Despite slow progress in peace talks and a worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the commitment by the Government and opposition to two upcoming meetings of the Constitutional Committee presents a real opportunity for the warring sides to advance the political process, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Envoy for Syria told the Security Council during a video conference meeting today.
The Committee — established one year ago under United Nations auspices with the goal of forming a new constitution — is set to bring together the parties to the conflict in Geneva for a fourth session from 30 November to 4 December.
“The Committee has not made the kind of progress we hoped for,” said Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar, noting that the agenda for next week’s meeting and a fifth meeting slated for January 2021 present an important opportunity to engage in good faith. “If these sessions proceed in a substantive manner and in the spirit of compromise, we believe they will help build trust and confidence and result in progress.”
Marking commemorations for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, she said Syrian women continue to suffer from sexual and gender-based violence. Efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus have also increased the prevalence of domestic violence, child-marriage and sexual harassment. All segments of society are reeling from severe economic hardship, she stated, adding that bread and energy shortages are having unprecedented effects on the livelihood of all Syrians. “In this context, it is paramount that any sanctions avoid aggravating the plight of civilians,” he underscored.
Ms. Matar said the worsening crisis affecting refugees and internally displaced persons will only improve if all relevant parties enable the safe and well-informed return of these vulnerable populations. High levels of returns are only achievable if programmes are put in place that improve livelihoods, personal security and access to basic services.
A constitutional approach alone will not resolve the crisis, she stated, calling on all relevant stakeholders to engage on issues outlined in resolution 2254 (2015), including efforts towards a nationwide ceasefire, noting that the resolution had put forth the elements required to achieve a political solution to the crisis. Five years after its adoption, the Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is taking stock of what has and has not worked in its implementation, she said, noting that Mr. Pedersen has met with a range of Government and civil society representatives across the region.
Also briefing the Council was Ramesh Rajasingham, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, who noted that 6.7 million people in Syria are internally displaced, a third of which lack proper shelter ahead of the approaching winter season. Further, heavy rains are causing flooding in some areas, including in displacement sites in Idlib and western Aleppo, preventing access to humanitarian aid.
Turning to the economic crisis, he pointed out that the value of the Syrian pound has declined steadily over the past month and that prices are at historic highs. Market prices for bread, diesel and fresh produce increased between September and October by 26, 21 and 44 per cent, respectively, and the price of a national reference food basket is now higher than at any point since the World Food Programme (WFP) started price monitoring in Syria in 2013, up 247 per cent since October last year. People are increasingly unable to feed their families, he said, estimating that 9.3 million people in Syria are food insecure.
On the protection of civilians, he noted that, since the signing of the ceasefire agreement in March between the Russian Federation and Turkey, approximately 240,000 displaced people have returned to southern Idlib and western Aleppo. Some of these places are again coming under attack, with at least eight civilians killed — including children — and at least 15 others injured as a result of shelling and airstrikes in north-west Syria in November. Additionally, at least six humanitarian workers have been killed and six others injured in this area over the past two months.
He next discussed humanitarian access, noting that all United Nations assistance bound for northern Aleppo is being re-routed through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. While efforts continue to bridge gaps in medical assistance in north-east Syria, health services are weak across the country and are being stretched to new extremes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 64,000 people remain at the Al Hol refugee camp — more than half of whom are children under the age of 12 — and the United Nations remains without access to the 12,000 people at the Rukban camp. The Syria humanitarian operation collectively provides assistance to an average of 7.4 million people each month, he said, adding that it represents “an enormous effort to stave off an even worse situation”.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members discussed progress towards convening the Constitutional Committee and the agenda for its upcoming meeting, as well as the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons, particularly in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and risks posed by the coming cold weather period. Council members also touched on existing sanctions against Syria and ways to ensure efforts uphold the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Belgium’s representative, also speaking for Germany as the co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file and delivering his delegation’s final statement in that capacity, stressed that while levels of violence in Syria are lower than in 2019, civilians continue to face serious security threats. As such, efforts must be redoubled to implement the March ceasefire agreement and to push for a United Nations-monitored national ceasefire. “War, mismanagement and corruption have resulted in an unprecedented economic and currency crisis,” he declared, echoing that some 9.3 million Syrians lack food security, with children, persons with disabilities, women and girls disproportionately affected by shortages. Further aggravating the crisis is an inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, partly due to the deliberate targeting of health-care facilities throughout years of conflict. Efforts to maximize humanitarian assistance have been severely restricted, he warned, noting that the closure of crossing points at Yarubiya and Bab al Salam have jeopardized the delivery of humanitarian aid. “It defies logic that some Member States in the Council have chosen to limit humanitarian access in times of tremendous need,” he said.
Speaking in his national capacity, he said that the only way to bring an end to violence in Syria is through an inclusive political transition as outlined in resolution 2254 (2015). Turning to the upcoming fourth session of the Constitutional Committee, he called on Syrian authorities to engage constructively and allow for discussions on constitutional reform. “No further obstruction by Damascus is acceptable,” he said, adding that beyond the Constitutional Committee, progress must be made on confidence-building measures, including the urgent release of political prisoners.
The representative of the Russian Federation welcomed the agreement on the upcoming Constitutional Committee meetings and expressed hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would not disrupt these plans. Warning about the possibility of external interference, he said the Committee’s work is not bound by time constraints. He went on to note that the situation in the territories under consideration is calm and the Syrian army is rebuffing attacks by terrorist sleeper cells, which continue their provocations despite the suspension of hostilities. In Idlib province, attacks on humanitarian workers are ongoing, he said, also drawing attention to Western attempts to reach a ceasefire with these terrorists. Moreover, large-scale funding from some Western States has promoted the overthrow of Syria’s legitimate Government, he warned, also expressing concern about the illegal United States military presence in some areas. This military presence is severing historic ties between various groups in the region and has blocked efforts to restore the country’s territorial integrity.
Continuing, he said the United States has turned a blind eye to the situation in this part of Syria, also citing the ongoing plundering of the country’s oil reserves. He called for the rejection of plans to divide up Syria and prolong its conflict. As such, the visit to the occupied Syrian Golan by officials of the United States represents an act of provocation. Citing unilateral sanctions imposed upon Syria, he said true humanitarian assistance must be provided to the country. On 11 and 12 November, an international conference on the return of Syria’s refugees was held in Damascus, he reported, adding that Moscow assisted in organizing this event. However, the United Nations was represented only as an observer, limiting its ability to participate. Moreover, Washington, D.C., boycotted the event, he reported, pointing out double standards in this regard. The conference proved its worth and gave impetus to a systematic targeted process for refugee return.
The speaker for the United States said that, although the Syrian regime and its allies would prefer that the world ignore today’s briefers and pretend that conditions in Syria are stabilizing and the conflict is over, “reality cannot be more different”. She stressed that lasting peace can only be achieved if the Assad regime and its backers — the Russian Federation, China and Iran — accept a political settlement to the conflict brokered by the United Nations. However, shelling by the Assad regime and Russian warplanes continues to claim civilian lives, Iran supports terrorists in the region and Chinese and Russian obstruction on the Security Council persists. Further, the Russian Federation and the Assad regime are attempting to convince the international community — especially those countries that took in refugees from Syria — that the country is ready for large refugee returns rather than ending their depraved military campaign. As long as the Assad regime continues to ignore and undermine resolution 2254 (2015), Syrians will not be able to return safely.
She called on the United Nations and relevant parties to take confidence-building measures, including the release of arbitrarily held detainees. It is abhorrent that humanitarian workers are threatened as they deliver life-saving aid to the Syrian people, and the loss of three access points only increases the suffering of 11 million Syrians. Noting the approach of winter, she called for increased assistance efforts to meet the needs of 4.2 million people in Idlib, stressing that children cannot be allowed to freeze to death as many did in 2019. She also expressed concern about the 250 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases, according to official numbers, a figure that “represents only the tip of the iceberg” of such cases in Syria.
Germany’s representative said the Syrian regime is systematically delaying the work of the Constitutional Committee until the 2021 presidential elections. “The international community will not be fooled,” he assured the Council, stressing that the results of elections that are not free or transparent will not be recognized. The idea that conflict in Syria is over is and that the situation is moving towards peace and normalization is absurd as the Syrian regime, abetted by Moscow and Tehran, continues to wage war against its own people. “There will be no lifting of European Union sanctions unless the Syrian regime changes its brutal behaviour,” he said, calling for the full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015). The Council must join the fight against impunity and ensure that those responsible for killing and torture in Syria are brought to justice. He concluded by noting that Germany has pledged $24 million to the Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund.
The delegate from Tunisia said there is no alternative to a political solution in Syria that addresses the roots of the crisis and ends the suffering of the Syrian people. This solution must preserve that country’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and end foreign intervention. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he noted the weakness of the Syrian health-care system as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and called on the international community to address points of vulnerability and causes of instability to avoid gaps and worst-case scenarios. Stressing the primary importance of ensuring a sustained ceasefire throughout Syria, he urged all parties to exercise self-restraint and abide by international law to guarantee the safety of civilians and humanitarian workers. He added that, as winter approaches, all parties must facilitate the work of humanitarian aid organizations and guarantee their access across the country.
The speaker for China said his delegation remains committed to a Syrian-owned political process. He urged all parties to narrow their differences through consultations and hold the next round of talks when conditions permit. The Constitutional Committee’s work must remain independent and free from external interference and Syria’s sovereignty must be protected. Calling for the eradication of terrorism in Syria, he spotlighted recent attacks in Idlib in which civilians, humanitarian workers and health workers have been kidnapped and executed. Ceasefire agreements cannot be interpreted as a laissez-faire approach to terrorism, he warned, calling for a sound security environment for Syria’s political process. Moreover, the country’s economic and humanitarian situation must be improved all around, he said, calling on the international community to scale up its assistance to help Syria rebuild its infrastructure and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Cross-border relief and the role of Syria’s Government must be fully leveraged, he said, noting that China has given $130 million in aid to Syria. As the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is rising sharply in Syria, he strongly urged the United States and other countries to lift sanctions.
France’s representative said the Constitutional Committee must begin addressing constitutional reform in earnest and that the Syrian regime is failing to participate in the process in good faith. The lack of progress on the political front is causing the security and humanitarian crisis in Syria to deteriorate further and civilians are the ones who pay the biggest price. “The protection of civilians must be the top priority,” he said, also warning that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic places further strains on society. He called on the Special Envoy to move forward with the full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) in parallel with efforts being undertaken through the Constitutional Committee. Without a credible political solution, France and its partners will not lift sanctions, he said.
The representative of South Africa said that real and tangible progress in the Constitutional Committee requires the end of all external interference, including support to armed groups. Expressing deep concern about continuing violence and the increase of ceasefire violations and hostilities in north-west Syria, he said the use of improvised explosive devices, anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordinances contribute to growing numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. As such, he urged all parties to fully adhere to the Idlib ceasefire agreement, expressing support for the Special Envoy’s call for a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire. In this regard, he highlighted the cooperation between the Russian Federation and Turkey in ensuring relative calm in the north-east. Expressing concern about the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Syria, he observed that they have more than doubled in the last month. As such, the safe, unimpeded and impartial delivery of humanitarian aid and support is more important than ever.
The representative of the United Kingdom, underscoring that both the process for achieving peace and the situation across the country remain in a precarious state, expressed concern over the lack of substantive progress made by the Committee. “There is no excuse for the [Syrian] regime’s obstruction that has artificially prevented the talks from discussing matters of substance,” he asserted, noting that only after agreement has been reached on a new constitution can free and fair elections take place. The humanitarian situation is worsening and there are 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country, with the actual number of cases undoubtedly much higher. To address these acute needs, the United Nations and other humanitarian actors must be given unimpeded access, he stressed, adding that the Moscow-hosted refugee conference in Damascus was “a sham motivated by the desire to promote normalization of the Syrian regime over the interests of Syrian refugees”.
Indonesia’s representative highlighted the urgency to scale up humanitarian responses to address increasing cases of COVID-19 and prepare the population for winter. It is therefore crucial to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in need, he asserted, calling for crossline and cross-border humanitarian access. He further expressed concern about intensifying hostilities in some areas in Syria and said it was imperative to protect civilians and cease hostilities. Maintaining calm in Syria and respecting the ceasefire agreement are key, he said, stressing that “the Syrian people cannot afford any more tensions and conflict in this already difficult situation”.
The delegate from Viet Nam echoed other speakers in saying that the only way to achieve sustained peace and stability is through a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations. He condemned attacks targeting civilians and humanitarian workers and urged all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from escalatory actions. Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic and associated socioeconomic downturn are exacerbating the humanitarian situation, he said that conditions will further deteriorate without adequate preparation for the winter months, urging all parties to ensure timely, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access and to facilitate effective aid operations. He added that sanctions must not undermine the Syrian people’s capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The speaker for Estonia welcomed the announcement of the next round of Constitutional Committee talks and called on the parties to actively engage in these discussions. Regular Committee meetings will build trust between the Syrian regime and its legitimate opposition. Resolving the issue of detainees and missing persons is a cornerstone for national reconciliation and ending the conflict, he said, adding that more than 100,000 people remain detained or missing in Syria, largely at the hands of the Syrian regime. The release of arbitrarily detained persons and identifying those who have lost their lives is at the core of relevant Council resolutions. The March ceasefire agreement provides local populations a break from violence, which is needed in light of the growing numbers of coronavirus cases. However, instability prevails in many parts of Syria, he observed, condemning recent bomb attacks near Al Bab and Afrin.
The representative of Niger said the escalation of hostilities in Syria’s north-west has cost many lives, stressing that the solution to the crisis must be sought on a political rather than military basis through a Syrian-led process. Citing the Deputy Special Envoy, he said a political solution to implement resolution 2254 (2015) is the only way forward, also reiterating the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate national ceasefire in Syria in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, displaced persons are highly vulnerable to contracting the virus, he warned, noting that social distancing is virtually impossible in crowded refugee camps. As such, the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint and contact lines must be simplified in order to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid, he said, also calling for an easing or lifting of unilateral sanctions.
The speaker for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Council President for November, said the lack of political progress in Syria deepens conflict in the country. She urged the international community to contribute towards the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees and internally displaced persons, declaring: “Reconstruction and rehabilitation of infrastructure is indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” To further ensure the safety of civilians, all parties must adhere to recent ceasefire agreements and counter-terrorism operations must comply with international law. The COVID-19 pandemic is straining socioeconomic recovery efforts, she noted, adding that all unilateral coercive measure imposed on Syria must be lifted for its humanitarian needs to be met.
The delegate from the Dominican Republic said the upcoming holding of the fourth and fifth working meetings of the Constitutional Committee demonstrates that the involvement of all parties is required for sustainable peace in Syria. Expressing concern about the increased violence in the north-west of the country, which has cost hundreds of lives, he said it poses serious challenges to the protection of civilians, many of whom are living in deplorable conditions threatened further by the approaching winter. Moreover, he spotlighted rampant food insecurity and the fuel supply crisis, stressing that no human being should be subjected to such conditions. Humanitarian access to regions in need must be granted consistently in a neutral, impartial and independent manner. He called for an urgent solution to the crisis, especially regarding the need for medical assistance in northern Syria.
Iran’s representative warned the Council that certain countries were prolonging conflict in Syria through unlawful and immoral campaigns of occupation and sanctions. “The right to determine the future of Syria belongs only to Syrians,” he declared, adding that principles of sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity must be respected. He called for the immediate withdrawal of United States forces from the country, which he stated are supporting terrorist groups, and condemned Israel’s actions in the Syrian Golan. The true interests of the Syrian people will prevail if the Constitutional Committee can operate without external interference, he stated, further calling for sustained efforts to facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons.
The representative of Syria said that the international conference on the return of Syrian displaced persons and refugees was a significant step to ensure the safe, dignified and voluntary return of these individuals to their places of residence and to reconstruct what terrorism has destroyed. He thanked those Governments who participated in the conference, along with those that boycotted the event as they proved by their own actions the falsehood of their humanitarian concerns. He pointed out that some Western States did not mention combating terrorism in Syria in their statements today, nor did they condemn repeated Israeli aggression. He said that the Council instead heard “weird” statements from Belgium and Germany that European sanctions do not undermine human rights despite being illegitimate and illegal.
He also condemned the 19 November visit by the United States Secretary of State to Israeli settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and the West Bank. This visit affirms the current United States Administration’s bias towards Israel and encourages Israeli occupation authorities to continue their aggressive acts. The United States occupation and its tools of separatist militias continue plundering Syria’s resources, including antiquities. Further, the Turkish regime and its terrorist organizations and mercenaries are using drinking water as a weapon against civilians. Despite these facts, some States lecture on the implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) without fully considering the first sentence of that resolution, which affirms the Council’s commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. Turning to the upcoming meetings of the Constitutional Committee, he stressed that the Committee “is its own master” and that the Syrian people have the exclusive right to make their own future.
The speaker for Turkey said the situation in north-west Syria is particularly alarming because of the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in crowded camps where there are no means of prevention or isolation. Hospitals are struggling and the proportion of health-care workers among confirmed cases has reached 15 per cent. Citing a recent trilateral agreement, he noted that the Turkish Red Crescent, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Health Organization (WHO) have delivered $7.7 million worth of aid to north-west Syria. Since the adoption of Council resolution 2533 (2020) in July, approximately 2,500 trucks have crossed into the region through Bab al-Hawa, which represents only half of the number that crossed during the same time period prior to the adoption. As such, if the Council fails to authorize the Bab al-Salaam crossing point, it condones the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation and a significant rise in Covid-19 cases, he warned. Turkey remains fully committed to a lasting ceasefire in Idlib province and continues to engage with the Russian Federation to implement the Additional Protocol. However, he reported increased attacks in the Idlib De-escalation Area, which could trigger a new humanitarian crisis as well as provide a pretext for terrorist organizations to exploit the situation.
Underlining the importance of accelerating the Constitutional Committee’s work through regular meetings, he called for its next round to focus on substance. Moreover, he pointed out that the Assad regime is holding conferences aimed at gaining legitimacy and repairing the country’s destruction with impunity. His delegation has been discussing the issue of refugee returns in full compliance with United Nations criteria. As such, Turkey is ready to support any initiative reflecting such parameters but will oppose initiatives that attempt to support the Assad regime’s agenda and legitimize its unlawful actions. Turning to the Al Hol camp, he said more than 63,000 people live in miserable conditions there. In this region, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party/People’s Protection Units (PKK/YPG) has threatened Syria’s territorial integrity and carried out bomb attacks on 24 November resulting in scores of civilian casualties. Moreover, the group continues to release members of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) en masse, he reported, stressing: “It truly defies logic when some Member States still insist on portraying PKK/YPG as a ‘reliable partner in the fight against terrorism’”. The international community can no longer remain silent, he said, adding that Turkey will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to safeguard its security.
Taking the floor again at the end of the meeting, Syria’s representative said that the statement by Turkey’s representative was misleading. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has left its borders open to tens of thousands of terrorists from all over the world. These hordes of terrorists — funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia — were transported to the Syrian border by the Turkish regime, where they were trained and then allowed entry into Syria. Additionally, the former Prime Minister of Qatar admitted that Washington, D.C., asked his country to lead the process of sponsoring terrorism in Syria and that, to this end, Doha spent $137 billion to undermine Syria. He also questioned how the Turkish regime can “sing about purity” despite its actions in Azerbaijan, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.