New York

09 April 2018

Note to Correspondents: Remarks by Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Syria, to the Security Council [as delivered]

Mr. President, 
1. This emergency meeting of the Security Council underscores the gravity of events in recent days in Syria, and their severe consequences for civilians, and takes place in a moment of increased international tensions, drawing in national, regional and international actors into dangerous situations of potential or actual confrontation. It is an important Security Council session, Mr. President. There is an urgent need for this Council to find a way to address the situation with unity and purpose.
2. How did we reach this point? March saw devastating violence in half of Eastern Ghouta that resulted in at least 1,700 people killed and injured in opposition controlled areas, and dozens killed and injured in Government-controlled areas – and ultimately the evacuation of 130,000 people, including fighters, family members and other civilians.
3. But in Douma there was a fragile ceasefire that held for most of March. Our good offices had played an important role in that regard. But from 31 March, the UN was not able anymore to be involved in talks since at that time the Syrian Government did not consent to our presence -- though we made efforts to propose concrete ways to address issues that we understood were coming up in continuing contacts, including suggesting to activate the Astana detainee working group -- but this suggestion at that time was not taken up.
4. From 2 April, the evacuation of some 4,000 fighters, family members and other civilians from Douma to northern Syria did take place. But then, on 6 April, there was a major escalation in violence. There were reports of sustained airstrikes and shelling on Douma, killing of civilians, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and attacks damaging health facilities. There were also reports of shelling on Damascus city, reportedly killing and injuring civilians. Jaish al-Islam requested our involvement in emergency talks in extremis, but there was no positive response to that when conveyed to the other side.
5. On 7 April at around 8 PM local time, reports started emerging of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. Pictures immediately circulated on social media showing what appeared to be lifeless men, women and children. NGOs on the ground claimed to have received hundreds of cases of civilians with symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical agents. The same NGOs claimed that at least 49 people were killed, and hundreds injured.
6. I wish to recall that the Secretary-General has noted, and I quote, that “the United Nations is not in a position to verify these reports”. But he has also made it clear that we cannot ignore them and I quote, that he “is particularly alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations in Douma,” and further emphasized, and I quote, that “any use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is abhorrent, and requires a thorough investigation.”
7. I note that a number of states have strongly alluded or expressed suspicion that the Syrian Government was responsible for the alleged chemical attack. I note that other states, as well as the government of Syria itself, have strongly questioned the credibility of these allegations, depicting the attack as a fabrication and/or a provocation. My comment: one more reason for a thorough independent investigation.
8. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said that it has made a preliminary analysis of the reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons, and is in the process of gathering further information from all available sources. My colleague who is sitting with you, Thomas Markram, Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, will further address this matter. But I urge the Security Council, in accordance with its own mandate to maintain international peace and security and uphold international law, to -- for God’s sake -- ensure that a mechanism is found to investigate these allegations and attribute responsibility.
9. Returning to the narrative of events: at around midnight on 7 April, hours after the alleged chemical weapons attack, Jaish al-Islam informed the United Nations that they had reached an agreement with the Russian Federation and the Syrian Government. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense stated that the agreement encompasses a ceasefire and Jaish al-Islam fighters laying down their arms or evacuating Douma. The Russian Federation also reported that up to 8,000 Jaish al-Islam fighters and 40,000 of their own family members were to evacuate.
10. As I brief you, we understand additional evacuations from Douma are already underway. We have also received reports that some detainees -- the ones we heard about before -- have begun to be released from Douma today. We do note reports that the agreement provides for civilians who decide to stay to remain under guarantees of the Russian Federation, with the resumption of services in coordination with a committee of civilians locally. I urge the Syrian Government and Russian Federation to ensure protection of those civilians, so that as many civilians as possible can stay in their homes if they choose to, or leave to a place of their choosing, or return, as per international law. And I urge that there be an immediate re-focus for the implementation of Security Council resolution 2401. What we have seen is basically an escalation before a de-escalation.
11. Mr. President, Clearly, the dangers of further escalation arise from situations beyond Ghouta as well. We have received reports of missiles targeting the Syrian Government’s Tiyas or T4 airbase early this morning. No state has claimed responsibility for this reported strike. The United States and France have explicitly denied any involvement. The Syrian Government, Russian Federation and Iran have suggested that Israel could have carried out the attack, with Iranian state media reporting on over a dozen military personnel being killed and injured, including 4 Iranian military advisors. The Government of Israel has not commented. The United Nations is unable to independently verify or attribute responsibility for the attacks, but we urge all parties to show the utmost restraint and avoid any further escalation or confrontation.
12. We are also concerned at dynamics in other areas of Syria. Syrians, in Daraa, northern rural Homs, Eastern Qalamoun, Hama and Idlib have all expressed to us fears that they may soon face similar escalation to what we have seen in Eastern Ghouta. We urge therefore this council, the Astana guarantors and those states involved in the Amman efforts to work towards reinstating de-escalation in these areas and elsewhere in Syria. The indications are the opposite at the moment.
13. Meanwhile, further to its operation in Afrin, the Turkish Government has indicated the potential for further operations in other areas of northern Syria if PYD and YPG forces are not removed from those areas. Military operations in such areas have the potential of international tensions, and we therefore urge all parties concerned to de-escalate, show restraint, and find through dialogue a means to implement Resolution 2401 and fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
14. Let me also highlight that we have seen recently -- and this is particularly tragic when you look at the efforts of all of us, all of you, in the last year -- ISIL launch new operations in Syria, inside Syria, in south Damascus, rural Damascus and remote areas near the Iraqi border.
15. Mr President, Let me conclude with some bottom lines, if I may: First, civilians are paying a heavy, heavy, heavy price for military escalation. We are not seeing de-escalation. We are seeing the contrary. Today, our first priority must be to protect civilians from the war, from the conflict, from chemical weapons, from hunger. We call on all sides to ensure respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, including humanitarian access across Syria to all people in need. And we urge once more concrete respect of Resolution 2401 -- your resolution -- throughout Syria. Second, continued allegations of use of chemical agents are of extremely grave concern. These allegations must be independently and urgently investigated. Any use of chemical weapons is absolutely prohibited and constitutes a very serious violation of international law, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Security Council resolution 2118. Preventing impunity and any further use of chemical weapons and upholding international law must be an utmost priority of all members of this council. Third -- I have to say it very slowly because it is the first time during the presentation of my briefings over four years that I have reached a point in which I am expressing a concern about international security -- not only regional, or national, or Syrian security. Mr. President, dear Members of the Security Council the recent developments, carry more than ever before, the dangers that the Secretary-General warned about recently at the Munich Security Conference. He spoke of a Middle East of “different fault lines that are completely crossing each other and interconnected”, of “conflicting interests of both global and regional powers” and of “forms of escalation that can have absolutely devastating consequences that it is difficult for us to even imagine.” This Council cannot allow a situation of uncontrollable escalation to develop in Syria, on any front. Instead, it must find unity and address the concrete threats to international peace and security in Syria today.
16. Thank you, Mr. President. I am sorry to have been short but focusing on one specific concern: the threat to international security related to what we are seeing now in Syria and on the danger of repetition of the alleged chemical weapons attacks. Next time, I will be able to give you a briefing about humanitarian issues, about other aspects, about the political process, which I know we are all interested and focused on, but today is the day of security, international security and peace. Thank you.