‘Western Politicians’ to Blame for Bloodbath, Pain, Says Permanent Representative, as Humanitarian Chief Outlines Dire Situation
A political solution to the conflict in Syria requires a nationwide ceasefire and progress on drafting a new constitution, the senior United Nations mediator told the Security Council during a 16 December videoconference meeting, as the 15-member organ also heard reports of the dire humanitarian situation in that country.
“As we look back on 2020, we have two elements to build on — a relative calm with no shift in front lines since March 2020, and a Constitutional Committee,” said Geir Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria. “As we look to 2021, we need a deeper and broader process: a nationwide ceasefire, substantive constitutional drafting, and a wider effort to address the full range of issues, with actions to build confidence and movement, step for step.”
Emphasizing that only a political solution can end the suffering, prevent renewed conflict and instability, and protect civilians and the wider region from further grave danger, he called for a new form of international cooperation on Syria, with key players participating and key issues on the table.
He reported that the in-person fourth session of the Constitutional Committee — established one year ago under United Nations auspices with the goal of drafting a new constitution — convened in Geneva from 30 November to 4 December. During the session, Committee members continued their dialogue on “national foundations and principles”.
The Government delegation presented eight “national foundations and principles” about combating terrorism and condemning terrorist ideologies and support for terrorists, he reported, adding that they also address unilateral coercive measures and the occupation of Syrian territory. They also relate to rejection of separatism and separatist projects, support for the Syrian Arab Army, promoting national identity, protecting cultural diversity, encouraging and guaranteeing the return of refugees and addressing humanitarian issues. They are not explicitly linked to a future constitutional text, he pointed out.
He said the delegation nominated by the Syrian Negotiations Commission presented 23 points on a range of principles, including the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, international relations and commitment to international law, national identity, cultural diversity, democracy, political pluralism, rule of law, separation of powers, corruption, terrorism, citizenship, refugee returns, rights and freedoms and social and economic principles. Those points were framed as grounded in the 12 living intra-Syrian essential principles and the Committee’s mandate and were presented as points for development to form part of the basic principles of a new constitution, he added.
Some civil society members of the Middle Third presented points on conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees, he continued, also citing such related issues as the restitution of housing, land and property, restorative justice and relevant independent and impartial constitutional mechanisms. Other members made interventions on a range of themes, such as the need to address terrorism, sanctions, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The impact of conflict on women, and the importance of their role in political life, and of ensuring equality between men and women, was raised on many occasions during the session, by members of all three delegations, he said. Despite many stark differences among positions and narratives, and a few tense moments, members listened to each other with attentiveness and even respect, he added, noting that it is possible to see potential common ground that can be explored.
He said that the fifth session will convene in Geneva between 25 and 29 January 2021, COVID-19 conditions permitting, and focus on basic principles of the constitution. He added that he will be engaging both Co-Chairs before the next session on how to ensure that the Constitutional Committee moves from “preparing” a constitutional reform to “drafting” one.
Turning to matters beyond the Constitution, he said violent conflict and terrorism are still a reality for Syrians. Thanks to existing arrangements, however — including those involving the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States — a fragile calm continues amid ongoing efforts to address listed terrorist groups, including Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But they still fall well short of the nationwide ceasefire envisioned in resolution 2254 (2015), he noted.
Ultimately, he concluded, following the adoption of a new constitution and the creation of a safe, calm and neutral environment, that resolution calls for free and fair elections, administered under United Nations supervision, to the highest standards of transparency and accountability, and with the participation of all eligible Syrians, including those in the diaspora.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the number of reported COVID-19 cases in Syria continues to rise, with 100 per cent bed occupancy rates being reported in Sweida, Homs and other governorates. Moreover, the number of school cases tripled in November. He also expressed worry about the pandemic’s secondary effects on access to education, citing reports of increased school dropout rates. Turning to the economic crisis, he noted that even subsidized prices of essentials have surged amid continuing reports of long queues at bakeries and petrol stations. The market price of a standard reference food basket is higher than at any point since price monitoring by the World Food Programme (WFP) began in 2013 and more than 80 per cent of displaced families now say their income does not cover their needs, he reported. Citing data on the impact on vulnerable populations, he said that in north-west Syria, 34 per cent of all children under five suffer stunting and up to 37 per cent of mothers are malnourished.
On the protection of civilians, he noted that hostilities have been continuing in northern Syria in recent weeks, putting civilians at risk. “We all know the immediate and devastating human cost of military escalations in Syria,” he said, echoing calls by the Secretary-Generals and the Special Envoy for a nationwide ceasefire. Moreover, infrastructure indispensable to the survival of civilians must also be protected, he emphasized, observing that the Alouk water station stopped pumping on 3 December because of a disruption in power supply. As a result, almost half a million people in Al Hassakeh must resort to potentially unsafe alternatives, he said. Calling for a solution to ensure an uninterrupted water supply from Alouk, he also reported continued water shortages in Al Bab city and surrounding areas, which affect 185,000 people. Electricity from Turkish providers increased pumping at local wells last month, but supply is still far short of needs, he reported.
Recalling that the Government instructed a humanitarian organization delivering World Food Programme (WFP) assistance in October to stop distributing the aid to 220,000 people in areas not under its controlled in Ar-Raqqa Governorate, he said distributions to all areas were able to resume earlier this month. In late November, local authorities suspended operations of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Al Hol and Al Roj camps, which together accommodate some 65,000 people, he reported. That disrupted food distributions, waste management and some health services. Noting the vulnerability of humanitarian operations in the north-east to disruption, he added: “When aid is suspended, those most in need are the ones who suffer needlessly.” He went on to describe the poor conditions and tragic fires at Al Hol, saying tent fires usually increase in the winter as families try to keep warm by whatever means available. Warning that more incidents are expected, he emphasized: “An immediate concern is getting winter assistance to families as temperatures drop.” While distributions are under way with plans to reach more than 3 million people, current funding will only allow relief efforts to reach 2.3 million, he said.
In the ensuing discussion, delegations traded accusations over the Council’s failure to help end the prolonged conflict in Syria and over obstacles to humanitarian access. Some Council members called for holding separate political and humanitarian meetings, arguing that the combination of the two issues is politically motivated. Several speakers emphasized the importance of respecting Syria’s sovereignty.
The representative of Germany, also speaking on behalf of Belgium, wondered what the Council has achieved in the last two years, noting that none of the metrics point to improvement. Instead, needs are deepening, with a projected three quarters of the population falling further into peril, he said, adding that Germany and Belgium worked to maintain cross-border access to north-eastern Syria and keep various border crossings open to humanitarian aid. However, two permanent Council members prioritized their support for the Syrian authorities over humanitarian concerns, he pointed out. Quoting several first-hand accounts of circumstances on the ground, he cited chronic destruction of schools, emphasizing that the current circumstances mean there will be no way to meet the population’s basic needs in many parts of the country. As such, Council members must work to ensure unfettered humanitarian access to those areas, he said, stressing that only a political settlement will put Syria on the road to peace.
The representative of the United States emphasized that China and the Russian Federation pushed for cutting humanitarian assistance in the region, declaring: “There is little to celebrate in Syria and much to mourn.” The COVID‑19 pandemic disproportionately affects communities reeling from attacks by the Assad regime, she added. Stressing that there is no military solution to the conflict, she said the only way forward is for the regime to support the ongoing political process, including sessions of the Constitutional Committee. “It is increasingly apparent that the Assad regime is delaying the political process as it prepares to hold sham elections,” she asserted, underlining that the international community will not recognize an illegitimate electoral process. She went on to warn that combining humanitarian and political updates in one meeting is detrimental to and further politicizes deliberations. Noting that parts of Syria face shortages resulting from border closures, she demanded that Syria and the Russian Federation allow access to needed humanitarian assistance, pledging that, as the largest humanitarian donor to Syria, the United States will continue to do everything it can to continue to deliver towards meeting the needs of the Syrian people.
The representative of the Russian Federation recalled that in 2015, Western countries pinned their hopes on overthrowing the legitimate Syrian authorities by military means, supplying money, weapons and well-trained fighters. They imposed sanctions against Damascus to weaken the Syrian army’s ability to repel the terrorist threats, he added. They tried to “break” the country into pieces. At the request of Damascus, however, the Russian Federation joined counter-terrorism efforts to defeat terrorism on Syrian soil, actively contributing to the preservation of Syrian statehood, he emphasized. Thanks to the Astana process led by the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran, and based on the 2018 decision of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, the Constitutional Committee — the only dialogue format that allows Syrians to discuss their country’s future — was created.
He said the political dialogue could have begun one year earlier if not for the intervention of several Western countries, stressing that they violated the very first paragraph of Council resolution 2254 (2015) regarding respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. After failed attempts to forcefully overthrow the Government, he added, they resorted to financial and economic suffocation and sanctions. Recalling that the Russian Federation hosted the international conference on the return of refugees, he said donors made the return of refugees a prerequisite for their assistance. Is such bargaining appropriate when seeking to alleviate the suffering of people, including women and children? Calling upon Western States to abandon political games around humanitarian affairs, he warned that lack of progress in establishing one-time sustainable supplies of humanitarian aid to Idlib through the contact line will inflict irreparable damage on the cross-border mechanism itself.
The representative of France said the parties must move towards a substantive discussion on constitutional reform, adding that his delegation will remain vigilant for any impediments to the process by the regime. Calling for a credible political process based on Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), he emphasized that Syrians — including those in the diaspora — must be given a voice in preparations for elections. France will not recognize the results of elections taking place outside the Geneva political process, he stressed. Expressing concern about the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation, he said obstacles to humanitarian access are unacceptable, especially in the context of the pandemic, pointing out that the regime has refused to allow food aid through for two months in some areas. Moreover, only 260,000 of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees around the world have chosen to return home since 2016, he noted, emphasizing that they will not return while the regime continues to threaten their lives and confiscate their property. France is working to ensure that the right to voluntary return is respected, he added.
The representative of Viet Nam urged all conflict parties to exercise restraint, emphasizing that counter-terrorism efforts should remain in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law. On the humanitarian situation, he expressed serious concern at the high prices of essentials, noting that they exacerbate the vulnerability of more than 11 million people in need of assistance and 9.3 million others experiencing food insecurity. Moreover, harsh winter conditions aggravate their suffering and may further impede humanitarian efforts, he noted. As such, Viet Nam welcomes United Nations and other efforts to sustain humanitarian assistance and establish cross-line access into the north-west. Calling for sustainable solutions to address the situation in various camps as well as the Alouk station water shortage, he emphasized that sanctions must not undermine the Syrian people’s capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The representative of Tunisia urged the parties to participate in the Constitutional Committee talks with flexibility and an aim to reach consensus. Discussions must be coupled with confidence-building measures that would lead to credible and free elections to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, he said. The humanitarian situation is a concern as winter approaches and the number of Syrians in need expected to rise to 13 million, he added, noting that such an environment exacerbates vulnerability, heightens the threat of resumed conflict and impedes efforts to contain COVID-19. He went on to caution that the security situation in northern Syria is not safe enough to move forward with a political track. Calling for a sustained ceasefire across the country, he emphasized that all parties must ensure the protection of civilians, medical and civilian facilities, and humanitarian workers.
The representative of Estonia expressed hope that the Constitutional Committee process can pave the way to discussion of other confidence-building measures between the Government in Damascus and the legitimate opposition in the future, emphasizing that the European Union will not support Syria’s reconstruction or lift sanctions until a genuine political process is firmly in place. Describing the current economic crisis in the country as mostly a result of widespread corruption, warlordism and lack of good governance, he expressed regret over the vetoes by the Russian Federation and China against the cross-border mechanism, saying the proposed alternative for cross-line aid is dysfunctional, irregular and unreliable. “But Moscow does not believe in tears, so humanitarians have to push their limits and work tirelessly,” he said, adding that, to that end, 800 trucks carrying vital aid are expected to enter Idlib from Turkey this month as winter preparations happen across the country.
The representative of the United Kingdom said that almost five years after the adoption of resolution 2254 (2015) and after four meetings of the Constitutional Committee, it is past time to start addressing the substance of a new constitution. Urging the parties to engage constructively on substantive issues during the next meeting in January, she cautioned that without a new constitution, free and fair elections involving all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, cannot take place as envisaged in resolution 2254 (2015). Elections that do not meet those requirements, she added, would deny millions of Syrians the opportunity to take part in deciding their country’s future and to share in ownership of the political process, as endorsed by the Council. She went on to state that if the Syrian regime wants refugees to return, it will need to convince them that they will not be returning to the status quo that led to and has sustained the present conflict. It is clear that efficient, effective cross-border and cross-line access is essential to meeting the needs of those 13 million Syrians. As the Emergency Response Coordinator has said on multiple occasions, cross-border access is an essential element of the humanitarian response, she said. With the loss of three border crossings over the course of 2020, the system is running at reduced capacity, she noted, stressing that aid running through Bab al-Hawa has never been more important.
The representative of the Dominican Republic spotlighted the high price that thousands of health workers are paying because of the virus, pointing out that women continue to be disproportionately affected by the effects of the pandemic, including being subjected to gender-based violence. Indicators show a worrying trend in malnutrition, she said, emphasizing that food assistance to the record number of nearly 10 million people in need is now more necessary than ever to avoid hunger. Education is another sector that has suffered devastating effects, she said, adding that the conflict has seriously affected access. The pandemic has further exacerbated that reality, and now, amid a deep economic crisis, many children are forced to drop out of school to work and contribute to family finances, he noted, stressing that no child should be put in such a situation. That in itself is a tragedy, she said.
The representative of Belgium, associating himself with Germany, reminded Member States that certain Council members created obstacles to the distribution of humanitarian assistance. “As an imperative, all parties must respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” he said, warning that civilian infrastructure is still being targeted and that Damascus and its allies must be held accountable for their actions. He called for an end to the decades-long conflict through a political process that allows a nationwide ceasefire and constructive Constitutional Committee deliberations to facilitate free and fair elections, he said, emphasizing: “Belgium and the European Union will not contribute to reconstruction efforts until genuine commitments are made to a political solution.”
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that while the humanitarian aid provided through the cross-border mechanism is a vital lifeline for millions of Syrians, it is not enough to bridge substantial gaps. The mechanism must be bolstered through the scaled-up use of all available resources, she said, pointing out that hostilities impede humanitarian aid deliveries, while destroying infrastructure, injuring and killing civilians. Reiterating the Special Envoy’s call for an immediate nationwide cessation of hostilities, she added that unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria further burden an economy struggling under the weight of hyperinflation.
The representative of China welcomed the agreement on the time frame and agenda for the Constitutional Committee’s upcoming sessions, while emphasizing that its work must remain free from outside interference. Noting that conditions in north-west Syria have been calm since March, he urged all parties to heed the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire. He went on to point out that current security threats are caused by foreign occupation and terrorist activities, stressing the Syrian Government’s right to protect its territory. The international community should adopt uniform standards in that regard, he said, pointing out that illegal sanctions imposed on Syria have compounded its humanitarian crisis for years. Calling for international assistance to rebuild infrastructure and fight the COVID-19 pandemic, he said China has provided $130 million through bilateral and multilateral channels, adding that last month, his delegation and four other Security Council members co-hosted a meeting in which the severe effects of unilateral coercive measures and the economic blockade were described. As such, he expressed hope that States will empathize with the Syrian people instead of turning a blind eye, urging the immediate lifting of unilateral coercive measures in order to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis.
The representative of Niger, noting that the atmosphere of recent meetings of the Constitutional Committee bodes well for future sessions, appealed to all stakeholders to work in good faith during negotiations. He also called for the release of arbitrarily detained prisoners and for an immediate national ceasefire to allow for a more effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Winter has raised fears of a spread of COVID-19, he noted, emphasizing that the authorities must allow access to essential medical supplies. The shortage of such essentials is exacerbating the situation, he said, calling for the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Syria. He also recognized the Government’s right to combat criminal groups taking advantage of the health crisis to regroup and plan attacks.
The representative of Indonesia, expressing alarm about the growing spread of COVID-19, coupled with the economic crisis, emphasized the urgent need for all parties to prioritize humanitarian concerns. Noting that cross-border humanitarian delivery to the north-west through Bab al-Hawa is continuing, he urged all parties to find a sustainable solution regarding the Alouk water station and to ensure access to safe drinking water for half a million people in Al-Hassakeh, including thousands internally displaced in the Al Hol and Areesha camps. He went on to call for a complete nationwide ceasefire throughout the country, stressing the importance of a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political process.
The representative of South Africa, Council President for December, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming the Constitutional Committee’s agreement on the date and agenda of the fifth round of discussions. Recalling his own country’s constitutional process, he emphasized that progress requires compromise, which is often achieved by discussing differences to find commonalities in positions and views. Noting that almost a decade of war has thrown Syrians into a spiral of despair and destitution, he said the situation keeps worsening and they now face unprecedented levels of hunger threatening to leave millions acutely vulnerable. Their plight is further exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19, he noted. Reports of rising food insecurity and inadequate food consumption in Syrian households are of grave concern, especially given the approaching winter, which will pose additional challenges to humanitarian responses, he cautioned. The prevailing sanctions have further exacerbated the dire economic and humanitarian situation in Syria, he said, reiterating his delegation’s request that the Secretary-General and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs include the direct and indirect impact of the unilateral economic measures on the humanitarian situation. He went on to call for the lifting or easing of the sanctions during the present challenging time, emphasizing the vital importance of the cross-border humanitarian assistance mechanism in that regard.
The representative of Germany, taking the floor a second time, pointed out that his delegation is among the Council members that continue to push for separate meetings on the political and humanitarian situations. “We have to be honest,” he added. “The Council let Syrians down.” About 11 million people need aid, with no end to the crisis in sight, he noted. Recalling how the conflict began in the first place, he emphasized that it was ordinary people, not terrorists, who took to the street demanding change. The regime responded with violence and torture, waging war against its own people, he said, adding that it used chemical weapons against them, killed and abducted them. Citing a witness account of carrying hundreds of corpses to a mass grave in Damascus, he stressed that without accountability, there will be no reconciliation and reconstruction. The Russian Federation contributed to the suffering and killings of Syrian people, he asserted. He went on to state that European Union sanctions do not hamper humanitarian assistance, and that China and the Russian Federation, who blocked cross-border aid delivery, should help to enable the opening of more crossings. He also asked the Special Envoy to include impunity in his work.
The representative of the Russian Federation said he agrees that Syrians are suffering but disagrees with the cause. Asserting that Germany’s representative is getting information from The New York Times, he pointed to an article that appeared in other publications about a guest of Germany who is a participant in the “White Helmets” carrying out atrocities in Syria. He added, however, that he will certainly miss Germany’s representative when he leaves the Council at the end of this month as he asked numerous questions of briefers to invigorate discussions. But he did not do so when the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons briefed last week, he recalled, saying Germany’s representative is a cynical person who uses double-standards and draws conclusions from The Times. His negative performance in the Security Council will affect Germany’s Council membership in the future, he added.
The representative of China, echoing his Russian counterpart, said that Germany’s delegate showed his selectivity. China vetoed the resolution itself, not a provision on lifting sanctions, he clarified. On sanctions, he cited a report from the ground that the unilateral measures are delaying and hindering the delivery of aid. “The performance of Germany has failed the Security Council,” he declared.
The representative of Syria said he would not bother to respond to Germany’s delegate, explaining that the latter used undiplomatic and rude language. Noting that this is his last meeting on Syria’s political and humanitarian situations before taking up his appointment as Deputy Foreign Minister, he expressed his delegation’s wish to see more mature engagement by Western members. Recalling 10 years of their “empty language” on Syria’s political and humanitarian situations, as well as the chemical weapons issue, he emphasized that it is time to recognize the errors of Western politicians, who are responsible for the pain, injustice, terrorism and bloodbath in Syria.
Politics should be subject to evaluation, he said, stressing that it should not be a type of absurd Don Quixote adventure. Reminding members that his country is a founding member of the United Nations, he said it served four terms as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Over the decades, however, Syria has seen many of its failures, including Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the war in the Balkans, the Rwanda genocide, the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom, and the destruction of Libya by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Germany was different when it was a Council member during the invasion of Iraq, he recalled, but now it uses the Council to make Syria an enemy and invent reasons for intervention by foreign Powers.
He went on to recall that during his 14 years as Permanent Representative, he delivered about 1,000 statements in various bodies of the Organization, warning against the law of the jungle and the law of the strongest. When the Council started discussing the situation in Syria nine years ago, he highlighted the primacy of United Nations Charter principles, calling for respect for his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and for local solutions. Condemning the occupation of Syrian territory by the United States, Turkey and Israel, he emphasized that Western members of the Council did nothing to prevent it. They did not present resolutions, presidential statements or press elements, he added.
The representative of Iran emphasized that the Constitutional Committee must operate without external interference as it pursues the singular objective of enabling the Syrian people to determine their own future. “Syria’s sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity must be fully respected by all,” he stated. Calling upon all foreign forces not welcomed by the Syrian Government to leave its territory, he also rejected all separatist agendas. He went on to emphasize that Israel’s aggressions against Syria must end and to stress that the reconstruction process will be incomplete if it does not address the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons. Such vulnerable populations continue to suffer disproportionately from unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States, he pointed out.
The representative of Turkey said the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate due to the Assad regime’s aggressions and the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. To remedy the crisis, some 300 conveys have channelled humanitarian goods from Turkey into Syria through one available crossing point over the past month, he said, calling for Council action to open more crossing points before the situation devolves even further. “It is unacceptable that terrorists continue to exploit resources in Syria to advance their separatist agenda,” he declared, assuring that Turkey continues to counter the activities of terrorist groups operating in the region. Turning to progress within the Constitutional Committee, he said the upcoming fifth round of discussions must focus on constitutional reform with the aim of contributing substantially to a political solution to the crisis. However, the Assad regime continues to violate ceasefire agreements, hampering any progress, and exacerbating the suffering of the Syrian people, he added.