27 October 2020

Syrian Government, Opposition Could Reconvene Constitutional Committee in November, Opening Door to Wider Peace Process, Special Envoy Tells Security Council

Speakers Deeply Worried about Worsening Humanitarian Crisis as Cold Weather Approaches

The parties to the Syrian conflict could reconvene the Constitutional Committee in November, a senior United Nations mediator said during a 27 October Security Council videoconference meeting, emphasizing that such progress could be “a door opener” to a deeper and wider peace process.

“If we are able to find an agreement within the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime during the month of November this year,” said Geir Pedersen, the Secretary‑General’s Special Envoy for Syria, as he presented the Secretary‑General’s latest report on implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions (document S/2020/1031).

Mr. Pedersen said he has been in communication with the Constitutional Committee Co‑Chairs to clarify some points on the agenda.  Ahmad Kuzbari, the Co‑Chair nominated by the Syrian Government, had insisted that the third session’s agenda centred on national foundations and principles should remain for a fourth session, while Hadi al‑Bahra, the opposition‑nominated Co‑Chair, had requested that the agenda focus on the preamble, constitutional principles, rights and freedoms, rule of law, or the structure of the constitution.  In recent days, however, their differences have narrowed, he said, adding that they could reach consensus on the agenda for the next two meetings if some points are properly clarified.

Although the conflict cannot be resolved solely by a constitutional reform or a new constitution, he said progress in the Constitutional Committee could open the door to a broader political process.  The Co‑Chairs should proceed with agendas and workplans in a way that enable all issues to be considered, without making them dependent on agreement on other issues and without preconditions.  The Constitutional Committee, he stressed, should work expeditiously and continuously to produce results without foreign interference and externally imposed timelines, focusing exclusively on its mandate to prepare and draft a constitutional reform for popular approval.

Mr. Pedersen said he sees positive elements, beyond constitutional reform, towards building a wider process, including a view by some key stakeholders that the military phase of the conflict is ending, with a renewed focus on the political process.  “Front lines have not shifted in around eight months.  And the number of civilians killed in recent months has, according to monitoring groups, been at (its) lowest levels since 2011,” he observed.

He reiterated that a political deal to implement Council resolution 2254 (2015) is indeed the way to restore Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and meet the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians.  Citing several security incidents over the past month, including air strikes, he said despite these incidents, front lines are not changing and it ought to be possible to work towards a nationwide ceasefire.  The culmination of a political process would be free and fair elections, pursuant to a new constitution, administered under United Nations supervision, to the highest international standards, with all Syrians including those in the diaspora, eligible to participate, he stressed.

Also briefing the Council was Mark Lowcock, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who warned that the scale of the COVID‑19 outbreak is likely to be far greater than the 13,500 cases confirmed thus far, particularly in densely populated areas such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and crowded displacement camps in the north.  Some health facilities have already been overburdened and water shortages have exacerbated health threats.  “In the north-west, confirmed cases have increased six-fold over the past month, with cases also rising in displacement camps and settlements. Healthcare workers increasing fear being overwhelmed,” he said.  The United Nations COVID-19 response in Syria requires an additional $211 million, to maintain health supply lines, improve water and sanitation in displacement facilities and to make schools safer.

On violence and insecurity affecting civilians and aid workers, he said deadly shelling in front line areas continues, with 20 civilians killed on 24 September in Jorin village, in north-west Hama governorate.  The 26 October airstrike in Armanaz reportedly hit close to displacement camps, the third such bombardment in Idlib over the past week.  Among attacks in Idleb, Afrin, Azaz and Jarablus areas, an improvised explosive device killed at least 18 civilians and injured many more, including three staff of non-governmental organizations tracking COVID-19.  Other aid workers have been injured in drone attacks.  He stressed that violence directed against civilians, including humanitarian workers, is unacceptable.

Reporting that relocation of displaced people from multiple camps and collective shelters in north-east Syria are under way, he stressed that all such movements must be fully informed and voluntary.  Food prices are relatively stable but 90 per cent higher than six months ago, he said, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, and an increase in child marriages has been noticed.  Bread and other shortages have been exacerbated by wildfires and the fuel crisis.

Turning to humanitarian access, he stressed the importance of regular access to the water pumping station in Al Hasakeh.  Also in the north-east, a large but delayed and reduced crossline shipment of World Health Organization medical supplies was completed last month, after being first intended for cross-border delivery from Erbil in January.  All hospitals that previously depended on cross-border operation have now received at least one shipment through crossline deliveries, and there has been some progress in reaching primary health centres and mobile medical units.  Still, “crossline assistance, so far, is simply not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs in north-east Syria”, he said, pointing to the lack of meaningful progress in the United Nations efforts to deliver life-saving aid in Rukban.

Humanitarian agencies, he said, have continued to address the challenges resulting from the reduction to one authorized border crossing into north-west Syria.  The trans-shipment hub at the remaining authorized crossing at Bab al-Hawa has been expanded and roadway improvements are being made to areas previously serviced through Bab al-Salam.  Significant challenges remain, however.

In September, the Syria Humanitarian Fund, which his office administers, made its largest ever allocation of $40 million to support projects across 93 Syrian subdistricts, he said.  The Syria Cross-border Humanitarian Fund is also preparing its next allocation for north-west Syria, with a focus on helping people survive the winter, as are aid agencies, who plan to reach 3.1 million people across the country.  Donors have provided 70 per cent of required funding, but a further $24 million is still needed to prevent a repeat of the horrific scenes of last winter of displaced families living out in the open in the freezing cold.  “Our colleagues on the ground are working tirelessly to get families in all of Syria the supplies they need before temperatures drop.  To do that, they need resources, they need access, and they must be protected,” he said.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members exchanged views on progress in the Constitutional Committee, the current conditions for the safe, dignified, informed and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as the fate of tens of thousands of detained, abducted or missing Syrians.  They also expressed concern about the recent airstrikes in Idlib and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the worsening humanitarian situation in the country.  

The representative of the United States said the lack of progress by the Constitutional Committee is unacceptable, adding that the Syrian regime has stymied its work by refusing to agree to an agenda or a date for any future meeting.  “It is time now to tell the Assad regime that enough is enough,” he said, calling on all the parties to commit to the United Nations-facilitated process.  The Council should do everything in its power to stop regime representatives from further derailing the Constitutional Committee’s work into 2021, when elections are scheduled to take place.  “Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner” which would include the Syrian diaspora, he said, calling on the United Nations to expedite its planning to ensure the upcoming polls are credible.  Meanwhile, the Special Envoy should take measures to identify who is blocking progress and press the Syrian regime to act in line with its prior agreements on the Constitutional Committee.

He described the international conference on the return of the displaced populations to be held in Damascus in November as inappropriate, stressing that no military organization should be allowed to organize refugee returns and that the conditions in Syria are still not safe for a widespread return of refugees.  Recalling that the Russian Federation formally withdrew from its deconfliction arrangement with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2019 — thereby putting civilians at risk — he said Moscow is not a credible organizer of any discussion of refugee returns.  For that reason, the United States does not plan to attend the conference and urges other countries to consider doing the same.  Washington, D.C., continues to stand by its imposition of the Caesar Act, which is aimed at isolating the regime and ensuring that the Syrian people can have the future they deserve.

Belgium’s representative, also speaking for Germany, as the co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file, emphasized that accountability for grave crimes in Syria — including violations against civilians and attacks on humanitarian personnel — are prerequisites for peace and stability.  Expressing concern about the challenges posed by the upcoming winter, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said Brussel and Berlin are not willing to accept the logic put forward for the closure of the Bab al-Salaam crossing point, nor for putting humanitarian workers at further risk.  Years of institutional deterioration caused by war have led to deepening food insecurity and a collapse of the health system, while some parts of the countries are also affected by water shortages.  “The high number of COVID-19 cases in the region can be linked directly to insufficient access to sanitation,” he said, adding that the low rate of testing indicates that the current number of cases “are just the tip of the iceberg”.  The Council must focus more on the humanitarian situation in Syria, he stressed, deploring that such attention is being further reduced by combining today’s humanitarian meeting with a political one.

Speaking in his national capacity, he echoed concerns about the lack of significant progress on the Constitutional Committee while also voicing regret over the lack of progress on critical confidence-building mechanisms, including the release of prisoners.  It is up to the Syrian authorities to put in place the conditions that allow all people to live safely and with dignity, he said.

France’s representative said that despite the efforts of the Special Envoy, the political process is completely deadlocked.  “One year after its creation, the Constitutional Committee's record is almost nil,” he said.  “The masks are coming off and we should not delude ourselves:  this process has become an end in itself, allowing the regime and its supporters to gain time.”  It is more urgent than ever that the parties finally start substantive discussions on the constitution, he said, encouraging the Special Envoy to work on all elements of resolution 2254 (2015).  Work must also be done to prepare free and fair elections, under United Nations supervision.  Paris will not recognize the results of elections that do not comply with provisions set out in resolution 2254 (2015).  In the absence of any significant progress on the political front, France and its partners will not deviate from their line on sanctions, reconstruction and the return of refugees, he said, welcoming the adoption of sanctions by the European Union against seven new ministers of the Syrian Government.  The conditions for the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Syrian refugees are not yet in place, he added, rejecting any attempt to politicize the subject of refugee return.

The United Kingdom’s representative recalled that about a year ago, the Security Council issued a presidential statement that described the first meeting of the Constitutional Committee as the beginning of an end to the Syrian conflict.  However, little progress has been made with only two meetings held since then.  Similarly, implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) lacks progress.  Not enough detainees have been released and the condition for the safe, voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons has not been met.  Joining his counterpart from the United States, he said the United Kingdom will not attend an international meeting on refugee returns to be held in Damascus as the location is not neutral.  Expressing concern about the humanitarian situation and the need to scale up aid delivery, he highlighted the urgent need for a political settlement, calling on the Syrian regime to engage in discussions on the matter.

Niger’s representative supported the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Syria to facilitate COVID-19 control, humanitarian relief and political progress.  Stressing that the Syrian crisis will only be resolved by a peaceful political process, he welcomed the most recent initiatives for mediation toward that end.  Underlining that the humanitarian and political tracks are fully interlinked, he called on Council members to keep in mind the daily suffering of the Syrian people.

China’s representative stressed the need for tangible progress in a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, noting that Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected and outside actors should not interfere in counter-productive ways.  He called on the Syrian parties to heed appeals for a ceasefire.  Arguing that foreign occupation has caused turbulence in Syria and beyond, he warned that terrorists are bolstering their attacks.  The international community should support Syria in defending its national security and stability.  Noting the fragile economic situation and the Government’s efforts to respond, he called for international support for reconstruction without preconditions or pressure on the Government.  He further called for the immediate lifting of unilateral coercive measures, maintaining that vulnerable groups bear the brunt of the impact.  Noting also the vulnerability of Syria to COVID-19, he called for greater international support for the Government in that context, noting that his country has done so.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that Syria’s dire humanitarian issues will not improve in the absence of peace and stability, stressing the importance of sustained momentum by the Constitutional Committee.  She underlined the need for the engagement of all stakeholders, particularly women, and called for the quick resolution of agenda differences to allow discussions to recommence.  It is imperative that the ceasefire agreement be respected, and that all arbitrarily detained civilians be released, with families informed of the fate of missing persons.  Supporting cross-border aid delivery, he called for further partnership to scale up the humanitarian response, lift unilateral coercive measures and facilitate the voluntary return of the displaced, arguing that international aid to rebuild infrastructure is crucial for receiving them. 

South Africa’s representative voiced concern about the recent escalation of hostilities in Idlib, which could jeopardize the already-precarious ceasefire, as well as the continued presence of armed groups and their external support.  Describing the Constitutional Committee as an important dialogue platform, he called on the parties to commit to making more tangible progress.  Turning to the humanitarian situation, he said continued violence, a weakening economy exacerbated by unilateral sanctions and the impact of COVID-19 have worsened existing challenges.  As the closure of the Bab al-Salam crossing point has made aid delivery into the northeast more difficult, deliveries must be scaled up and the safe, unimpeded and impartial delivery of humanitarian relief must be ensured.  Welcoming today’s joint briefing, he underlined South Africa’s longstanding view that Syria’s political and political tracks are intertwined and cannot be separated.

Indonesia’s representative joined other speakers in voicing deep concern over the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in Syria, citing the country’s reduced capacity.  “Despite challenges, enhanced humanitarian responses are urgently needed,” he said, welcoming efforts to scale up the delivery of humanitarian assistance following the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing.  All delivery modalities, including both cross-border and crossline, should be considered in light of the upcoming winter.  “No politicization, only saving lives,” he stressed, noting the escalation of violence in Idlib with deep concern and calling on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.  Noting that the Constitutional Committee should continue to advance its work with the support of the United Nations, he called for step-by-step efforts to build a broader political process for the benefit of the Syrian people.

Germany’s representative condemned the latest airstrikes by the Russian Federation that killed civilians.  Moscow and Beijing bear huge responsibilities for the aggravated humanitarian crisis, as they vetoed a resolution that would have allowed the passage of humanitarian assistance through more cross-border crossings.  He urged Moscow to use its influence to convince the Syrian regime to stop its delaying tactics in constitutional reform.  Planned elections, if held under the present circumstances, will not be recognized.  The safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees is not possible under the current condition.  There is no single incident that European Union sanctions on Syria have prevented humanitarian aid, he said, pledging that the bloc will continue its punitive measures.  Stressing that there will be no reconciliation and reconstruction without accountability, he called for follow-ups to United Nations investigative reports on atrocity crimes committed in Syria.

Tunisia’s representative said that, until a political solution has been reached, efforts must be scaled up to ensure the delivery of principled, life-saving assistance by means of crossline and cross-border modalities.  Expressing concern about the impact of COVID-19 on Syrians’ livelihoods, food security, access to health care and education — as well as on their enjoyment of basic rights — he described dramatic levels of food and water insecurity as particularly disturbing as they are likely to drive hunger, poverty and conflict, and hinder COVID-19 prevention measures.  The delivery of aid, as well as COVID-19 prevention and response measures, would be more efficient if they could rest on the cooperation of all parties and on respect for international law.  Against that backdrop, he urged the parties in Syria to put the interest of the people first and seek commonalities aimed at reaching an agreement on the date and agenda for the next round of negotiations.

Estonia’s representative expressed deep regret that the Constitutional Committee was unable to meet this month, the first anniversary of its launch, condemning the Syrian regime’s delaying tactics.  The regime has no political will to move forward with the Constitutional Committee and the broader political process, he said, adding that seeking to hold elections without a new constitution is clear evidence of its lack of political will.  Releasing arbitrarily detained civilians is a vital confidence-building measure and a cornerstone of national reconciliation.  Turning to COVID-19, he said many schools have been closed due to the spread of the pandemic.  The European Union member States have already contributed half of the 12 billion euros pledged at the fourth Brussels conference.

Viet Nam’s representative stressed the urgent need for political progress in Syria to lessen the suffering of the people, particularly in the context of COVID‑19.  A Syrian-led, Syrian owned solution in accordance with Security Council resolutions is the only answer.  In that regard, he looked forward to inclusive dialogue and further progress in the Constitutional Committee, with the assistance of the United Nations and its partners.  He said that stepped-up humanitarian assistance must be facilitated throughout the country through the cooperation of all parties ahead of the winter, with the situation in displaced persons camps adequately addressed.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said the resolution of the conflict rests solidly upon the parties.   Unfortunately, the bar had been lowered in terms of expectations of progress in the Constitutional Committee.  The underlying problem is the parties’ lack of commitment and ambition.  “This cannot continue,” he stressed.  He expressed deep concern about the deprivations of the people in the context of the pandemic and strongly condemned attacks on any civilians, including humanitarian workers.  What is urgently needed, he said, is sustained, timely aid, and a political process that responds to the needs of the people, who have not given up.  “Let us not give up on them,” he urged.

The representative of Russian Federation, Council President for October, spoke in his national capacity, saying that Syria’s humanitarian and political situations are intertwined, and therefore his delegation combined meetings on these two tracks into one to optimize the 15-member organ’s work.  There should not be an artificial deadline to reconvene the Constitutional Committee, as it is Syrian-led, owned process.  It should proceed without external interference.  He implored his German counterpart not to read The New York Times as it contains so much fake news about his country.

Expressing concern about the release of former Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) fighters by the Kurdish force, he said his country supports Syria’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Stressing the need to reconstruct that war-torn country, he highlighted the desire of refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes.  Supporting these vulnerable populations requires financial resources, he said, drawing attention to the international conference on their return to be held in Damascus.  But due to Syrian bias, some delegations are trying to discredit this humanitarian initiative.  Noting that illegal unilateral sanctions deprive Syria of opportunities for sustainable development, he said that the Syrian Government is fulfilling its responsibility to those in need by delivering aid to even the areas not under its control.

Syria’s representative told Council members that recent events unfolding in the Middle East “prove, day after day, the validity of what we have been warning for years”.  The actions of some parties clearly demonstrate their pursuit of narrow self-interests, with decision-makers in three Western countries ready to shed Syrian blood and destroy the credibility of the United Nations Charter.  Today, the effects of those “clumsy Western policies” are evident across the region.  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sees in himself as a “new Ottoman sultan” able to invade neighbouring countries without repercussions.  “These are serious threats to international peace and security and could never have happened without the protection of member States of [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization],” he stressed, recalling that Syria has long asked the Council to hold Turkey accountable for its war crimes.

Describing Ankara’s policies of resource plundering, occupation and demographic “Turkification”, he voiced regret that the Council has shown no solidarity with Syria or other affected countries.  Turkey’s occupation will never impact Syrian sovereignty or change its borders.  He decried the humanitarian impacts of the unilateral coercive measures still imposed against Syria, echoing calls by senior United Nations officials for their lifting — especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic.  Noting Syria’s plans to hold a conference on the return of refugees in November, he expressed hope that parties will participate and help facilitate the safe and dignified return of displaced persons.  He expressed regret that some countries continue to use their veto power to obstruct reconstruction assistance and worsen the challenges facing the Syrian people.  Meanwhile, he emphasized that the success of the Constitutional Committee will only be possible if its work is fully Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, and if there is no external interference whatsoever in its work.

Turkey’s representative, noting the surge of COVID-19 in the north-west of Syria, said that the attacks of the Syrian regime had exacerbated the situation by causing displacement to crowd that area.  He called for the reopening of the Bab al-Salaam crossing point to provide much-needed humanitarian supplies.  The priority in the north-west should be to provide for the urgent needs of the displacement camps, along with repatriation of those who are nationals of other countries.  He also called for alleviation of the water shortage, which he ascribed partly to attacks on the electricity services by terrorists.  Noting that his country is an Astana Process guarantor, he called on the parties to expedite their discussions in the Constitutional Committee in a constructive manner.

He said that for both political and humanitarian reasons the extension of the ceasefire in Idlib is crucial and ceasefire violations must be avoided.  He also reiterated that the PKK/YPG is a terrorist group that poses a serious threat to both his country and to Syrian security.  His country will continue to oppose their attacks and efforts to consolidate power, along with the fight against Da’esh and other terrorist groups.  Noting also that Turkey hosts about 20 per cent of the pre-war Syrian population as refugees, he said international initiatives to return them must consider their interests as his country has.  In response to the statement by the Syrian representative, he said that, given the extent of the Syrian regime’s well-documented crimes, its representative’s accusations are not worthy of his reply.

For information media. Not an official record.