Tragedy Beckons in Syria as War-Ravaged Health‑Care System Is Ill-Equipped to Cope with COVID-19 Spread, Humanitarian Chief Warns Security Council

SC/14175
29 April 2020

Tragedy Beckons in Syria as War-Ravaged Health‑Care System Is Ill-Equipped to Cope with COVID-19 Spread, Humanitarian Chief Warns Security Council

Damascus Representative Demands Immediate Lifting of Economic Sanctions as Other Speakers Press to Re-open Al Yarubiyah Border Crossing for Aid Delivery

Tragedy looms in Syria where, after nearly a decade of war, the health‑care system is in no position to cope with a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak, putting millions in even greater need of humanitarian aid, the United Nations top humanitarian official told the Security Council during a 29 April videoconference meeting*.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that, since he last briefed the Council on 31 March, the Syrian authorities have announced 43 confirmed cases — including 3 deaths — in the capital, Damascus, and adjacent Rural Damascus Governorate.

A first and fatal case has meanwhile been confirmed in north-east Syria on 2 April, and no cases confirmed so far in the north-west, as testing capacity remains vastly insufficient throughout the country.

“But, if this virus is behaving similarly in Syria to how is has elsewhere — and that is our assumption for now — then tragedy beckons,” he said, emphasizing that a health‑care system decimated by nine years of war cannot be expected to cope with a crisis that is challenging even the world’s richest nations.

Nor, he added, could mitigation measures ever hope to succeed when millions of refugees and internally displaced persons find themselves in crowded camps, without adequate sanitation and with no assets or safety nets to fall back on.

He called for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, an influx of critical medical supplies through the Al Yarubiyah border crossing with Iraq and the Council’s reauthorization of cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey into north‑west Syria.

“COVID-19 and its ramifications will become a multiplier of humanitarian needs in Syria,” he told the Council, a few hours after Geir O. Pedersen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, briefed its 15 members on the country’s political situation.  (See Press Release SC/14173.)

“More than ever, this demands a response that uses every possible means of reaching people in need, wherever they are located, and ensures that measures taken outside Syria, which would restrict access to essential medical and other related supplies, are reorganized so that they do not have residual effect,” he said.

Strongly condemning a bomb attack in the northern city of Afrin on 28 April in which as many as 43 people, including several children, were killed, he said that intermittent shelling continues in north-west Syria almost every day, despite calls from the Secretary-General and others for a worldwide ceasefire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been no air strikes, however, since the Russian Federation and Turkey announced a ceasefire on 6 March, prompting 135,000 displaced people to return to towns and villages in front-line areas outside Government control — only to find their homes destroyed and their families gripped by malnutrition.

Drawing the Council’s attention to the Secretary-General’s latest humanitarian report on Syria (document S/2020/327), he also recalled that no humanitarian convoy has reached the Rukban camp for displaced persons, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, since September 2019.  Access is urgently needed to provide help to its vulnerable population and to support voluntary departures, he stated.

In the ensuing discussion, several speakers, emphasizing the danger of COVID-19 sweeping across Syria, urged immediate Council action to re-open the Al Yarubiyah border crossing.  Some also discussed the recent report of a Board of Inquiry established by the Secretary-General into the 2019 attacks against hospitals and other civilian facilities on the United Nations deconfliction list, which concluded that parties to the Syrian conflict failed to abide by their obligations under international law.  Syria’s delegate, meanwhile, called for the lifting of sanctions, saying that they are hindering efforts to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Germany’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Belgium, said that after nine years of war, nearly half of Syria’s health‑care facilities have been severely damaged or destroyed.  Medical equipment and health‑care workers are in short supply, while more than 6 million internally displaced persons are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and other diseases.  Citing the Secretary-General’s report, he said that three months after the closing of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing, cross-line humanitarian assistance inside Syria via Damascus is falling woefully short.  Given the facts on the ground, the Council should consider reopening a border crossing point in the north-east urgently.  “The spread of the virus cannot be stopped by Council tactics, but only by test-kits, protection equipment and ventilators,” he said.  He went on to say that the results of the Board of Inquiry must be followed up, as impunity for those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law is not an option.

Tunisia’s representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to compound the suffering of the Syrian people after a particularly harsh winter of violence and terrorism.  Echoing calls for a ceasefire, he said that a hybrid approach which combines cross-border and cross-line aid deliveries is vital, especially in northern Syria.  Such an approach must be incremental, in a way that respects and ultimately restores Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.  He added that cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access needs to be recalibrated, especially in the north-east, to ensure a principled delivery of medical and other forms of aid.  That could be achieved by exploring the feasibility of air, land and sea options, in collaboration with the Syrian Government and based on the United Nations assessment of needs.

The United Kingdom’s representative, expressing deep concern about the spread of COVID-19, welcomed a recent increase in cross-border aid into north-west Syria and the maintenance of the ceasefire agreed between the Russian Federation and Turkey on 5 March.  Such efforts are helping humanitarian agencies to meet huge needs in Idlib and to focus on the threat of COVID-19.  As such, he added, the evidence is clear that the United Nations cross-border mandate must continue past July.  Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a matter of humanity, not of politics, he said, pointing to a report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that 69 per cent of medical facilities are not receiving needed supplies at a time when authorities in Damascus are taking three to four months to respond to medical delivery requests in the north-east.  “We must put aside previous political differences,” he said.  “We must enable the United Nations to use all modalities for the specific purpose of preventing a health disaster for as long as coronavirus poses such a threat.”

Indonesia’s representative said that, during the holy month of Ramadan, the Syrian people — acutely vulnerable to COVID-19 — deserve mercy and compassion.  The Council must focus on ensuring that humanitarian responses are well‑distributed to those in need.  More than ever, Syria needs a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire.  Enhanced and sustained humanitarian access must be given to all requested areas, he said, stressing the need for more testing kits and personal protective equipment, as well as enhanced virus testing capacity.  Turning to the Board of Inquiry report, he stressed the importance of preventing similar incidents in the future and urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international law and international humanitarian law.

Viet Nam’s delegate said that the pandemic will rub salt in the wounds of the people of Syria, where there are no signs that the humanitarian situation is improving.  He urged all parties in Syria to fully cooperate with the United Nations and others to ensure humanitarian access and encouraged the Government of Syria to facilitate the approval of humanitarian deliveries, especially of medical supplies in the north-east.  Citing the link between the security and humanitarian situations, he strongly urged all parties to heed calls for a ceasefire.  He also called upon the international community and humanitarian partners, in working with Syria, to identify and ensure the delivery of the supplies needed to tackle the humanitarian crisis and the pandemic.  “This fight is crucial to the political process and the future of Syria,” he said.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines recognized Syria’s efforts to suppress the virus, including travel restrictions and curfew, but added that a balance must be struck between maintaining such necessary measures and scaling up the humanitarian response.  “Timely, safe, sustained and unimpeded access throughout the country remains essential,” she said, urging all parties to continue dialogue in that regard.  She reiterated her country’s appeal for the lifting of unilateral coercive economic measures.  She also took note of the Board of Inquiry’s report, saying that the targeting of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure should not be tolerated.

South Africa’s delegate emphasized the importance of minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations, including refugees, internally displaced persons, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.  He encouraged the international community to help ensure that Syrians get the testing equipment they need.  Collecting test samples, however, will be challenging for those who live in camps in north-east Syria and in areas where hostilities are ongoing.  He went on to stress that precautionary measures at border crossings prompted by the pandemic must not interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Syria’s representative said that some Council members are still trying to use the Council to defame the Government of his country “under the pretext of pretentious care and lethal affection”.  That is manifested by the large number of meetings on the situation in Syria, including one a few days ago between the five permanent members and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs that discussed minor aspects relating to the humanitarian situation.  Recent days have seen a feverish competitive rush to come up with a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Such efforts reflect how some are pursuing political views at the expense of international law and humanity.  While the Secretary-General and other senior officials have called for the lifting of unilateral coercive measures to enable affected countries, with a total of 2 billion people, to respond to the pandemic, the United States and its European Union allies seek to empty any proposal, initiative or draft resolution of language that would demand the elimination of sanctions.  Such selfish exclusionary conduct denies any humanitarian concerns expressed by their respective Governments, he said.

Syria, in cooperation with friendly countries also impacted by unilateral coercive measures, has often written to the Secretary-General and the Council to demand the lifting of such inhumane measures, which constitute economic terrorism, he continued.  To date, no Government responsible has given a sincere response.  For its part, the United States Administration has issued “fact sheets” that cover up flagrant violations of international law, the Charter of the United Nations and human rights instruments.  He wondered how the lifting of sanctions against 24 million Syrians could be less important than the Al Yarubiyah border crossing, adding that Germany and Belgium, when drafting Council texts on the humanitarian situation in Syria, only write what some of their allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force them to.

“My delegation reiterates [its] demand to immediately and unconditionally end the unilateral coercive measures that are used by some member Governments as a weapon in their sinful war against my country,” he said.  Such measures, among others, not only deprive Syrians of basic needs, but also prevent health‑care institutions from obtaining test kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment and other material needed to combat COVID-19.  Depriving Syria of essential materials, in addition to the ongoing financial, economic and commercial embargo and the freezing of Syrian assets, negate any humanitarian allegations made by some Council members.  In that context, he reiterated Syria’s gratitude to the Russian Federation and China for standing by his country in difficult times.

He went on to say that the Secretary-General’s reports fail to discuss what countries like Turkey and the United States are doing in Syria, including among other things preventing the Syrian Red Crescent from operating in the north-west and north-east.  Nor do those reports mention the looting of Syria’s wealth, resources, oil and antiquities by the Turkish regime and the United States occupation.  All 66 reports so far prepared by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are biased, selective, lack credibility and over-politicize the humanitarian situation.  They are worthless and a waste of the United Nations time, effort and resources, he stated.

China’s representative said that years of conflict have undermined Syria’s capacity to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and that “the international community must not stand by”.  China is actively cooperating with Syria to combat the virus and the first batch of medical assistance arrived two weeks ago in Damascus.  Last week, during a video meeting with Syria’s Ministry of Health, Chinese medical experts shared their first-hand experiences in combating COVID-19.  “We're willing to continue providing assistance within our capacity to Syria, and call on other countries to do the same,” he said.  The humanitarian issue must be managed in an integrated way, with the role of the Government of Syria brought into full play, he said, emphasizing the need to fully respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  With regard to the Board of Inquiry, China reserves its concern over the way it was established and its working methods.  He reiterated China’s opposition to unilateral sanctions, saying they undermine Syria’s capacity to combat COVID-19.  He also recalled that humanitarian issues in Syria are closely related to the political process, which must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led.

Also participating in the meeting were representatives of France, United States, Russian Federation, Estonia, Dominican Republic and Niger.

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

For information media. Not an official record.