Foreign States Supporting Terrorist Groups, Damascus Representative Says, Warning that Government Will Deal with ‘Aggression’
The Special Envoy for Syria called for a nationwide ceasefire leading to sustained calm and enabling access to the equipment and resources needed to combat COVID-19, as he briefed the Security Council on efforts to forge a political settlement to the nine-year conflict, during a 29 April videoconference meeting*.
“Let me appeal to you to preserve this common purpose,” Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said, emphasizing that, in order to advance progress on the political track, he has maintained active channels with the Syrian parties and spoken with the foreign ministers of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran as well as senior officials of the United States, European Union and League of Arab States.
To be sure, there has been significant calm in many parts of Syria, he said, adding that with no all-out offensives or further displacements since early March, Russian-Turkish arrangements in the north-west are yielding progress. Urging all relevant parties to address internationally proscribed terrorist groups in a “cooperative and targeted manner”, he said ceasefire arrangements between the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States in the north-east also continue to hold.
However, “this is an uneasy and fragile calm in both north-west and north-east Syria”, he cautioned, citing the 28 April bombing which reportedly killed more than 40 people in Afrin, worrisome security conditions in the south, a resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) activities in central and eastern Syria, and reports of Israeli air strikes in rural Homs and Damascus.
On COVID-19, he said the Government has taken greater steps to combat the virus, as have the Syrian coalition and other de-facto authorities, while donors have provided material and financial support. Nonetheless, the risk of a major outbreak is there, he warned. In the coming weeks, increased testing and treatment capacity will be needed, as will the sharing of information among all parties. Syria faces various challenges that can hamstring a response — the lack of health professionals, medical equipment and supplies, among them. Health infrastructure is degraded or destroyed in many areas after nine years of conflict.
Calling for full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, using all modalities — including scaled-up cross-line and cross-border access — he said the United Nations has directly engaged concerned States so that all humanitarian exemptions to sanctions remain available and are fully used to tackle COVID-19.
On the economic front, he said Syria faces extremely grave conditions, with price increases and shortages among the worsening trends. Measures rightly taken by authorities to combat COVID-19 have — as in all countries — also had an economic impact, he pointed out. Urging large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees, he also called for more meaningful actions on missing persons to stem the spread of the virus.
Non-governmental medical organizations are doing their utmost to raise awareness and support local communities, he continued, recalling that he recently spoke with the Women’s Advisory Board, which has met virtually each week since the COVID-19 risk emerged. In their discussions, the Board expressed support for a nation-wide ceasefire, support for medical staff and provision of supplies and access throughout the country, he said, adding that the Board also emphasized that women are at the forefront of community efforts to prevent the spread, and that nothing should stand in the way of advancing the political process.
In that context, he said, the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee have agreed on its next session, clarifying that agreement on national foundations and principles is not a precondition for moving on to other items in subsequent sessions. He pointed out that he is in regular contact with the co-chairs on how to resume meetings in Geneva — and similarly in touch with the Committee’s civil society members. All members will continue to explore whether any preparatory work can take place, he said, urging them to be “seriously preparing for renewed work”.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members affirmed the need for an immediate nationwide ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access to reach all those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The representative of the United States noted that while the so-called Astana guarantors held a teleconference to discuss the peace process, it is in fact the United Nations that must be at the centre of any effort to secure a nationwide ceasefire. The Special Envoy has the authority to monitor existing lines of contact to ensure that ceasefire agreements are honoured, and it is the Organization’s duty to advance stability. “This Council should do everything in its power to support the United Nations in this endeavour.” The Board of Inquiry found it was “highly probable” that the Assad regime and its allies launched attacks that destroyed medical facilities, she noted, emphasizing that the Council must hold those who threaten Syria’s peace accountable. It is vital that the Board’s evidence be shared with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry and the International, Impartial Independent Mechanism for Syria. “If justice means anything to us, every Council member should support the Secretary-General’s pursuit of it,” she stressed, demanding that the Assad regime protect detained civilians and immediately release those detained arbitrarily. Independent medical and health organizations must be granted access to detention centres, she added.
South Africa’s representative called upon all parties to work towards a permanent nationwide ceasefire, noting that unauthorized forces should leave and that any counter-terrorism action must be in accordance with international law. The goal should be a lasting political solution that reflects the will of all Syrians, he said, urging Constitutional Committee members to continue to engage in the process. It is vital to ease economic measures imposed on Syria to ensure the provision of supplies to combat COVID-19, he emphasized.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines described the 5 March agreement to end hostilities in north-west Syria as a positive development, while also spotlighting its fragility. “A nationwide ceasefire is critical now more than ever,” she said, adding that it is the only path by which Syria can effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic. She went on to underline the importance of women’s participation and that their involvement in preventing and resolving conflict can improve outcomes. Noting that her delegation looks forward to a third round of Constitutional Committee talks, she said confidence-building measures will be needed to restore trust and bolster the viability of the wider political process. The question of arbitrarily detained and missing persons also ought to be addressed, she added.
Indonesia’s representative expressed full support for a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire, expressing concern over tensions in the south. “All relevant parties need to stay firm with their commitments for an inclusive Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, facilitated by the United Nations, he said, reaffirming his country’s commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. He called for enhanced diplomatic cooperation to refocus on the political process. He went on to welcome Syria’s efforts to combat COVID-19, stressing the need for continued international support to bolster the country’s health-care capacity and medical supplies.
Viet Nam’s representative expressed concern over the fragile situation, particularly the north-west, and deep concern over the dire humanitarian conditions after months of intense hostilities. He urged all parties to heed the call for a global ceasefire, translate it into a permanent nationwide ceasefire, and create an environment conducive to dialogue. “The COVID-19 pandemic is the common enemy,” he emphasized, urging Constitutional Committee members to cooperate through all possible channels. Expressing support for any viable diplomatic and political engagement that could bring about an end to the conflict, he said that an inclusive political solution, led and owned by the Syrian people, and with full respect for international law, is the only viable path to peace.
Niger’s representative underscored the importance of the Board of Inquiry report, which attributes responsibility for attacks on de-conflicted hospitals and other civilian facilities in north-west Syria. Condemning such attacks, he urged the international community to take appropriate action to hold the perpetrators accountable. More broadly, he urged all parties to ensure that aid reaches all Syrians in need, while encouraging the Astana guarantors to continue their diplomatic efforts. He expressed support for the large-scale release of arbitrarily held detainees on humanitarian grounds and the lifting of sanctions that can undermine Syria's response to COVID-19.
China’s representative said that, as COVID-19 spreads and countries in the Middle East are increasingly exposed, calls for a global ceasefire take on even greater urgency. The parties should support an inclusive political dialogue, both to buy time for virus prevention and containment and to pave the way for conflict resolution. Citing reports that terrorist groups are still attacking Idlib, he declared: “We cannot let terrorists take advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen themselves.” The parties should also continue to work through the Constitutional Committee, which must be independent and without foreign interference, he stressed.
Germany’s representative emphasized: “An effective nationwide humanitarian response to COVID-19 is only possible once a nationwide ceasefire is in place.” Calling for a swift return to the political process under United Nations auspices, in line with the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, he pressed the Syrian regime to “stop obstructing and start engaging” in the Constitutional Committee. The Russian Federation should use its influence over Damascus in that regard, he said. He went on to call upon Syria to allow immediate, unconditional and unhindered access for humanitarian organizations to all prisons and detention centres under its control.
Tunisia’s representative said that progress on the political track requires an immediate and lasting cessation of hostilities, emphasizing that the involvement of the United Nations is vital. Expressing concern about persistent tensions, particularly in the north, when the focus should be on curbing the spread of COVID-19, he added. “We call on parties to rise to this critical moment and maintain calm and self-restraint to lay conditions for the true battle of saving lives.” The resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh is concerning, as that group sees the pandemic as a timely opportunity to step up terrorist attacks, he warned, underlining the need to marshal collective efforts to eradicate ISIL and other Council-designated terrorist groups. Looking forward to a third round of Constitutional Committee talks soon, he urged the Syrian parties to show flexibility, seek common ground and engage without preconditions. The political process must be accompanied by the release of detainees and abductees, which would not only be a confidence-building measure, but a humanitarian necessity, given the threat of COVID-19, he stressed.
Syria’s representative said that the so-called Syrian crisis is, in fact, a terrorist war waged by well-known Governments seeking to legalize their interference in the name of hegemony. A range of weapons has been used — from information and media warfare, to investment in terrorism, sponsorship of criminal takfiri organizations to military interventions and occupation by the United States, France, United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel. All such acts flagrantly violate international law, he said, declaring that Syria will uphold its sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. “We will not abandon the liberation of our occupied territories,” he insisted, warning that any foreign military presence on the territory without Government consent will be considered an act of aggression.
With that, he accused Turkey of violating the Astana, Sochi and Moscow understandings, supporting terrorist groups affiliated with organizations it transferred to Idlib, and reinforcing its own illegitimate military presence by allowing convoys loaded with heavy equipment to cross the border to support terrorist groups. He pointed to the “Hawk” anti-aircraft missiles sent by the United States, and the presence of Turkish air-defence systems in Idlib as proof Turkey aims to sustain its occupation of Syrian territories.
For years, he continued, the Turkish regime has recruited tens of thousands of terrorists from Central Asia and the Caucasus — Turkmen and Uighurs among them — to Syria. Yet, “theoreticians” on the Council and in the Secretariat have not referred to that terrorist activity in any of their reports or briefings, he pointed out. The Turkish regime is now recruiting foreign and Syrian terrorists to fight in Libya, without deterrence or accountability, he added.
As such, Turkey must implement the Moscow agreement, he demanded, warning that terrorist groups are taking advantage of the calm following Moscow Agreement and the international concern over COVID-19 to reorganize their forces. Stating that the groups enjoy support from the United States and Turkish occupation forces, he added that the Council must call upon States to stop supporting terrorism and instead assist Syria’s own fight against terrorists.
France’s representative expressed deep concern over growing instability everywhere in Syria, saying conditions in the north-west are particularly worrisome. “It is essential that the regime and its allies do not restart an offensive,” he emphasized, noting that the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh in the north-east also warrants attention. He reiterated calls for a nationwide ceasefire, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), to enable the response to COVID-19, while pointing out that the Syrian regime has not responded to that appeal. The regime also continues to block the work of the Constitutional Committee, trying to backtrack on the agreed agenda and refusing to allow any virtual meetings, while the opposition demonstrates flexibility and openness, he added. Urging the Special Envoy to signal when he is no longer able to continue his efforts on the Committee, he advocated the launch, in parallel, of a broader political process based on all elements of resolution 2254 (2015). He urged the regime to allow the release of the most vulnerable people currently in its jails or security branches, and of all political prisoners who have not been granted presidential amnesty. Elections should take place in safe conditions, under United Nations supervision and with the participation of all Syrians, including those in the diaspora, he said, stressing that in the absence of those conditions, the polls will have no value. As for the Commission of Inquiry finding that the regime attacked de-conflicted medical centres, he underlined that war crimes and crimes against humanity will not go unpunished, as confirmed by trials launched in Germany against senior regime members and current proceedings in France.
The United Kingdom’s representative, emphasizing that preventing a major outbreak of COVID-19 in any part of Syria must be a common task for all Council members, said all parties in the country must adhere to existing ceasefires in the north-west and north-east while abiding by their responsibilities to facilitate humanitarian aid. Efforts towards a political solution in Syria must not cease, he added, stressing that agreement on an agenda for the next session of the Constitutional Committee is an opportunity that must be seized. In addition to a nationwide ceasefire, the Syrian regime should take other confidence-building measures, including the wholesale release of arbitrarily detained prisoners. He noted that medical supplies and other goods intended for humanitarian purposes are not subject to European Union sanctions, which the United Kingdom continues to apply, and that additional exemptions are available for humanitarian work. “In reality, the problems facing the Syrian health sector and economy are a result not of sanctions, but of the Syrian regime, through its cronyism and corruption and through its brutal conduct of the war.” He went on to express regret that hospitals bombed by the regime and the Russian Federation could have been used in the fight against COVID-19.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of the Russian Federation, Estonia, Belgium and the Dominican Republic.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.