Too many “fleeting opportunities” have been lost to turn dynamics in Syria towards a political path, the Special Envoy told the Security Council in an 18 May videoconference meeting*, as he urged international parties and Syrians alike to take advantage of “some calm” in the near decade of fighting to build trust and unlock progress.
“I believe that Russian-American dialogue has a key role to play here,” Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said. “I encourage them to pursue it.” Building trust between international stakeholders and with Syrians through reciprocal measures is essential. States that discuss Syria in the Astana and “small group” formats are key players too, he assured, as is the Council.
Ultimately, parties must unify around a process led and owned by Syrians, facilitated by the United Nations, guided by resolution 2254 (2015) and meeting the aspirations of all Syrians in a manner that restores sovereignty, he said.
Updating on his activities, he said he had engaged widely among Syrians and heard their concerns about the economy, the fate of detainees and missing persons, and about a political process that has not delivered improvements to their lives. There is a widespread sense that international competition is more prominent than cooperation. “I share these concerns,” he said.
To be sure, progress has been made in Russian-Turkish cooperation in the north-west, pursuant to their March agreement that brought relative calm to Idlib, he said. But mutual attempts at cross-line offensives — most notably by wa-Harid al-Mu’minin — punctuated this calm. An attack that killed several Syrian soldiers prompted strikes on Idlib, as well as rocket fire at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia.
Meanwhile, he said mutual shelling persists, along with improvised device attacks around Afrin and the north-east. Targeted killings, military build-up and clashes continue in the south-west amid reports of airstrikes by Israel in Deir-ez-Zor and Aleppo and indications of a resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in the eastern desert. “We must at all costs avoid reversion to the all-out fighting,” he said. Syria’s instability reverberates as far as Libya, with Syrian fighters recruited and sent to fight on both sides of that conflict.
He urged key players to work together so that significant calm in many areas is sustained and expanded into a nationwide ceasefire. The presence of listed terrorist groups only underlines the need for a cooperative approach in countering them — one that ensures stability, protects civilians and fully respects international humanitarian law.
On the COVID-19 pandemic, he said Syria has not experienced mass outbreaks to date. Of the 64 reported cases, 58 are in Government-controlled areas and 6 are in the north-east. There are currently no reported cases in the north-west. Calling for full and unimpeded humanitarian access — through all modalities, including scaled-up cross-line and cross-border access — he drew attention to public assurances by relevant States that their sanctions relating to Syria neither ban the flow of humanitarian supplies nor target medicine and medical devices.
More broadly, he said he is awaiting news on detainees, abductees and missing persons, stressing that large-scale and unilateral releases — and more meaningful actions on missing persons — have never been more needed. Damascus and all other Syrian parties must step up their efforts.
“We know that the crisis in Syria will not be resolved by a new constitution alone,” he said. “But if the Constitutional Committee could work seriously, it could build trust, make an important contribution to a political settlement, and be a door-opener.”
For his part, he said he is ready to convene a third session of the Small Body of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva as soon as global travel conditions allow, having recently offered a briefing to its civil society members. He noted that parliamentary elections have been postponed as a precautionary measure amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, as these elections would be under the current constitutional framework, the United Nations is not specifically mandated — nor has it been requested — to engage on them.
His office is working towards free and fair elections — pursuant to a new Constitution and the political process outlined in resolution 2254 (2015) —administered under United Nations supervision in accordance with the highest standards of accountability and transparency and inclusive of all eligible Syrians, including the diaspora.
In the ensuing discussion, several delegates stressed that the United Nations must be at the centre of efforts to unlock the political process, calling on parties to fully implement resolution 2254 (2015).
The Russian Federation’s representative disputed accounts that Syria is avoiding dialogue in the Constitutional Committee. Leaks from videoconference platforms can undermine efforts and it would be unacceptable if the settlement process breaks down over confidentiality reasons. Moscow will continue its contacts with the parties — both in its national capacity and together with Turkey and Iran within the Astana format. On COVID-19, he said sanctions have made it impossible to carry out banking transactions from Syria, including for the purchase of medical equipment, and he called for those measures to be lifted. The Idlib ceasefire is being maintained. The Russian military and Turkish colleagues patrol designated areas, but radical groups impede their work, confirming the need to divorce moderate opposition from terrorists. Terrorist attacks are notable along the Euphrates River on the east coast, while the problem of foreign terrorist fighters in the north-east persists, with militants escaping beyond the region. He asked about what is being done in this regard and for an update on the illegal United States presence at Al-Hol and Rukban camps. Only if these areas return to Government control will stability be possible, he said, urging that steps be taken to restore Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.
The representative of the United States said the regime of Bashar al-Assad is intent on exploiting the COVID-19 crisis for its own political and military advantage. When the Russian Federation and China forced the reduction of cross-border aid points from four to two, they said the United Nations should engage the regime to facilitate cross-line aid from Damascus to civilians. The United Nations has engaged, however gaining the regime’s approval to deliver medical aid to COVID-19 hot spots has taken months. The Assad regime will stop at nothing to pursue a military victory. To restore stability in Syria, the Council must advance all tracks of resolution 2254 (2015) and make every effort to ensure the regime reverses its destructive behaviour against its own people and agrees to an enduring and verifiable nationwide ceasefire. Equally important is progress on the Constitutional Committee, which has not met due to the regime’s unwillingness to convene virtually. She demanded that Damascus release all civilians detained arbitrarily and immediately grant impartial medical and health organizations access to its detention centres. There is one way forward, she said: Full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015).
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the cessation of hostilities is essential to realizing the goals of resolution 2254 (2015). “Now, more than ever, a sustained calm is needed to enable an all-out fight against COVID-19,” he said, calling for women’s meaningful participation in the political process to ensure fair and balanced outcomes. Action on the issue of missing persons and detainees also should be prioritized and unilateral coercive measures lifted, enabling Syria to carry out an effective response to the pandemic. He called on the Council to set aside geopolitical quarrels and unite in support of Syria and its people.
Indonesia’s delegate called for continued efforts on Syria’s political track, while noting that “it is easier said than done”. He urged all the parties, including the Council, to extend their cooperation to the United Nations-facilitated efforts. Calling for a nationwide ceasefire, he stressed that the relative calm in the north-west cannot be taken for granted. The risk of an escalation as tensions flare needs to be immediately addressed, he said, adding: “We must not unravel what little progress we have thus far.” As it will take more than a ceasefire to combat COVID-19, a coordinated effort between all parties, including the Government and the World Health Organization, is critical. Efforts towards a renewed political framework must continue even among efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak, he stressed, while calling for international support and spotlighting the need to protect the most vulnerable.
China’s representative echoed concerns about the impact of COVID-19 in Syria, as well as calls for an urgent ceasefire and de-escalation to combat the pandemic. Expressing support for a political solution to the conflict, he urged the parties to engage constructively with each other and maintain dialogue within the framework of the Constitutional Committee. “The future of Syria must be decided by the Syrians on their own, without foreign interference,” he said. Warning that terrorist groups are seeking to take advantage of the current situation, he urged the Council to play close attention to such attacks and voiced support for the Special Envoy’s calls for effective, cooperative and targeted counter-terrorism efforts. Containment and prevention measures are crucial to prevent transmission of COVID-19, he added, pledging to support Syria in combating the virus and calling for the lifting of all unilateral sanctions on the country.
Viet Nam’s representative urged all actors to heed the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in order to combat COVID-19 and advance Syria’s political process. The Council must stand united, taking advantage of any viable diplomatic efforts to help Syrians through the current impasse, and to provide unwavering humanitarian support. He expressed support for a Syrian-led and owned political solution that respects the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal State affairs.
The United Kingdom’s representative expressed concern over clashes between armed groups and regime forces south of the “M4”, as well as regime shelling into the Idlib de-escalation zone. He condemned attacks by ISIL/Da’esh and expressed concern over the rise in violence in the south, which could jeopardize reconciliation agreements in that area. He requested an update from his Russian colleagues on the implementation of those 2018 accords, noting that localized ceasefires must lead to one that is nationwide. Also, local authorities must cooperate in confronting COVID-19, with medical supplies and aid reaching those in need. “Goods and medical supplies used for humanitarian purposes are not subject either to European Union sanctions or to United Kingdom national sanctions,” he clarified. His country and its United States and European partners are the leading aid donors, including in regime-held areas. The problems facing the health sector stem from the Syrian regime’s brutal conduct of the war. To see the sanctions removed, the regime must engage with the United Nations political process to end the conflict. Indeed, nearly six months have passed since the Constitutional Committee met. “We cannot let hard won progress on this front be lost because of lethargy and disinterest from Damascus,” he said, urging the Russian Federation to bring its influence to bear on its “Syrian clients” and more broadly urging the regime to both ensure the widespread release of political prisoners and medical care for those still in detention.
The representative of Niger said a ceasefire is critical for progress in the political process, as well as for the smooth and swift conduct of humanitarian operations, especially in the north-east and Idlib province. The Russian-Turkish ceasefire must be supported, as it has helped to lower hostilities while Syria deals with COVID-19. He called on the Astana guarantors, the Council and the Special Envoy to build on this momentum to make advances on the political front as mandated by resolution 2254 (2015). The formula for ending the crisis must be inspired by Syrians themselves, he said, calling on all parties to be flexible during Constitutional Committee negotiations, and to “show empathy in these unprecedented times”. While the Government has the right to fight terrorism, it must respect international human rights and humanitarian obligations.
The representative of France said coordinated action is needed to counter Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and called the resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh “extremely worrying”. He expressed deep concern that resolution 2254 (2015) has not been implemented and that deadlock on the Constitutional Committee persists, with Syria’s Government opposing agreement on its agenda, and now, taking advantage of COVID-19 to refuse the holding of a videoconference meeting. The opposition, meanwhile, has demonstrated openness and flexibility and he called on the Special Envoy to make clear when he deems progress no longer possible. He called for the large-scale release of detainees and access to all detention facilities, stressing that the last Astana meeting did not yield any progress. The United Nations must be at the centre of efforts to unlock the political process and implement resolution 2254 (2015). A broader political process must be launched, based on all elements of resolution 2254 (2015). This includes establishing a safe, neutral environment through confidence-building measures. Stressing that France will not recognize the results of any elections that do not meet the standards for a free, fair and transparent ballot, he said the crimes of the Syrian regime cannot go unpunished and expressed support for all efforts to preserve evidence and fight impunity.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said the Council needs to be more productive than ever to revitalize a broad political process in Syria. “The COVID-10 pandemic is, by all accounts, forcing Governments, communities and people around the world to think beyond the current situation and build a new future for themselves,” he said, stressing that Syrians, like all people, deserve protection from the virus and assurances that if they become infected it will not be a death sentence. They also deserve a sustainable, long-lasting nationwide ceasefire; the ability to return to their homes; and basic needs that are met within the framework of an inclusive and just rule of law. Underlining the need for the political process to move forward, he stressed: “We cannot afford to come again, month after month, to repeat the same recipe for action.” The Government, the opposition and civil society must unite in support of the Syrian people and those with influence over the parties should promote dialogue and cooperation.
The representative of Tunisia said that while there has been a significant reduction of violence in Syria, calm nonetheless remains cautious in the north-west, tensions persist in the north-east, terrorism is on the rise in central regions and security is fragile in the south. All parties must uphold their commitments, exercise self-restraint and work together to maintain calm throughout Syria. Collective efforts are also needed to eradicate Council-designated terrorist groups, he said, emphasizing that the Idlib ceasefire is a temporary solution until parties address the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other extremist groups. As COVID-19 has halted Constitutional Committee discussions, he looked forward to the convening of a third round in Geneva when the situation allows, urging Syrian parties to exercise flexibility, seek commonalities and engage constructively and without preconditions in the negotiations. The only viable way forward is a political settlement with Syrian ownership and leadership, along with United Nations sponsorship in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015).
The representative of South Africa joined other speakers in calling on the parties to work towards a permanent ceasefire, which will pave the way for an environment in which an inclusive, Syrian-led dialogue can take place. Noting that the road map for achieving a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the conflict is laid out in resolution 2254 (2015), he called for all sides to adhere to its provisions and ensure its full implementation. The Council and the international community should lend its support to the Constitutional Committee, he said, welcoming the United Nations readiness to convene its third meeting as soon as global travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. For those processes to be successful, it is imperative that external interference in Syria come to an end. He also echoed calls for a nationwide ceasefire to allow the Syrian Government, the United Nations and implementing partner agencies to adequately respond to the pandemic.
Estonia’s representative, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity to emphasize that the Assad regime has distanced itself from the political process, with plans to organize parliamentary elections in 2020, a violation of the road map set out in the resolution 2254 (2015). Pointing out that the announcement of a general amnesty did not lead to a unilateral release of arbitrarily detained people, he said the European Union has been clear that none of the sanctions will be lifted. “We demand Syria to act in line with resolution 2254 (2015)”, he said, disputing Government claims that sanctions affect the response to COVID-19, and indirectly hinder the import of medical supplies and equipment. This claim also was just now made by the Russian Federation. “This is not true,” he insisted. Any procurement difficulties signal that companies do not want to do business with Syria. “Affiliating themselves with a Government […] known for arbitrary detention and chemical attacks is simply considered bad marketing,” he said. Sanctions have nothing to do with this negative perception.
The representative of Syria said his country is committed to maintaining its sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. The Turkish regime is violating its international obligations, as well as the Adana agreement, the Sochi, Astana and Moscow understandings and Council resolutions on combating terrorism. It sponsors affiliated terrorist groups operating in northern Syria, which have taken advantage of the calm following the Moscow agreement and preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic to reorganize their forces.
He cited an attack on a military point by Hurras Al-Din and the Turkistan Islamic Party attack in the north-western village of Tanjara, and destruction of a tower on Zayzoun power plant near Idlib by the Turkistan Islamic Party, pointing also to Turkey’s installation of cellular communications stations inside Syrian territory, which provide coverage to terrorist groups in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the United States is building a base in the north-east Deir ez-Zor aiming to tighten control over Syrian oil fields, while Israel carries out military attacks over the occupied Syrian Golan. These acts of aggression are “the tip of the iceberg” of those seeking to obstruct settlement of the crisis.
Throughout, the Council has remained silent, he said, stressing that Syria will not give up its right to defend its homeland and liberate its territories, whether occupied by the United States, Turkey, Israel or their terrorist affiliates. Any foreign military presence in Syria without explicit Government consent will be dealt with as an aggression. The success of the political process requires ending the illegal presence of foreign military forces, support for terrorism, unilateral coercive measures and the imposition of conditions by hostile States.
“My country is a victim of unprecedented and prescribed terrorism sponsored by Member States of [the] Council and beyond” he said, describing Syria as a “safety valve” for stability and moderation in the region. It is unfortunate the Special Envoy has not condemned actions by the Turkish regime and its affiliates or commented on the dropping of hot air balloons on farms in the southern town of Al-Shaddady by the United States, just one day ago.
The representative of Iran said the crisis in Syria must be settled through political means, noting that while the Constitutional Committee should be supported to do its work, any external pressure must be avoided and any possible assistance to the Committee, even by the United Nations, must be extended only in response to a request by the Committee itself, in line with its rules of procedure. Iran rejects separatist agendas and attempts to create new realities on the ground, including through illegitimate self-rule initiatives. Emphasizing that Syria’s sovereignty must be respected, he said foreign forces whose presence is not permitted by the Government must leave Syrian territory. He pointed to areas occupied by the United States under the mask of countering terrorism, and aggressions by Israel, which violate international law. Syria can decide how and when to exercise its sovereign right to self-defence, he said, stressing that Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan is illegal.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Belgium, Germany and Turkey.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.