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31 March 2020

Briefing Security Council, Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns of Potentially Devastating Consequences for Syrians Most Vulnerable to COVID-19

With 10 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Syria, including one death, the virus could have potentially devastating consequences for vulnerable communities across the country, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting* on 30 March 2020.

“That is the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Lowcock, warning that Syria’s health services are extremely fragile, with only half of its hospitals and primary health-care centres fully functional at the end of 2019.  The World Health Organization (WHO)-led response advises a focus on prevention, by preparing front-line humanitarian workers, most of whom are Syrians, to interact safely with communities.

Among other measures, he emphasized that United Nations-supported surveillance and early warning systems have been reinforced across Syria.  Preparedness and response plans have been developed, while the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies, rehabilitation of the Central Public Health Laboratory, and the upgrading of isolation units and community engagement programmes are all under way.

But all efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the novel coronavirus are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system, he said, as well as high levels of population movement, challenges to obtaining critical supplies, and the practical difficulties of implementing isolation and protective measures in areas of displacement, which feature high population density and low levels of sanitation services.

In the north-west, humanitarian needs remain enormous, he said, with data showing clear evidence of deteriorating conditions since December.  Almost 3 out of every 10 displaced children under age 5 are stunted.  A United Nations inter-agency mission to Idlib on 2 March saw conditions there first-hand.  “People are afraid,” he said.  Local aid workers are delivering tirelessly under near-impossible conditions, but they are overwhelmed.

He said a scale-up of assistance is under way, thanks to donors’ rapid response to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ $500 million appeal, with $340 million received or pledged to date.  Cross-border deliveries, meanwhile, have increased, with more than 2,150 trucks in January and February carrying aid crossing from Turkey into north-west Syria — more than double the number that crossed during the same period in 2019.  “We expect that almost 1,500 trucks will cross in March,” he said:  a new monthly record since the start of the United Nations operation in 2014.  In parallel, efforts continue to establish crossline delivery into the north-west, he said, but they have yet to bear fruit.

Turning to the north-east, he said medical facilities and individuals who had depended on medical supplies via Al Yarubiyah border crossing have not received these supplies through alternative channels.  There are reports of significant shortages.  At least seven primary health centres in rural Ar-Raqqa have gaps in their reproductive health and nutrition supplies, while the Al Hol field hospital is reporting low levels of medications, and a primary health centre in Ar-Raqqa may be forced to close in the coming weeks.  He urged rapid action to get essential medical supplies to everyone in need, specifically calling for a sustainable agreement to be reached on the Allouk water station, which supplies water to half a million people, including Al Hol and Areesha camps.

Since the beginning of the 2011 Syria conflict, he said more than half the population has been forced to flee their homes.  More than 11 million people inside Syria require humanitarian assistance, including nearly 5 million children.  Nearly 8 million people do not have reliable access to food — a 20 per cent increase since 2019.  Recalling the Secretary-General’s words, he said:  “We cannot allow the tenth year of this conflict to result in the same carnage, the same flouting of human rights and international humanitarian law, the same inhumanity.”

Also briefing the Council, Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, agreed that the country’s people face a potentially devastating threat in COVID-19.  Following the Secretary-General’s call on warring parties around the world for an immediate ceasefire, he made a specific appeal for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria.

“This is both a humanitarian and a political imperative,” he stressed.  Syria is at high risk of being unable to contain the pandemic, given large-scale population movements, dangerously cramped conditions in camps, settlements and places of detention, and weak or absent governance in some areas.  Years of conflict have left the health-care system degraded or destroyed.  Health professionals, medical equipment and supplies are desperately lacking.  “This virus does not care if you live in Government-controlled areas or outside,” he said.  “It does not discriminate.”

In the north-west, he said the Presidents of Turkey and the Russian Federation agreed on an Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area.  Struck on 5 March, it outlines that all military actions along the contact lines would cease.  Since that time, there has been a significant decrease in violence.

The two Presidents also agreed to establish a “security corridor” along the M4 highway, he said, with joint Turkish-Russian patrolling.  While the first patrols took place on 15 and 23 March, they were not conducted on the entire stretch envisioned in the agreement.  There have obviously been challenges, and he appealed to all involved to not make the cessation of military activities in the north-west contingent on this aspect of the agreement.

However, in both the north-east and north-west, there is a real risk of hostilities resuming, he said.  If that happened, the pre-existing dangers to civilians would be multiplied and the virus would spread like wildfire, potentially rebounding across international borders.  “All of us have a responsibility to avoid this scenario,” he said, by cementing existing arrangements into a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire mandated by resolution 2254 (2015).

Those efforts aside, much more is needed, he acknowledged, noting that Syria’s Government has taken increasingly significant steps to counter COVID-19.  Large parts of the country are now under varying degrees of curfew.  Meanwhile, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and other de facto authorities in areas outside Government control have taken steps, and the country’s civil society has also mobilized.

He said that within the framework of the Humanitarian Task Force, his Office is directly engaging concerned States to ensure that all humanitarian exemptions are available and fully used, and that all hurdles are set aside to urgently move the most critical items into Syria to combat COVID-19.  In addition to traditional donors, his Office is engaging countries such as China and Cuba to see how they might render direct assistance.  Full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of Syria will be essential and all modalities will be needed.

Recalling his appeal for the large-scale release of detainees and abductees, he said urgent action is required, given the risk of COVID-19 racing through detainee populations.  As other Governments have already carried out releases on an exceptional basis, “surely this can and should happen in Syria”, he said, also urging immediate access for humanitarian organizations to all detention facilities with adequate medical care and protective measures ensured.

Turning to the political track, he announced that the co-chairs nominated by Syria’s Government and by the Syrian Negotiations Commission have agreed that the next session of the Constitutional Committee should have the following agenda:  “In line with the mandate, the Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure of the Constitutional Committee, discussing the national foundations and principles.”

He noted that, as has been clear with both co-chairs throughout, agreement during a next session of the Constitutional Committee on national foundations and principles is not a precondition to moving to other items.  He has also reminded both co-chairs to use agreed language when referring to the delegations, and to observe the agreed code of conduct when it comes to public statements.

While it may seem hard, even slightly abstract, for many Syrians to focus on a global virus pandemic, he said “make no mistake”, COVID-19 is an enormous threat to Syrians, and it demands a complete shift in mindset from all, now.  His Office is ready to work with Syria’s Government, the opposition and all relevant players on the ground, as well as key countries with influence who can support a scaling-up of action and ensure that the ceasefire holds.  “The Syrian people desperately need everyone to focus on their welfare now,” he said.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates echoed the briefers’ expressions of concern about the potentially catastrophic impact the virus could have on a country mired in conflict for so long.  The United Kingdom’s representative said such a risk is compounded by the longstanding destruction of health facilities by the Russian Federation and the Syrian regime.  Noting that the United Kingdom recently announced the provision of $100 million for the scaled-up humanitarian response, he asked Mr. Lowcock to elaborate on the steps needed to help Syrians combat COVID-19.

Several speakers called for a nationwide ceasefire, with the representative of the United States cautioning against a “tactical pause” that would allow Syrian forces and their allies from Iran and the Russian Federation to rest before resuming their campaign of terror in the north-west.

The representative of France likewise said an immediate Syria-wide ceasefire must be urgently implemented, calling attempts by the Syrian regime to dictate conditions for aid delivery a blatant violation of humanitarian principles.  The regime is unwilling to engage in a credible political process or to engage at all.  The Special Envoy should inform the Council when he can no longer pursue his efforts on the Constitutional Committee, he said, urging the Russian Federation to convince the Syrian regime to abide by a national ceasefire.

Pointing to the risk that the virus could spread in overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons was the representative of South Africa, who said that that population has little access to health care, water and sanitary infrastructure.  He echoed the Special Envoy’s call for the large-scale release of detainees on humanitarian grounds.

Others looked to encouraging developments in the north-west with the ceasefire reached between Turkey and the Russian Federation, among them, the representative of Viet Nam.  “We fully believe that this is a critical time to enhance dialogue and negotiation to resolve the long-standing political impasse,” he said.

The representative of the Dominican Republic likewise expressed cautious optimism that the 5 March ceasefire will hold in the long-term.  The Council must remain attentive to how the situation on the ground develops and follow the signals and movements of the forces present there.

The representative of China, Council President for March, spoke in his national capacity to stress that Syria’s future must be decided by its people without foreign interference.  Damascus has taken a series of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he said, adding that China provided Syria with testing kits.

The representative of Tunisia urged parties to fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, most notably in north-west and north-east Syria.  Cross-border assistance provides a lifeline for those in the north-west, he recalled, and monitoring should be enhanced.

On that point, the representative of Estonia stressed that the work under the cross-border aid resolution 2504 (2015) remains vital.  While crossline aid deliveries are improving, aid is still not reaching those who formerly received support through the Al Yarubiyah crossing in the north-east.

Concerning the Constitutional Committee, the representative of Belgium said that despite the Special Envoy’s hard work, there seems to be “little reason for optimism”.  Damascus appears to be stalling the process, rather than striving for the Committee to be fully functional.  The Committee’s goal is to have qualitative discussions on different issues to further the implementation of resolution 2554 (2015), he clarified.

The representative of the Russian Federation meanwhile said the COVID-19 pandemic affects the timing of the next round of the dialogue, once it is agreed in principle.  Pledging to provide the Special Envoy with all necessary assistance, he recounted efforts alongside Turkey to create a “security corridor” and resume transport links.  However, radical groups continue to impede these efforts by organizing provocations and creating roadblocks, and on 14 March, militants seized offices of the Syrian Red Crescent Society in Idlib and Ariha, looting property and detaining employees.  Further, international coalition airplanes have destroyed bridges across the Euphrates River, and there are reports that the first cases of the novel coronavirus may have been registered in the Rukban camp.  It is not Damascus but militant groups controlling that camp who are preventing aid from reaching people there.  He urged that all sanctions imposed on Syria be lifted, considering current circumstances.

On the issue of sanctions, the representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reiterated the call on countries that have imposed such measures to engage in dialogue, strengthen the COVID-19 response and aid Syria in meeting its urgent humanitarian needs.

Taking another view, the representative of Germany recalled that the sanctions are not directed at Syria’s population, but rather, leaders in Damascus who are culpable of the worst human rights violations one could imagine.  The humanitarian situation is the result of Damascus’ policies, he said, recalling that Germany and the European Union are among the largest humanitarian donors in Syria, with his own Government having provided more than €150 million to mitigate the crisis in Idlib since the start of 2020.

The representative of Niger recalled that 50 per cent of public hospitals and 47 per cent of public primary health-care centres are fully functional, underscoring the challenge for health workers to accommodate large numbers of patients.  Similarly, the large number of internally displaced persons makes it “near impossible” for them to social distance in overcrowded camps.  He called on Syria and organizations to work jointly to protect people across the country, expressing hope that the ceasefire appeal advances implementation of resolution 2254 (2015).

Also participating in the meeting was the representative of Indonesia.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.