

Delegations from the Russian Federation and Turkey resumed their talks, from 26 February, in Ankara, she said.  Those discussions have continued until today, along with presidential contacts by phone.  On 27 February, there were strikes on Turkish troops inside Syria.  The Turkish Minister for Defence noted that 33 of his country’s soldiers were killed and 32 wounded by strikes that Ankara has attributed to the Syrian Government.  She strongly urged the Russian Federation and Turkey to build upon their previous agreements to secure a fresh ceasefire for north-west Syria.  These latest developments are unfolding in the context of a broader military escalation that was already devastating for civilians in the north-west.  For months now, bombing and shelling by the Government of Syria, supported by its allies, has continued in the so-called de-escalation zone of Idlib.  Strikes have been launched on populated areas from both air and ground, seemingly without regard for civilians.  Nearly a million people have been displaced since early December 2019, including more than 560,000 children.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified that at least 1,750 civilians have been killed since April 2019, she said.  The actual number is probably higher.  While the majority of these civilian deaths occurred in opposition-held areas exposed to bombardment by pro-Government forces, 6 per cent occurred in Government-held areas.  This serves as a reminder that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is designated by the Security Council as a terrorist organization, and other non-State armed groups, have also struck populated areas indiscriminately.  Civilians are killed in internally displaced person camps, schools and hospitals.  “This is happening in plain sight, night and day, day in and day out,” she cautioned, noting that “it is all happening under our watch”.  The United Nations has countless times reminded all parties that any attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are simply unacceptable.  Civilians in Idlib are living under daily threat and terror.  They are not asking for a pause in the fighting, they are asking for an end to the killing, she said.

Statements

JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) expressed concern at the gravity at the situation and the real risk of escalation, and echoed the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate ceasefire.  The Security Council met on 27 February to discuss the Syrian people’s suffering, caused by the merciless campaign being waged by the that country’s regime and its Russian Federation backers.  He noted that men, women and children are living in tents in the open air and children are freezing to death.  Because of the attacks on Turkish positions hours after the 27 February meeting, it was necessary to call another meeting today.  Members of the Security Council have the duty to maintain international peace and security and to seek to prevent further escalation of what is already a dangerous and fraught situation.  He was shocked to hear of the tragic deaths of at least 33 soldiers as a result of the attacks on 27 February.  He expressed concern of the impact on civilians on any further escalation of hostilities.  The Astana format is not capable of achieving a lasting ceasefire, he said, noting that its “fatal flaw” is the Russian Federation’s support of the Syrian regime.

KELLY CRAFT (United States) said that her country condemns in the strongest possible terms the unjustified, senseless and barbaric attack on Turkish troops.  In the days ahead, the United States’ commitment to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey will not waver.  The attack on 27 February should be the final nail in the Astana format coffin, she said, calling for an immediate, durable and verifiable ceasefire in north-west Syria.  The United States also calls on the Russian Federation to immediately ground its warplanes and for Syrian forces and their Russian backers to withdraw to the 2018 ceasefire lines.  She went on to urge the Secretary-General to do all he can to broker a ceasefire, emphasizing that the United Nations must play a central and active role to avoid further escalation.  She asked Council members how many more babies must die in Idlib before they can say “enough”.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), noting that today’s Council meeting is the sixth on the situation in Syria this month, said that his country stands in solidarity with Turkey after its forces came under attack.  The priority must be to work together to put into place an immediate ceasefire in Idlib, he said, urging Syria and the Russian Federation to halt their offensive and uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law.  He added that the Astana format has its limits and cannot replace a United Nations-led process.  The Secretary‑General and his Special Envoy must be directly involved in bringing about an immediate and verifiable ceasefire, as well as the resumption of an intra-Syrian process to end the conflict.

BERIOSKA ILUMINADA MORRISON GONZÁLEZ (Dominican Republic) said that, despite calls for a cessation of hostilities in the face of human suffering in the north-west of Syria, the Council is meeting once again.  Her country calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and protection for the civilian population of Syria.  The opportunity must be provided for humanitarian workers to address the needs of the civilian population in a complete, secure and timely manner before it is too late.  A diplomatic solution must be searched for to protect the civilian population.  There is no tactic or military objective that can justify 1 million people displaced, half of them children.  She called on the Russian Federation and Turkey to recommit themselves to the Sochi ceasefire agreement.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said that more than 30 Turkish soldiers have been killed and his country strongly condemns that attack.  There is a risk for a wider regional escalation, he said, demanding that Syria stop its military offensive against civilians and against Turkish forces and that the Russian Federation stop the support of the military offensive by the Syrian regime.  There is no military solution to the conflict, there are political solutions, he said, noting that “when military solutions are undertaken, it is always civilians who are the victims”.  He quoted Germany’s foreign minister, who said in the Council Chamber on 27 February that “indiscriminate attacks against civilians are war crimes and those who are responsible must be held accountable”.  Syria and the Russian Federation must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and return to the ceasefire arrangements of the fall of 2018 to bring an immediate end to the hostilities.  A humanitarian ceasefire is needed now.  “As others have said before me, the Astana format doesn’t work,” he said, calling on the Secretary-General to personally continue to try and find a ceasefire without delay.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said there is no justification for the Syrian regime’s ongoing military campaign, which is backed by forces of the Russian Federation.  Demanding an end to the hostilities in Idlib, he emphasized: “Fighting terrorism by waging terror against a civilian population must stop.”  Calling for unimpeded humanitarian access to millions of people on a priority basis, he stressed that alternate paths towards peace in Syria have failed and it’s now time for the Council to act.  Regrettably, draft resolutions calling for a nationwide ceasefire have so far been blocked.  “In light of what has happened, we urge [the Russian Federation] to reconsider its position and allow a chance for a humanitarian truce,” he said.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) echoed the Secretary-General’s assertion that the most pressing need in Syria is an immediate ceasefire “before the situation gets entirely out of control”.  Also calling for a dialogue leading to de-escalation between key countries, he said civilians must be the priority.  As the need for humanitarian assistance increases, the international community must support the immediate delivery of emergency aid — including shelter, food, non-food items and logistical support — and access for United Nations humanitarian personnel must be timely, safe, unimpeded and sustained.  Encouraging enhanced cooperation between the Organization and the Syrian Government in that regard, he said the cross‑border aid delivery mechanism authorized in resolution 2504 (2020) remains urgent, and warned that it must not be politicized.

JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa) joined other speakers in calling on all parties to exercise the utmost restraint to prevent a further inflammation of tensions.  All must adhere to their obligations under international law, particularly as regards the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.  “This Council must be united in calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Syria,” he said, reiterating that the only way forward is an inclusive, Syrian‑led and -owned dialogue aimed at a political solution reflecting the will of the people and based on resolution 2254 (2015).

ZHANG JUN (China) said the problem in Idlib is deeply rooted in its control by terrorist forces.  The parties involved must find a long-term solution through dialogue and negotiations, he said, adding that Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity must be upheld.  Noting that the leaders of Turkey and the Russian Federation are in close communication, he said the Council must act with impartiality and objectivity going forward.  Expressing deep concern about the overall humanitarian situation, he said that counter-terrorism operations must take care not to harm civilians and that the source of seized weapons should be investigated.  He added that the international community should provide the United Nations with adequate funding and resources to ensure humanitarian deliveries throughout Syria.

DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam) echoed the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate ceasefire and urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint.  Intensified dialogue is needed more than ever, he said, adding that the conflict in Syria must be settled through political solutions.  With the situation in Idlib deteriorating, humanitarian efforts should be facilitated, including through feasible ways and means to ensure the timely delivery of aid.  He added that the protection of innocent civilians must be a prerogative and a benchmark for a successful fight against terrorism.

TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) said the escalation of violence is a genuine threat to the humanitarian situation.  International humanitarian law must be respected and civilians and civilian infrastructure spared.  Extending condolences to the families of the fallen in Syria and Turkey, he reaffirmed that there is no military solution to the situation in Syria, only a political one.  The military option will further complicate the situation and make life even more difficult, he said, calling for contacts between the parties and the Secretary-General.  The most pressing priority is an immediate ceasefire, he added.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) said that the conflict has changed in nature and also in intensity.  He called upon the Russian Federation, Syria and Turkey to find a compromise and stop the current escalation.  If they do not, things that have been difficult to achieve in humanitarian terms will be compromised.  He deplored the recent loss of lives.  On 27 February in the Council Chamber, the Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) spoke of the drama in Syria and the victims of that crisis who were women and children.  The time has come for action, he said, noting his country’s support of the efforts of the Secretary-General to stop the dangerous escalation seen in Syria in recent days.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that the escalation of the situation in Idlib has gotten worse and remains extremely tense.  Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had another telephone discussion this morning and an agreement was reached for a face‑to‑face meeting at the beginning of March.  In Ankara, there is a Russian Federation delegation that is conducting discussions to stabilize the situation as part of the Astana format.  The incident with the Turkish soldiers was not at the observation post, the soldiers there are secure.  It occurred in the Bahun area, which is outside the observation post.  There is contact between Russian Federation and Turkish forces, he said, noting that the coordinates of the Turkish soldiers are given to Syria so that they can provide for the security of the Turkish soldiers.  The coordinates did not mention the areas where the Turkish soldiers died.  As soon as it was clear what was happening, the Russian Federation took measures to ensure the evacuation of the dead and injured.  He expressed regret that the Turkish soldiers died and regretted the reports of deaths of Syrian soldiers.  In recent months, terrorists seized Idlib.  Because of ongoing violations of ceasefire in the Idlib zone, the Syrian army is fully within its right to respond.  This is taking place in its own territory, the territory of sovereign Syria.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), Council President for the month, speaking in his national capacity, said that the 27 February strike represents a dramatic turn in the situation that is already alarming in Idlib and he condemned the attack.  Turkey is present in Idlib on the basis of the 2017 Astana agreement.  Syria and the Russian Federation have violated the agreement and this has led to a humanitarian disaster.  Humanitarian access must be respected, he said, noting that the Secretary-General has qualified the situation in Idlib as a human-made disaster.  One million people are living in appalling conditions and this could have been avoided if the parties had respected their own commitments.  The situation will only get worse if Syria, supported by the Russian Federation, does not stop its offensive.  He appealed to Syria and the Russian Federation to put an end to military escalation.

BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) recalled that the guarantors of the Astana format, including the Turkish regime, agreed in May 2017 to establish de-escalation zones as a temporary measure.  They also reaffirmed their firm commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria.  At the same time, the Government of Syria announced its support of the Russian Federation’s initiative to put into place a de-escalation zone while also stressing that the war against Al-Qaida, Al-Nusrah and other terrorist groups would continue throughout Syria, either through military operations or local reconciliation efforts.  However, the Turkish regime reneged on its commitments and used the agreement to bolster its presence and impose a terrorist reality, leaving civilians to suffer.

Reminding the Council of recent protests in north-west Syria against terrorist groups involved in plundering, kidnapping and other crimes, he said the Turkish regime has turned its observation posts into hubs for supporting terrorist organizations.  The proof is that Turkish soldiers killed in north-west Syria were in places well away from those posts.  Emphasizing that the Syrian army and its allies had launched a military operation to restore State authority and the rule of law in areas controlled by Al-Nusrah, he said his country condemns the practices of the Turkish regime, which is entertaining illusions of reviving the Ottoman Empire.

He went on to say that Syria will continue to combat terrorism and use all legitimate tools to defend its people, its sovereignty and its territory.  For its part, the Council must put an end to the adventures of the Erdoğan regime, which threaten regional and international peace and security.  He added that those Council members who called today’s meeting must explain why they believe the presence of Turkish forces in Syria does not constitute military aggression and occupation.  Clearly, the aim of the meeting is to target the Astana format — nothing else — and to distort the concept of international law, he said.

FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) said that, as the Council was meeting on the situation in Syria on 27 February, a Turkish military convoy — on its way to reinforce a Turkish observation post — was targeted by a series of air strikes over a five-hour period near Balyun village in the Idlib de-escalation area.  Thirty-four soldiers were killed and a significant number wounded.  Turkey has not identified the nationality of the aircraft involved, he said, adding that radar tracks show that Syrian regime and Russian Federation aircrafts were flying in formation at the time.  “Let me underline that Turkish forces were alone in the area.  They were deliberately targeted.”  Russian Federation forces had been told in writing about the location of the convoy, he said, adding that the incident was “a belligerent act of aggression” that prompted a Turkish response in kind.

The Turkish contingent that came under attack was deployed in accordance with existing de-escalation arrangements in Idlib to ensure the security of Turkish observation posts, protect civilians against the Syrian regime’s aggression, to prevent mass displacements into Turkey and beyond, and to contribute to a nationwide ceasefire as called for by in resolution 2254 (2015).  Recalling that the Presidents of Turkey and the Russian Federation spoke today, he said that Ankara has made it clear to Moscow that it will not abandon its observation posts and that it will continue its military reinforcements.

The Turkish presence in Idlib gives hope to millions of civilians stuck in the area, he continued.  It is the only bulwark against the Syrian regime’s crimes against humanity and the only reason why millions of Syrians can remain in their homeland.  The regime and its backers want to drag Turkey into their dirty war because Turkish soldiers stand in the way of the regime fulfilling its dream of a military solution, he said.  “Turkey does not want war, but Turkey will not hesitate to use force if and when its security is threatened,” he said, adding that any provocation or harassment will prompt retaliation “by all means”.  He said that it is time for the Council to say enough is enough and to stop the regime’s war crimes and its reckless behaviour.  Otherwise, he added, there will be repercussions across Europe, the region and beyond.  He concluded by saying that Syria’s representative is not a legitimate representative of the Syrian people and that his remarks are not worthy of a reply.

For information media. Not an official record.