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19 August 2020

Constructive International Diplomacy Needed to Support Long-Delayed Meeting of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, Special Envoy Tells Security Council

Members Call for Nationwide Ceasefire, Release of Political Prisoners, while Urging Meaningful Action on Missing Persons

Preparations are well under way to convene the Small Body of the Syrian‑owned and Syrian-led Constitutional Committee in Geneva on 24 August, but ending the conflict in the country also requires constructive diplomacy among key international players, the senior United Nations negotiator facilitating peace negotiations told the Security Council during a 19 August videoconference meeting*.

Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, expressed hope that forthcoming opportunities for direct contacts among key players will enable them to deepen their conversations and bridge the often‑significant gaps between their stated positions.  “I see ample scope for key internationals players to make a difference, working together and with Syrians, step by step, on a range of issues critical to realizing my mandate”, as set out in resolution 2254 (2015).

He went on to cite the release of detainees and abductees, and clarifying the fate of missing persons; creating a safe environment for the return of refugees; a new Constitution and free, fair and inclusive elections under United Nations supervision; addressing the presence of the five foreign armies inside Syria; and fully restoring the country’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity.  “There are also other issues where there remains ample room for constructive diplomacy, such as sanctions and working towards Syria’s economic recovery and prosperity,” he added.  For now, the focus should be on supporting the members of the Constitutional Committee to deepen their work and build some confidence for a political route out of the conflict in Syria, he emphasized, pointing out that the conflict is now in its tenth year.

He went on to note that the Committee brings together the Government of Syria, the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission and the Middle Third List representing Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women, and said its work has been on hiatus for nine months due to differences over its agenda and COVID-19 restrictions.  Encouraging its members to come to Geneva ready to engage “in earnest and on the substance”, based on the agenda agreed by the two Co-Chairs and without preconditions, he stressed:  “This is important because millions of Syrians continue to face immense suffering and do not have the luxury of time to await a political breakthrough of some kind.”

Highlighting both the collapse of the Syrian economy and the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country, including within camps for internally displaced persons, he asked for the Council’s continued support in terms of humanitarian access to those in need of relief, and sustaining sanctions waivers to ensure access to food and essential medical supplies.  He went on to reiterate the need for a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire — as called for in resolution 2254 (2015) — to enable an all-out effort to combat the pandemic.

Summarizing the security situation, he said that calm in the north-west, the result of efforts by the Russian Federation and Turkey, continues largely to hold.  However, there have been reports over the past month of sustained attacks, including the targeting of a joint Russian-Turkish patrol with an improvised explosive device.  Urging the Russian Federation and Turkey to contain all escalatory incidents and dynamics, restore calm and continue their cooperation, he stressed that all relevant actors must also ensure that actions directed at Council-listed terrorist groups are effective, targeted and in line with international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) continue to grow in frequency and impact, he noted.  As for north-eastern Syria, ongoing skirmishes and security incidents in and around Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ain resulted in civilian casualties; an attack on 18 August against Russian Federation troops in Deir-ez-Zor left a Russian general dead and two officers injured; and there were reports earlier this week of an altercation between Syrian Government and United States forces.  In the south-west, he added, geopolitical tensions remain acute, with Israel saying it has carried out air strikes on military targets in the vicinity of the Syrian Golan Heights.

The 150-member Constitutional Committee, established in September 2019, has met only twice, most recently from 25 to 29 November 2019.  Its Small Body, comprising 45 members, bears primary responsibility for drafting a fresh Constitution.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the United States said it is ironic that the Council is discussing the political situation in Syria just five days after its vote on renewing the arms embargo on Iran, noting:  “Iran’s support for its proxies in Syria only helps to bolster the Assad regime and undermine the United Nations process.”  She went on to emphasize that next week’s Constitutional Committee meeting should move beyond past discussions of first principles and focus instead on constitutional reforms.  United Nations facilitators should push back against any attempt by any delegation to stall the Committee’s substantive work, she said, expressing hope that Committee members will stay in Geneva for weeks, not just a day or two.  Hopefully, they will agree to a schedule of future rounds of meetings throughout the fall of 2020, thus showing the Syrian people that progress is being made.

She went on to announce that Jim Jeffrey, United States Special Envoy for Syria, and Special Envoy Joel Rayburn will travel to Geneva next week to underline her delegation’s support for the United Nations-led political process.  She called upon the Assad regime “and its Russian and Iranian enablers” to commit to the political process by halting all further attacks and to immediately release the more than 100,000 Syrians who remain in arbitrary detention.  She went on to underline that there will be no reconstruction, no diplomatic recognition and no sanctions relief until a political process, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), is irreversibly under way.  “It is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war and rampant corruption to come to an end,” she said.

Niger’s representative expressed concern about the humanitarian situation, as the economic crisis deepens poverty and leaves more and more people in need.  Emphasizing that there can be no military solution to the conflict, he called upon all parties to demonstrate flexibility when the Constitutional Committee meets again in Geneva next week.  To build confidence, both sides should demonstrate empathy by releasing detainees and clarifying the fate of missing persons.  He went on to emphasize that the Government of Syria, like any other, has the right to fight terrorism in compliance with international human rights law, humanitarian obligations and the principle of proportionality.

Estonia’s representative expressed concern over sporadic clashes in the Idlib area and the persistent threat of terrorism, adding that a roadside bombing in Deir ez-Zor on 18 August was likely the work of ISIL extremists.  Expressing hope that the next round of Constitutional Committee talks will speed up the political process and address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian opposition, he emphasized, however, that a new Constitution is not enough.  Estonia calls for the release of political prisoners and those who have been arbitrarily detained, clarification of the fate of missing persons, and free elections under United Nations supervision.  In the meantime, Estonia and the European Union remain committed to a lasting solution based on resolution 2254 (2015) and the 2012 Geneva communiqué.

South Africa’s representative welcomed the forthcoming Constitutional Committee meeting in Geneva as a long-awaited step on the path to a Syrian-led and -owned political process.  Calling on all participants to actively engage, he said the only way forward is through meaningful dialogue and an effective ceasefire that would allow the political process to continue.  Parties should continue to engage in trust and confidence measures.  Turning to the rapid spread of COVID-19, he called on all parties to release detainees and political prisoners.  Welcoming the Syrian authorities’ measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, he said the international community must lift unilateral coercive economic measures imposed on the Government with a view to enhancing response efforts.  Reiterating concerns at the continued presence of foreign and armed forces in Syria, he said external interference must end, especially in terms of the support provided to these armed groups.  Equally concerned at the continued presence of terrorist groups, he said that, while all States have the sovereign right to address the threat of terrorism in their own countries, actions to counter terrorism must be in compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.  As the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria are interlinked, he called on all stakeholders to promote progress in both areas to ensure a sustainable and peaceful settlement to the conflict.

France’s representative called upon participants in next week’s Constitutional Committee meeting to take part in good faith and without conditions or delaying tactics.  While expressing hope for real progress on the new Constitution, she said:  “Unfortunately, we have every reason to be pessimistic about future discussions.”  Sham parliamentary elections in July demonstrated that the regime is locking itself into a dictatorial logic and following its own timetable, in defiance of resolution 2254 (2015), she said, also citing lack of progress on detained and missing persons as another negative signal.  She emphasized that a lasting and verifiable ceasefire agreement, under the aegis of the United Nations, is essential to resuming the political process and ensuring the smooth delivery of humanitarian aid.  Syria remains far from the safe and neutral environment required for a political transition and free and fair elections in which all Syrians, including refugees and displaced persons, can participate.  She went on to state that, with a major upsurge of COVID-19, in addition to the humanitarian disaster, France and its European Union partners stand resolutely by the Syrian people, as demonstrated by the commitments made at the Brussels IV donors’ conference.

Germany’s representative said his delegation is worried that a new military offensive in or around Idlib will only result in more mass displacements and humanitarian catastrophe.  “This is something that should be avoided at any cost,” he emphasized.  Stressing that the European Union will only lift sanctions when the Syrian regime changes its brutal behaviour, he said next week’s talks in Geneva will be an opportunity for the regime to demonstrate its seriousness about the political process.  He urged the Russian Federation to use its influence over Damascus “in order to create the right spirit”.  He also called upon all parties — in particular the Syrian regime, which holds the overwhelming majority of detainees — to immediately release all arbitrarily detained persons, starting with the most vulnerable:  women, children, the sick, wounded and elderly.  The regime must also grant relevant humanitarian organizations access to prisons and detention facilities, and tell families about the fate of their missing loved ones.  The Security Council, for its part, must live up to its responsibility, join the fight against impunity and ensure that those who commit the most serious crimes under international law are held accountable, he added.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said that a successful outcome in Geneva depends on all parties engaging constructively, in good faith and with mutual respect, emphasizing that their efforts must aim to ease the precarious living situation of the Syrian people and to restore their rights and livelihoods.  He went on to stress that women’s voices must resonate louder than ever, especially within the Constitutional Committee, where their participation must be full and meaningful.  He also underscored the rights of the families of detainees and missing persons, requesting that the Special Envoy do more in that regard.

The United Kingdom’s representative, expressing deep concern about the escalating COVID-19 situation and the apparent erosion of the ceasefire in the north-west, said it is vital that all parties engage genuinely and properly with the process in Geneva and refrain from re-imposing unnecessary conditions.  “Ordinary Syrians, whether they are struggling at home or living difficult lives as refugees, don’t have weeks, months or years to waste,” she pointed out.  Progress on the Constitutional Committee must be accompanied by immediate action on other issues, including the release of political prisoners and the creation of conditions for the return of refugees.  She went on to emphasize that sanctions target individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses, adding that some trade and sectoral restrictions are designed to restrain the Assad regime’s ability to fund and wage war against its own people.  Sanctions do not apply to food, medicine, medical equipment or medical assistance, she noted, rejecting any false equivalence between sanctions and the disastrous effects of regime policies and the refusal by China and the Russian Federation to allow more than one border crossing for humanitarian deliveries.  The problem facing Syria’s health sector is not sanctions, but the regime being more intent on bombing hospitals than building them, she added.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines urged all parties to abide by the ceasefire and to exercise maximum restraint, reiterating calls for a complete and immediate nationwide cessation of hostilities.  She reminded the parties that military and counter-terrorism operations, although necessary for the protection of Syria and the region, must comply with the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.  The COVID-19 pandemic compounds the urgent need for lasting peace and stability in Syria, she said, adding that nationwide calm will allow for a more robust response to the pandemic.  Noting that Syria’s economy is in danger of collapse, she said it was under intensified pressure arising from unilateral coercive measures.  The latter should be lifted as they are inconsistent with international law, frustrate efforts to stabilize and revitalize the economy and now have the potential to undermine Syria’s pandemic response, she said.  Troubled by the unresolved issues of detainees, abductees and missing persons, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines calls for meaningful priority action on those matters, she added.

Viet Nam’s representative said he remains concerned about the overall situation on the ground, including reports of security incidents and resurgent terrorist activities.  Reiterating calls to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from violence, he said that maintaining a sustainable calm period is of vital importance to unlock progress in the political domain.  It is also critical to continue efforts to eradicate terrorism, in accordance with international law, he added.  With the socioeconomic and humanitarian situation getting more volatile and people struggling due to the impact of a severe economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Syria hard, he said, noting that cases increased by 60 per cent in north-eastern Syria in only one week.  He emphasized that controlling the spread of the virus and minimizing its impact are among the most important tasks now.  Sanctions must not undermine the capacity of the Syrian people to ensure their basic daily needs during the pandemic, he stressed.

The representative of Indonesia, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, saying that the Syrian people need sustained support from the international community, including the Council.  They also need progress in addressing the humanitarian situation and advancing a political settlement.  All parties must continue to engage in the Constitutional Committee process because their genuine and meaningful engagement is crucial to securing a productive and substantive round of talks, he said, encouraging all relevant parties to maintain a calm and positive environment during the Constitutional Committee’s forthcoming meeting.  Echoing the Secretary-General’s appeal for a waiver of sanctions that can undermine Syria’s capacity to ensure access to food, vital health supplies and medical assistance to help its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he emphasized that this is the time for solidarity, not exclusion.  He went on to underline the importance of meaningful action on the issue of detainees and missing persons.

Also participating were representatives of the Russian Federation, China, Tunisia, Belgium and Syria.

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

For information media. Not an official record.