The tragic irony of Syria is that humanitarian suffering is increasing, despite the relative calm, compared with earlier years of the conflict, the Security Council heard today from high-level officials of the Organization who made a strong appeal for continued aid to the country.
In his briefing to the Council, Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, noted the many humanitarian and security challenges facing the country, including economic destitution, the COVID-19 pandemic, displacement, detention and abduction, human rights abuses and the continuation of conflict. While the military situation is calm in some areas, with front lines frozen and Russian Federation mediation efforts helping to de-escalate fighting in Qamishli, he noted, there are spikes in mutual shelling and three air strikes in the north-west Syria. “Recurring signs of a hot conflict are abundant,” he said, calling for a lasting nationwide ceasefire.
A presidential election is being held today under the auspices of the current Constitution, he told the Council. However, this is not part of the political process called for in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). While the key stakeholders understand the broad contours of a political solution, none are willing to take the first step. “If we continue like this, if key players are more invested in conflict management than conflict resolution, I fear that Syria will become another protracted conflict, lasting generations,” he cautioned. A credible Syrian-led and Syrian-owned Constitutional Committee, under the facilitation of the United Nations, is an important component of a wider process, he said.
A key priority must be unblocking progress on detainees, abductees and missing persons, he said, including through unilateral releases and meaningful action regarding the missing. Steps are also needed to create a safe, calm and neutral environment inside Syria, and a conducive environment for refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, safely. He also underscored the importance of full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of Syria. With the pandemic flaring and the price of essential goods and transportation costs increasingly outside of the grasp of many Syrians, while basic services, such as water, electricity and health, are compromised, humanitarian aid continues to be essential. Members of the Council must focus on achieving consensus on a large-scale cross-border response for an additional 12 months. That is essential to save lives, he stressed.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, echoed that call in his briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Stressing the importance of humanitarian access to north-west Syria, he said it is critical to extend the Security Council authorization for cross-border assistance, which expires in just over six weeks. Such assistance provides food deliveries for 1.4 million people every month, millions of medical treatments, nutrition assistance for tens of thousands of children and mothers, and education supplies for tens of thousands of students. Noting the ongoing work to find an arrangement for cross-line missions that all parties can agree to, he said that, in the meantime, the cross-border operation constitutes a lifeline for more than 3 million people and cannot be substituted. “We look to this Council to ensure that that lifeline is not severed,” he said.
With food prices at historically high levels, he continued, nearly half of Syrian families surveyed in April said adults are eating less themselves so that the children in the family can eat. Fuel shortages also continue across the country, and protests against an increase in fuel and cooking gas prices were met with excessive force, leading to the deaths of at least five civilians, including a child. Attacks on health-care facilities have instilled fear in the civilian population, he said, adding that security problems continue at Al Hol camp, with 6 murders reported since April, and 46 since January. Over 60,000 people remain in the camp, and they are living in unacceptable conditions. “This is a camp of children,” he reminded the Council, adding that most people there are younger than 12.
Noting that north-east Syria continues to lack essential health supplies, including to prevent, test and treat COVID-19 infections, he pointed to a 57 per cent increase in confirmed cases of the virus in April, and a 50 per cent increase in the number of recorded deaths. A first batch of vaccines from the COVAX Facility was airlifted by the World Health Organization (WHO) from Damascus to Qamishli in May to cover 9,000 health workers. Vaccinations started earlier this week, he reported, while adding, “this is of course a drop in the ocean”.
Highlighting another difficult situation, he said that reduced water levels in the Euphrates since January have reached a critical point in May resulting in partial closure of one of the dams. Some 5.4 million people in Syria rely on the Euphrates and its subsidiaries for drinking water. Further, some 3 million people would lose electricity if the dams shut down, as would hospitals and other vital infrastructure across north-east Syria. Also cautioning about the possibility of wide-ranging impacts on agriculture and public health, he said that preventing a shutdown of the Tishreen and Tabqa dams requires dams in Turkey to release a minimum of 500m3 of water per second. However, Turkey has been experiencing water shortages of its own, he noted, urging all concerned to find a solution that sustainably addresses the needs of everyone in the region.
In the ensuing debate, most Council members emphasized that full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) is the only sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria and expressed reservations about the elections being held today. They underscored the role of the Constitutional Committee in bringing about a comprehensive and lasting political settlement. However, some delegates countered that this assessment of the current election shows indifference to those Syrians turning out in the polls. While many delegates stressed the need to reauthorize the cross-border mechanism for humanitarian assistance, others doubted that it is the only way to get aid to Idlib. A few delegates also pointed out that unilateral sanctions are negatively impacting Syria’s humanitarian situation, as well as infrastructure reconstruction, and called for their removal.
The representative of Norway, also speaking for Ireland, noted the upcoming expiration of the humanitarian aid delivery mechanism renewed by resolution 2533 (2020) and called on the Council to act to ensure that humanitarian assistance continues to reach all of Syria. In north-west Syria, the number of people in need has increased by over 20 per cent so far in 2021, and she stressed that cross-border provision of humanitarian aid is the only modality that can operate at the scale required to reach the 3.4 million in need in this region. Further, failure to renew cross-border authorization would mean losing the transparency and accountability that the United Nations Monitoring Mechanism provides before, during and after distribution of aid. She stressed that, mindful of the Council’s commitment to the country’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, “there is no excuse for not assisting the millions of people in need in Syria”. This will require a large-scale cross-border response for an additional 12 months.
She then spoke in her national capacity on the political situation in Syria, urging relevant parties to contribute to the process in good faith in the interest of the country’s people, who require stability and peace. Expressing concern over countless people missing or arbitrarily detained, she stressed the need for confidence-building measures to allow for a new dynamic in the process. The conflict in Syria has become highly internationalized, and all involved should make greater contributions towards coordinated, effective engagement. An inclusive process in which women participate is key to achieving sustainable peace in Syria, she added.
The representative of the Russian Federation expressed regret over failure by the Secretariat and certain Council members — who are “always making a fuss about this topic” — to mention the Government’s recent offer of amnesty. Further, some States have offered “nasty assessments” of the presidential elections taking place in Syria, which shows indifference to those Syrians turning out in the polls. Germany, for example, has completely banned such elections from being held in that country, which undermines the rights and freedoms of Syrians living abroad. He stressed that the presidential elections — taking place in 46 polling stations abroad, with no issues — are being conducted in line with existing domestic law and do not contravene resolution 2254 (2015). He also underscored the importance of rebuilding critical infrastructure in Syria — expressing regret that some donor countries have ignored calls to this end for political reasons — and rejected the “hypocritical presentation” that a cross-border mechanism is the only way to get aid to Idlib, which ignores aid sent to that city by Damascus.
The representative of Ireland urged the Syrian authorities to end their intransigence which continues to frustrate the progress of the Constitutional Committee. That Committee’s work falls short of the aspirations of Syria’s people, she said, calling for a new constitution that sets out a peaceful and inclusive path for all its people. The elections taking place today will not bring the Syrians closer to that goal, she said. Voicing concern that more than 500 civilians are estimated to have died so far in 2021, she added that the conflict has lasted 10 years too long. Condemning those parties in Syria who continue to disregard humanitarian law, she added that it is unconscionable that any Government can have such callous disregard for its own citizens.
The representative of France, stressing the importance of cross-border humanitarian aid, voiced support for the renewal of that mechanism as requested by the Secretary-General. There is no alternative to that, he said, adding that, as long as the regime continues to blackmail its population, cross‑line aid cannot be the only solution. It is the collective responsibility and moral duty of the international community to prevent famine and increase access to vaccinations, he said, underscoring that all parties must respect international humanitarian law. Noting that the drafting of constitutional reforms has not yet begun, he called for rapid and clear progress on the implementation of Council resolution 2254 (2015). Without that, the suffering of the Syrian people will continue to increase, he cautioned, calling for a nationwide cessation of hostilities and progress towards the holding of free and transparent elections.
The representative of Tunisia reiterated that there can be no military solution to the crisis in Syria; rather, a Syrian-led and ‑owned political solution under the auspices of the United Nations that includes women and addresses the root causes of conflict is the only way forward. He urged relevant parties to overcome the current standstill in the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s work and hold regular, continuous meetings in Geneva. Expressing concern over the violence and tension across Syria, he said that increased terrorist activity deepens the current crisis and exacerbates humanitarian suffering. Humanitarian needs must be prioritized above all other interests to provide basic necessities to those in need, and the international community must work collectively to end the presence and influence of terrorist organizations that have found safe haven in parts of Syria.
The representative of Kenya expressed concern over continued violence reflected in sporadic cross-line fire, mutual shelling and air strikes in Syria, and the use of improvised explosive devices and kidnappings by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Da’esh (ISIL) and other terrorist groups. There is a growing risk of protracted violence and the intolerable prospect that the children of Syria will grow up in an environment of war and terror. Confidence-building measures are crucial to a Syrian-led and ‑owned political process, which must start at the domestic level and be accompanied by regional and global counterparts, including Council members involved in the process. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he pointed to deteriorating food security and urged the international community to meet the call for humanitarian aid while discouraging unilateral sanctions that undermine livelihoods and the provision of vital public goods. With more than 3.4 million people in need of humanitarian aid in north‑west Syria alone, the cross-border aid mechanism remains a critical avenue for such assistance, including the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, and this aid must be accompanied by further actions in camps to disengage and deradicalize fighters and their families at scale.
The representative of the United Kingdom, emphasizing that full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) is the only sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria, said the elections being held on 26 May are not part of this process and are designed to sustain the dictatorship of one man and prop up his “unreformed, unrepentant and undemocratic regime”. Calling for genuine and constructive participation in the Constitutional Committee, he said the cross‑border aid mechanism has enabled over 46,000 trucks to deliver assistance to millions of Syrians dealing with the worst impacts of this terrible conflict. While certain members of the Council are suggesting that the humanitarian situation has somehow moved on, cross-line assistance is not yet a viable alternative. He called on the Council to renew the Bab al-Hawa crossing and re‑authorize the Bab al-Salam and Al-Yarubiyah crossings, for a period of 12 months.
The representative of Viet Nam, reiterating the central role of a comprehensive and lasting political settlement, emphasized the vital importance of building trust among concerned parties. Voicing support for the bridging task of the Special Envoy and his team, especially in creating favourable conditions for the continuation of the Constitutional Committee talks, he called on all parties to refrain from any action that could further deteriorate the situation. Noting with concern that the relentless humanitarian crisis in Syria has been severely aggravated by the economic downturn and COVID-19, he stressed the importance of maintaining safe and sustained humanitarian access. Particular focus should be placed on the distribution of vaccines throughout the country, he said, commending the enormous efforts of the United Nations, humanitarian and health-care workers on the ground.
The representative of Mexico reiterated that the only way out of the conflict in Syria is through broad political dialogue and that resolution 2254 (2015) is the established basis to reach this goal. He expressed concern over the stalemate in the work of the Constitutional Committee due to delegates’ inability to agree on working methods, calling on the Government‑appointed delegation to participate constructively in this process. The holding of periodic, transparent elections is key to building democracy, and elections in Syria should be conducted after the adoption of a new Syrian constitution. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he stressed that the return of displaced persons and refugees must be voluntary, safe and orderly according to international law and that addressing the situation of those arbitrarily detained or missing must be prioritized. In light of reporting by the United Nations Monitoring Mechanism — which promotes transparency and accountability — indicating the diversion of humanitarian aid, he called for the border mechanism’s renewal for an additional 12 months, as humanitarian access must be expanded rather than restricted.
The representative of Estonia stressed that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding cross-border aid deliveries in July is the only responsible approach to address the considerable humanitarian needs of the Syrian people. To this end, he called for the reauthorization of the Bab al-Hawa crossing for one year and the reopening of Bab al-Salam and Al-Yarubiyah crossings in the north‑east for the same period. Turning to the political situation, he said that the mock presidential elections currently under way do not comport with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva has not yet produced genuine results. He called on the Special Envoy to focus on the issue of detainees and missing persons as a confidence-building measure to rebuild trust between the Syrian parties and for the creation of an international mechanism to locate missing people or their remains. There must be accountability for the many war crimes and crimes against humanity, he added, demanding the release of all those arbitrarily detained.
The representative of Niger, applauding the humanitarian organizations on the ground in Syria, said that the actors in the Syrian crisis are more concerned with their own agendas than finding common ground. The number of Syrians suffering from food insecurities is disturbingly high, he said, noting that United Nations assistance remains the only recourse for millions. Calling for a simplification in the procedures of the cross-border mechanism, he said that more generosity from donors and bolstered cooperation is crucial. The mechanism must be maintained and reinforced, he said, also voicing regret at the lack of progress in the work of the Constitutional Committee. Further, he stressed, the search for a comprehensive cessation of hostilities must go hand in hand with putting an end to all outside interference.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines stressed that the Constitutional Committee is a vital component of the wider political process towards finding a sustainable solution in Syria. Encouraging all parties to work together in a spirit of respect and compromise, she added that confidence‑building measures must also be prioritized. Noting that the political and humanitarian situations are inextricably linked, she called for “pragmatic international support”. Appealing for the lifting of all unilateral coercive measures, she noted that they have seriously impacted the country’s socioeconomic condition. There is no alternative to the cross-border mechanism, she stressed, adding that both the cross-border and cross‑line modalities must be optimized to provide timely, safe and sustained humanitarian access. Calling for international cooperation in defeating the pandemic, she commended those countries that have provided additional vaccines to Syria.
The representative of the United States said that it would be cause for celebration if the elections under way in Syria were free and fair; however, they are not and represent an insult to both democracy and the country’s people. Pursuant to resolution 2254 (2015), such elections must occur after the formation of a new constitution, be observed by the United Nations and occur in a safe, neutral environment — none of which are satisfied by the current elections. “People don’t need sham elections,” he urged, they need food, humanitarian support and peace, and called on the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Russian Federation to uphold current ceasefire lines. In addition to holding fraudulent elections, the regime continues to subject Syrians to arbitrary detention, torture and mass murder, and must demonstrate its willingness to make progress according to resolution 2254 (2015), which is the established path to a political solution for the conflict. On the humanitarian situation, he supported all methods of delivering aid to Syrians throughout the country, but stressed that there is no suitable alternative to the cross-border mechanism, calling for the reauthorization of Bab al-Hawa for 12 months — “if we don’t, people will die”.
The representative of India, noting the presidential elections under way in Syria, said that such elections are within the purview of sovereignty, but distinct from the Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations. It has been 20 months since the Syrian Constitutional Committee was established, and constructive international diplomacy is needed to bridge existing divides by focusing on incremental positive steps. He expressed concern that the involvement of external actors in Syria has facilitated the growth of terrorism in the country and the wider region, and that Syrian mercenaries are present in Africa, calling on all parties to adhere to their international obligations to fight terrorism and terrorist organizations in Syria. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he stressed the need to increase humanitarian assistance to all Syrians without discrimination, politicization or precondition. For its part, India has extended developmental assistance to Syria through lines of credit, has supplied medicine and food and has constructed artificial limb-fitment camps, and will continue its support for the people of Syria.
The representative of China, Council President for May, speaking in his national capacity, stressed the vital role of resolution 2254 (2015) and called on all parties to maintain communication with the Special Envoy. The Constitutional Committee must work independently, free of external interference, he said, to ensure that the political process is led and owned by Syrians. Noting recent confrontations between armed groups and the presence of foreign troops, he urged all parties to respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and cease attacks against that country. With unilateral sanctions in place, assistance funds cannot reach Syrian territory, he noted, which prevents the rebuilding of the country. The so-called humanitarian exemptions are nothing but an empty shell, he said, adding that, “on one hand, people are calling for human assistance, but on the other hand, some people are using it as a political tool”. Condemning this hypocrisy, he said that unilateral sanctions are a serious roadblock in Syria’s reconstruction efforts and must be lifted immediately.
The representative of the Russian Federation, taking the floor a second time, and quoting British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, said there is a vanity of hypocrisy in the words of the United Kingdom’s delegate and his willingness to push forward his country’s position by ignoring the reality. In 2018, that delegate became “the godfather” of common phrases such as “no plausible explanation” and “there are reasons to believe that” that have since become the basis for Western Powers’ actions against the Russian Federation, he said. Responding to the United Kingdom’s delegate asking who should ultimately pay to rebuild the infrastructure of Syria, he said that it should be the United Kingdom, United States, France and other Western countries who destroyed the country, incited its civil war and helped finance terrorists. These countries are now “washing the blood from their hands”, he said.
The representative of the United Kingdom took the floor a second time to note the “extraordinary” nature of the preceding statement. He said that his factual expression of independently verified numbers must have “hit a nerve” and caused some upset within the Russian mission.
The representative of Syria said that his country bears daily witness to the repercussions of the aggressive policies of the United States and some of its Western allies, who first ignored the growing threat of terrorist organizations and then imposed unilateral coercive measures as “a tool of economic terrorism”. Further, such countries’ distorted interpretation of the Charter of the United Nations led to silence regarding the American, Turkish and Israeli occupation of parts of Syria. Turkish use of water as a weapon of war and building of additional dams in violation of bilateral agreements have led to deteriorating humanitarian and living conditions for millions of Syrians. He called on the Council — especially those members that boast of the concern for humanitarian issues — to pressure Turkey to neutralize international waters from political differences and to cease the use of that resource as a weapon of war against civilians.
Turning to the cross-border aid mechanism, he said that this politicized mechanism violates Syrian sovereignty and serves the interests of the Turkish occupation and affiliated terrorist organizations. Delivery of assistance from inside Syria is the best way for humanitarian aid to be provided consistent with international law, and the Government provides all necessary facilities for the United Nations to operate in this regard. On the 26 May elections, he said that polling stations across the country saw the participation of millions of Syrians, and that holding these elections on time ensures the preservation of State institutions and the regularity of their work. He said that all plots that target the unity, independence and territorial integrity of Syria have fallen before the will of the Syrian people to exercise their electoral rights in full view of the world, calling on certain countries to respect the will of his people and support the Government’s efforts to overcome the crisis and restore security and stability to the country.
The representative of Turkey expressed alarm and concern that the Syrian regime is forcibly displacing its own civilians, even as food insecurity remains disturbingly high. He also noted the increase in chronic diseases due to long‑term lack of access to health care, with hospitals unable to cope with the regime’s constant attacks. There is a growing sense of despair and hopelessness among Syrians, he said, noting that the suicide rate has increased, especially among young people who have no hope for the future. The Council must ensure that Syrians receive long-term support, he said, adding that the renewal of the cross‑border mechanism is an important step. Regarding the water levels, he said that climate change has impacted the flow of water, and in all parts of his country, oral precipitation has decreased. Turkey will take all precautions to continue the flow of water in the Euphrates, he said, adding that downstream countries must transport and use water in a sustainable manner. Calling for a results-oriented approach to the political process, he said the international community must be vigilant about the so-called presidential elections being held at the moment.
The representative of Iran voiced support for the elections in Syria, also expressing hope that ongoing consultations would result in the holding of the sixth meeting of the Constitutional Committee. Calling on the co-Chairs to engage constructively with the Special Envoy, he said that parallel efforts must ensure the territorial integrity of the country. On terrorist groups in Syria, he condemned efforts to portray some terrorist groups as moderates and categorize some as good and some as bad. Terrorists must not be shielded, and they should not be allowed to use civilians as shields, he stressed. Alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people is imperative, he said, calling on the Council to go beyond the so-called cross-border and cross-line mechanisms. It is also vital to encourage the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, he pointed out, adding that the sovereignty of Syria must be fully respected at all times. Also calling for the removal of unilateral coercive sanctions, which delay the return of refugees, hamper reconstruction efforts and adversely affect the political solution, he called such sanctions “economic terrorism”.