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29 March 2021

As Hunger, Malnutrition Rise in Syria, Security Council Must Ensure Border Crossing Remains Open, Aid Flows to Millions, Humanitarian Affairs Chief Stresses

A full decade into the conflict which plunged Syria into a spiral of grotesque violence, hunger and economic decay, the Security Council must stand firm in defence of the country’s last authorized border crossing, through which aid to millions of civilians flows each month, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator told members during a high-level videoconference meeting today.

Mark Lowcock, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that, after a “decade of death, destruction, displacement, disease, dread and despair”, there is still no respite in sight for ordinary Syrians.  Some 13.4 million people across the country continue to require humanitarian aid, 20 per cent more than in 2020.  The deep economic decay from a decade of war has deepened over the last year, not least as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The country’s currency, the Syrian pound, fell to its lowest value ever against the United States dollar in March, and hunger and malnutrition are rising rapidly as a result as food prices spike.

Meanwhile, he said, at least 30 communities in northern Syria were attacked by artillery shells and air strikes in the last week alone, forcing the evacuation and closure of Al Atareb Surgical Hospital and killing several young patients.  The location of the hospital was well known to the warring parties, and was shared as recently as 1 March.  “This was obviously a deliberate attack, and you will all have seen the statement the Secretary-General issued,” he stressed, also sounding alarm over the death of an off-duty staff member of the non-governmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières at Al-Hol camp on 24 February.  Insecurity at Al-Hol has now reached intolerable levels, with 41 residents murdered since the beginning of 2021.

Pointing out that the de-facto authorities in the north-east are responsible for providing security in Al-Hol, he said a major security operation involving large numbers of military personnel began there on 28 March, with the stated intention of restoring security in the camp.  The exercise forced the suspension of many humanitarian services.  Security must be provided in a manner that does not endanger the camp’s residents, including some 40,000 foreign and Syrian children, he stressed, describing it as unacceptable that they remain in such an unsafe environment.  “Countries of origin should take their nationals home,” he stressed.

Turning to humanitarian access, he recalled that multiple air-to-surface missiles on 21 March hit the road leading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib Governorate — through which some 1,000 trucks full of United Nations assistance pass each month, as authorized by the Security Council under resolution 2533 (2020).  One of the missiles struck a lot where trucks used for transporting humanitarian supplies were parked, and 24 trucks were destroyed or damaged.  The air strikes also started a fire in a nearby warehouse storing food and other humanitarian supplies.  A quarter of the stocks, amounting to aid for over 4,000 people, were destroyed.

Outlining the extent to which the Syrian people depend upon United Nations humanitarian support, he said 75 per cent of the 4 million people in the country’s north-west region depend upon the Organization to meet their basic needs.  The cross-border operation reaches almost 85 per cent of those people every month.  Meanwhile, many non-governmental partners rely on the United Nations for support in logistics, financing and procurement.  The cross-border operation is one of the most heavily scrutinized and monitored aid mechanisms in the world, due in large part to the fact that those paying for its — mostly Western and Gulf region donors — have made it clear that they will only do so if they are sure the resources are not being diverted to terrorist groups.  “We know aid gets to the people it is supposed to,” he said.

Recounting efforts over the last year to seek agreement on cross-line aid deliveries to the north-west, he said that, while the various parties have each recently described arrangements that they could go along with they have not been able to identify an approach on which all can agree.  “While we deliver 1,000 trucks a month of aid cross border into the north-west, we have yet to see even a single truck just once cross [the] line,” he said.  Turning to the situation in the north-east, he said cross-line aid has scaled up there but needs still surpass the ability to address them.  An estimated 1.8 million people require assistance in areas of north-east Syria outside of the control of the Government, with over 70 per cent of those considered to be in extreme need.

Even as humanitarian groups work to bridge those gaps, he cited warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that funding remains a key constraint.  Available resources will only cover 40 per cent of estimated health supply needs for north-east Syria in 2021.  On 30 March the United Nations will co-host the fifth Brussels conference, requesting an estimated $4.2 billion for the response inside Syria and another $5.8 billion to support countries hosting Syrian refugees in the region.  “Now is not the moment to reduce humanitarian aid to Syria,” he stressed, noting that the ability to deliver aid and stave off an even worse humanitarian crisis will depend upon the political will and generosity of the international community.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said 2021 marks 10 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, “an anniversary no one wanted to see”.  Homes, hospitals, schools and water systems have been destroyed, and economic crisis has plunged 90 per cent of the population into poverty, millions are internally displaced or have fled the country and humanitarian law continues to be flouted with impunity.  “Tragedy upon tragedy for a once-beautiful country, rendered unrecognizable today, and for a generation of children growing up knowing nothing but war,” she said.

Emphasizing that nearly 90 per cent of children across Syria require humanitarian assistance and that 3.2 million young people there and in neighbouring countries are out of school, she warned that they are also vulnerable to violence, exploitation, early marriage, child labour or recruitment into armed groups.  The number of families reporting that their children were suffering from psychological distress has doubled in the last year and the deepening economic turmoil is placing adequate nutrition out of reach for millions of families.

She noted that, in north-west Syria, acute malnutrition is approaching the emergency threshold of 15 per cent among displaced children and in hard-to-reach areas and camps.  Half a million stunted children across Syria are being robbed of their full potential from a very early age, as they will never be able to grow healthy brains or strong bodies.  Spotlighting the conditions of children in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps, as well as the Rukban camp and in detention centres and prisons, in particular, she added that nearly 48,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported across the country and that only limited testing is available.

Meanwhile, she said, the war’s ripple effect on Syria’s neighbours — including Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey — is affecting host and refugee communities alike, straining economies, services, patience and generosity.  Along with its partners, UNICEF is providing health care on the ground, including 900,000 routine vaccinations for children in 2020.  It also provides psychosocial support, education, water, cash assistance, information on how people can stay safe during COVID-19 and equitable access to vaccines.  Noting that the 30 March donor conference in Brussels will be a chance for partners to renew their support in key areas, she cited the need for regular humanitarian access, emphasizing that needs are multiplying.  The last year has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of people requiring humanitarian aid in the north-west.

Emphasizing that the Council cannot turn its back on 3.4 million people, including 1.7 million children, she declared:  “This aid is the only lifeline they have.”  Members must renew the resolution on cross-border assistance and spare no effort to reach an agreement on accessing children through cross-line operations.  All parties should immediately stop attacks on children, hospitals, schools and other vital civilian infrastructure.  Syrian children in Al-Hol and Al-Roj should be reintegrated into their local communities, while third-country nationals should be repatriated safely back to their countries of origin.  Adding her voice to broader calls for peace, she said UNICEF will remain on the ground supporting the Syrian children until that is achieved.  “We call on this Council to not only keep their hope alive, but match it with the solutions and support they need and the lasting peace they deserve,” she concluded.

Also briefing the Council today was Amani Ballour, Founder of the non‑governmental Al Amar Fund, who said she was speaking not only as a paediatrician from Damascus, but as a Syrian who cares deeply about her country.  Describing Syria as a broken nation after a decade of conflict, she recalled her experience working in an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta for nearly six years, the last two of them as its manager.  The worst incident occurred in 2013 when scores of women and children died right before her eyes following a sarin gas attack.  Even after that horrific crimes, attacks on hospitals and the use of chemical weapons have continued, with no real accountability, she said.

She spelled out the impact of the conflict on Syria’s children, including hunger, malnutrition and mental‑health issues.  Many children born during the siege of Al Ghouta suffer from depression, personality disorders, insomnia and paranoia.  She also recalled that her hospital was targeted by an air strike in 2015, not long after the Russian Federation began to step up its support to the Syrian military.  That attack killed three of the hospital’s staff.  Just last week, the Al Atareb Hospital near Aleppo was hit by artillery strikes, leaving seven civilians dead, including two children, and five medical staff injured.  That incident must be investigated, she said, emphasizing that an end to such attacks will be achieved only through real accountability.

Turning to humanitarian access, she said that cross-border assistance is vital for the 4 million civilians living in north-west Syria.  It is also important for the nationwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.  On the other hand, cross-line assistance has been a failed experiment, she said, adding that, during her time in Al Ghouta, the hospital lacked even basic medical supplies.  Approvals from the regime were rarely approved, and when they were, soldiers would remove baby formula from trucks and dump it on the ground.  “You cannot allow this situation to return,” she said, calling for the renewal of cross-border assistance through Bab al-Hawa and the opening of additional crossing points to meet growing needs.

Against that backdrop, she urged the Council to set aside its differences, refocus efforts on reaching a political solution, act with great urgency to address the worsening humanitarian crisis and hold accountable those who attack medical facilities and use chemical weapons.  “I also urged you to move past words to concrete actions,” she said, challenging Council members and Member States to take immediate steps to help Syria’s people, increase their financial contributions to the United Nations and its partners, and agree to settle more Syrian refugees.  Only through solidarity and shared humanity can the suffering of the Syrian people be alleviated and progress made towards justice, peace and reconciliation, she said.

As Council members took the floor, many voiced frustration over the parties’ inability to agree on the best course of action for delivering critical support amid Syria’s rapidly mounting humanitarian needs.  While several speakers called unequivocally for the prompt reauthorization of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing — and some went further, asking the Council to reopen two additional crossings that were closed in recent years — others strongly disagreed, citing deep concerns over violations of Syria’s sovereignty.  Members continued to diverge sharply on the utility of those crossing points and whether cross-border aid or cross-line aid, delivered internally from Damascus, is more effective at tackling the population’s urgent needs.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State of the United States, said that, after a decade, the conflict in Syria remains as grave as ever.  Every month, the Council gathers to discuss the situation, and it is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that behind each statistic rattled off lies a real human life.  Recounting the story of one mother who was forced to sell her own hair to feed her family, she said Council members “all sit in these chairs and speak these words”, but cannot find in their hearts the common humanity to actually do something.  “How is that possible?”, he asked, asking delegates to reflect upon their own children and grandchildren.  Recalling that, just days ago, the regime of Bashar al-Assad shelled Al-Atareb Hospital, killing several children and injuring others, including doctors, he stressed that the hospital’s coordinates had been shared through the United Nations deconfliction mechanism, meaning that the regime knew exactly where it was.  Air strikes by the Russian Federation’s forces also struck near the only United Nations-authorized border crossing, killing several civilians and putting aid to the Syrian people at risk.

Stressing that the only permanent solution to the crisis will be a political one, he said that, as it works towards that goal, the international community cannot lose sight of the needs of the Syrian people.  Recalling that the Council in recent years has allowed the authorization of two important border crossings to lapse, he said there was no good reason for those closures then and there is no good reason why they remain closed today.  In their absence, delivering aid has become more costly, more dangerous and less efficient.  The reduction in crossings also means that United Nations convoys must travel longer distances and encounter more obstacles, and aid workers themselves face more risks.  Recognizing that some claim sovereignty as the reason for their closure, he declared:  “Sovereignty was never intended to ensure the right of any Government to starve its people.”  Intensified cross-line and cross-border deliveries are both needed, he said, also warning against pressuring Syrian refugees to return to the country before it is safe to do so.  Concluding, he reiterated his call for the two closed border crossings to be reopened, and for Bab al-Hawa to be reauthorized.  “Let’s commit to using whatever pathway is the safest,” he stressed, calling on all parties to stop taking part in, or making excuses for, attacks against humanitarian actors.

INE ERIKSEN SØREIDE, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, speaking also on behalf of Ireland, said that the Council and the international community have sadly failed to protect civilians from the nightmare of a terrible conflict.  This week’s Brussels conference will once again reaffirm the international community’s solidarity with the people of Syria, but the reality is that overall humanitarian needs are growing, with more than 13 million Syrians, including 5 million children, requiring assistance.  “There is a need for a lasting nationwide ceasefire,” she said, emphasizing that the existing fragile ceasefire in parts of Syria has failed to deliver peace.  Warning of “a very real prospect of hunger in parts of Syria”, she reiterated the Council’s demands for unimpeded humanitarian access to allow medical teams to safely roll out COVID-19 vaccinations to those who need it most.

Emphasizing the need for greater humanitarian access, she said that intensified cross-line and cross-border deliveries are essential to reach everyone in need everywhere.  Lives will be lost without such assistance.  She expressed full support for United Nations efforts to put into place a cross-line support mission to north-west Syria and called on all parties to facilitate that idea without delay.  She cautioned, however, that cross-line missions cannot supplant the cross-border operation at Bal al-Hawa, where 4,369 trucks have crossed into Syria during the past eight months.  Speaking in her national capacity, she announced that Norway would, at the Brussels conference, pledge a further $190 million for Syria and the region in 2021, reaffirming its position as one of the biggest donors to the international response.

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence of Ireland, voicing his country’s shared commitment to ensuring that humanitarian assistance continues to reach all people in need, described the humanitarian crisis in Syria as staggering in its scale and severity.  “We, collectively around this table, have a duty to act,” he stressed, pointing out that, once again, the Council has heard from a variety of experts that intensified cross-line and cross-border deliveries are both essential.  That includes the continued provision of United Nations support through the border crossing in the north-west of the country.  Recalling his own visit to the Bab al-Hawa crossing earlier in 2021, where vital aid crosses the border to reach some 3 million people, he said he was impressed with the thorough nature of the monitoring and oversight taking place at the United Nations monitoring mission’s trans-shipment hub.  “All of the evidence that we have before us tells us clearly that this Council needs to renew the mandate for this crossing before it expires in July,” he stressed, while also expressing support for the United Nations broader efforts to find a sustainable political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom, said that there needs to be a United Nations-led, inclusive and sustainable political solution to end the conflict in Syria in line with resolution 2254 (2015).  The Syrian regime and the Russian Federation claim that the loss of three border crossings is not important.  They claim that all humanitarian needs can be met via Damascus.  This is not the case, he said.  Cross-border access is vital to delivering life-saving aid to 2.4 million people each month in north-west Syria.  This Council has heard repeatedly, since June 2020, that “cross-line” assistance via Damascus is just not delivering at the scale or frequency needed to meet humanitarian needs, including health needs.  This is compounded by disruptions in delivery due to blocked access, bureaucracy and military operations.  “Let me be clear, this is totally unacceptable,” he said, stressing that the rationale for renewing the cross-border mandate in July is as vital as ever.  For the survival of the Syrian people, resolution 2533 (2020) must be renewed.  “We have a shared responsibility to do all in our power to help the people of Syria,” he said.

Othman Jerandi, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Migration and Tunisians Abroad of Tunisia, said that a decade of conflict has brought Syria to its knees, leaving millions facing the threat of food insecurity and famine.  Saluting the Herculean efforts being made by humanitarian agencies and States in the region, he called on the international community to meet the growing needs of the Syrian people, particularly to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.  A plan must be put into place that is based on a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire, he said, expressing concern about the military escalation in north-west Syria and the resulting loss of life and civilian infrastructure.  The ongoing conflict will not lead to a political solution, but, rather, will prompt the return and reorganization of armed groups, complicating efforts to combat them.  He proposed a comprehensive system of border crossing points to guarantee that aid reaches those in need and urged all parties to facilitate the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the country.  He went on to welcome the Government of Syria’s positive approach regarding humanitarian issues.

Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, calling for a full nationwide ceasefire, condemned strikes last week by the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation in north-west Syria, especially an attack on a hospital near Aleppo.  Describing the latter as a serious violation of international humanitarian law, she said that, despite attempts to provide relief to all those in need, the delivery of aid has been greatly disrupted by the closure of cross‑border aid‑delivery points facilitated by vetoes cast by China and the Russian Federation.  “The Syrian regime has not managed to facilitate cross-line aid,” she stressed, adding that no reliable agreement exists between humanitarian organizations and the authorities for bringing much‑needed help to northern Syria.  Calling for the renewal of cross-border aid in July, she declared:  “Further limiting access would have catastrophic consequences to millions of people in Syria.”  In that vein, she stressed that the European Union’s restrictions do not impede in any way the provision of humanitarian aid in Syria, especially food and medical supplies, and target only those who have committed crimes against Syrian people.

Sergey Vershinin, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, noted that the most difficult humanitarian situations are in areas of the north-west, north and north-east, which Damascus does not control.  Responsibility in those places lies with the de facto occupying countries and local authorities.  Underscoring the serious challenge posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, he said that the tireless fight against such terrorists must continue.  Describing the White Helmets as “pseudo-humanitarians”, he said that attempts to exonerate militant groups merit condemnation.   He also underscored the dramatic negative impact of sanctions, which the United States and the European Union opted to tighten despite the Secretary‑General’s call for an easing of such measures in response to the pandemic.  While Syrians suffer from a lack of basic goods, Syrian natural resources are being smuggled out of the United States-controlled trans-Euphrates region, he said, citing reports of American convoys hauling oil and grain from Syria into Iraq every day.

Turning to the situation in north-west Syria, he said that militants belonging to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din are using civilians as hostages to obtain humanitarian assistance through an opaque mechanism that the United Nations cannot properly control.  A similar situation exists at the Rukan camp, in the south, where — according to the strange logic of the United States — aid should be delivered through Damascus and not across the border from Iraq, which would be the most direct and fastest route.  He went on to say that humanitarian issues are being politicized with a view to undermining Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity due to displeasure with the country’s leadership.  In that regard, the Russian Federation condemns the violation by several Western countries of the letter and spirit of resolution 2254 (2015), through which the Council reaffirmed its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The representative of China said that Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity must be upheld.  Regime change is not a workable option and unilateral sanctions can only aggravate the situation.  Given the current circumstances, the international community should adopt a holistic approach, support a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, and help the Syrian people explore their own development path.  The leading role of the Government of Syria must be fully leveraged to improve the humanitarian situation, he said, noting that China has, through bilateral channels, delivered 150,000 metric tons of COVID-19 vaccine and several metric tons of rice to Syria.  The international community should support the United Nations to open humanitarian routes to the north-west as soon as possible, thus reducing Syria’s reliance on the cross-border mechanism.  He went on to call for an end to unilateral coercive measures and foreign occupation, as well as the eradication of terrorist groups, and requested that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report to the Council on the humanitarian impact of sanctions on Syria.

The representative of Kenya said that a generation of children in Syria have been robbed of their childhoods as all they have ever known is conflict and violence.  Besides, many children must support their families by looking for food instead of going to school and dreaming of a bright and hopeful future.  The drawn-out man-made humanitarian crisis in Syria, 10 years on, is simply not acceptable.  This Council has a moral obligation to act decisively to alleviate the protracted unnecessary suffering.  To this end, cross-border and cross-line assistance must be streamlined, strengthened and operationalized.  Stemming attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including by terrorist groups, should be prioritized to make the delivery of humanitarian aid possible.  Stressing the need for a resilience-based development response to the crisis, which includes the reconstruction of critical infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, he urged foreign Powers, including members of this Council, to set aside their differences and work together to facilitate the long-desired consensus towards a political solution.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the dire situation in Syria is being further exacerbated by an amalgamation of factors, including severe socioeconomic decline, precipitating commodity shortages and food insecurity, climate-related severe weather events and the pandemic.  Noting that the cross‑border mechanism continues to perform a critical role in providing humanitarian aid to those in need, she said it must be preserved and scaled up to adequately meet the steeply rising humanitarian needs.  Furthermore, assistance and access through the cross-line modality should be strengthened to complement the mechanism and fill existing gaps.  Warning that Syria’s COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in recent weeks, with those residing in densely populated camps and overcrowded areas particularly vulnerable, she reiterated her calls for equitable and efficient distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as part of the overall humanitarian response, and expressed hope that the global COVAX Facility will begin its roll-out soon.  The protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure must also remain a priority, she said, strongly urging all parties to prioritize that principle and find a solution to the frequent disruptions of the water supply in the country’s north-east.

The representative of Viet Nam said that, in every crisis, children, women and other vulnerable groups bear the brunt of hardships, urging all parties and the United Nations to enhance their coordination to ensure timely delivery of humanitarian relief.  Parties should facilitate the delivery by swiftly granting approvals, especially considering the medical supply shortage in north-east Syria.  He also called for early agreement and further cooperation with the United Nations to establish cross-line access into the country’s north-west.  Expressing support for the appeal of the Secretary-General for waiving sanctions that hinder the humanitarian response to the pandemic, he stressed the need for an “exit door” — a long-term and sustained solution to the protracted crisis.  The only way to do so is through a political solution, and the only way to achieve that long-awaited solution is through the unity of the international community and respect for international law, he said.

The representative of Mexico said the duration of the Syrian conflict is now reaching the total time elapsed during two world wars.  Condemning recent attacks in the country’s north-west, as well as the deadly attack against the hospital in Al Atareb, he stressed that medical facilities must be protected at all times.  Attacks against them are war crimes and those who perpetrate them must be held accountable.  Echoing calls by other speakers for the Council to act urgently, he spotlighted the trauma being suffered by the Syrian people, and the deep psychosocial wounds they will carry for the rest of their lives.  “If we don’t act now, we risk losing an entire generation” to such trauma, he stressed, calling for psychosocial support to be fully integrated into humanitarian responses.  The situation in al-Hol is a particular emergency which needs to be addressed, with the plight of children prioritized above all else.  The Bab al-Hawa border crossing remains crucial for the delivery of humanitarian supplies, and it cannot be replaced by cross-line aid, he said, describing it as unacceptable that humanitarian assistance is being turned into one more hostage in the conflict.  “We must act without any further delay so that millions of Syrian boys and girls under the age of 10 […] will have the opportunity to know what it means to live in peace,” he said.

The representative of Niger said the spiral of despair and destitution in Syria has only continued to worsen over the last decade.  Calling for greater cooperation between the parties to facilitate safe, impartial humanitarian aid delivery to all those in need, he voiced unwavering support for both the cross‑line and cross-border delivery mechanisms.  Expressing concern about the high numbers of Syrians who live in crowded camps, highly vulnerable to the coronavirus, he warned that now is not the time for entrenched geopolitical positions.  The future of Syria will be compromised if the various parties are not able to reach agreement on the delivery of assistance, he stressed, also drawing attention to the critical situation of the Alouk water plant in the country’s north-east.  All parties must adhere to the provisions of the ceasefire and abide by their obligations under international law, including protecting civilians.  While rejecting the continued presence of foreign armed forces and foreign support for armed groups, he called for efforts to combat terrorist organizations which seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own aims.  All sanctions should also be lifted amid the difficult period engendered by the pandemic, he said.

The representative of India urged the Council to introspect about the cost of its actions and inactions, calling for concrete steps to be taken to address hurdles obstructing the functioning of both cross-border and cross-line operations, particularly the delays in granting requisite approvals to humanitarian aid convoys.  Welcoming the convening of the fifth Brussels donors conference on 29 and 30 March, he said that efforts towards improving the humanitarian situation in Syria will positively impact the political track, as well.  India has already extended immediate medical assistance and food assistance to Syria recently, in addition to the development cooperation projects, including soft loans and substantial human resources development initiatives under its technical cooperation programme.  Its artificial limb fitment camp in Damascus benefited more than 500 Syrians affected by the conflict.

The representative of France said that, 10 years on, the conflict is far from over, as demonstrated by growing hostilities in the north.  An immediate cessation of hostilities under United Nations supervision and a humanitarian pause are urgently needed.  He strongly condemned the attack on the Al Atareb Hospital, saying that even wars have rules and that such incidents are war crimes.  “We insist that we get to the bottom of this heinous crime.”  He added that the regime’s systematic blocking of humanitarian deliveries within Syria is proof that there is there is no alternative to the cross-border mechanism, which must be renewed to save lives and ensure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines.  He emphasized that, without a comprehensive political solution that protects the rights and aspirations of the Syrian people, France and the European Union will not change their position on normalization, reconstruction and sanctions.  No one will be fooled by politicizing the question of sanctions in the context of the pandemic to conceal the responsibility of the regime, he stated.

The representative of the United Kingdom, taking the floor a second time, rejected the Russian Federation’s description of the White Helmets as a pseudo‑humanitarian organization.  She underscored her country’s support for that group, adding that all humanitarian actors require the Council’s unequivocal backing.

The representative of Syria said some Member States continue to use the Council as a platform to politicize humanitarian work in his country, promoting a selective perspective of the situation.  “These countries’ statements focused on what would serve their goals, including their feverish efforts to extend and strengthen the cross-border assistance mechanism,” he said.  At the same time, they deliberately ignore the disastrous effects of the unilateral coercive measures they continue to impose, making clear that they do not aspire to genuine humanitarian work, but rather to achieve political goals.  It would have been more productive for those delegations to use today’s high-level meeting to denounce their failed policies over the past decade, he said, asking:  “Would it not have been more productive for the United States to announce the termination of its occupation of Syrian territories, put an end to its support for separatist militias and stop the plunder of Syrian wealth?”

Warning against enshrining the wishes of the United States and its allies, which continue to impose conditionality on reconstruction aid and ignore calls for the lifting of sanctions, he said those actions do not contribute to establishing an environment conducive to a political solution.  The centre of humanitarian work remains Damascus, and not any other city in neighbouring countries or beyond.  “This is the simplest embodiment of the principle of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” he stressed, calling for more constructive cooperation and coordination with the Syrian Government, and more support to the latter and its humanitarian partners.  Reiterating his concerns over the cross-border assistance mechanism, which violates Syria’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said past years have revealed the inability of those in charge of the mechanism to guarantee verification and accuracy standards.  Terrorist groups have been seen monopolizing large amounts of the aid delivered by the United Nations as it crosses the border.  The mechanism has also allowed the Turkish regime to freely sponsor terrorist organizations and move forward with its policies aimed at changing Syria’s demographic character and imposing “Turkification” measures, he said.

The representative of Turkey said many refugees living outside Syria are afraid to return, as they face severe risks and insecurity within the country’s borders.  Noting that Turkey hosts 4 million Syrians and helps ensure that life‑saving humanitarian aid reaches millions more living inside the country, he said it also continues to combat multiple terrorist organizations.  Condemning the barbaric attack on Al Atareb Surgical Hospital on 21 March, which was the latest example of the war crimes being perpetrated in Syria, he spotlighted the country’s massive humanitarian needs and the large amount of aid being delivered through the cross-border assistance mechanism.  In the coming months, COVID-19 vaccines will also require delivery.  “We have no time to waste,” he stressed, pointing out that unilateral initiatives lack the support of the local population.  Echoing the briefers’ description of the Bab al-Hawa operation as the most scrutinized humanitarian system in the world, he rejected accusations levelled against it by several delegations today.  It is time for all Council members to really show that they care about the Syrian people and reauthorize that crossing for another year, he said, adding that “this is a fight between right and wrong” with millions of lives at stake.

The representative of Iran said that humanitarian assistance, while a high priority, is no substitute for fundamental measures needed to ensure lasting peace, security and stability in Syria.  That country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be ensured through the uprooting of all terrorists, the withdrawal of uninvited foreign forces and an end to occupation.  Steps must also be taken to rebuild critical infrastructure and improve conditions for the return of refugees.  While there can be no military solution, a political solution cannot be achieved in isolation or overnight, he said, adding that progress on that front must not be a precondition for movement in other areas.  Politicizing humanitarian assistance and the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, or imposing unilateral sanctions, will only prolong the crisis.  Calling for an end to sanctions, he said that Iran will continue to support a truly Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, facilitated by the United Nations, while also helping the people and Government of Syria to restore the country’s unity and territorial integrity.

The representative of the Russian Federation, taking the floor a second time, responded to the United Kingdom’s remarks concerning the White Helmets, saying that Western members of the Council prefer not to notice the uncomfortable truth about that group’s links to terrorists.  He added that he understood the need for some Council members to justify support for Syrian opposition groups to taxpayers, but such matters do not need to be brought to the Council’s attention.

For information media. Not an official record.