I am here to make an appeal about the unfolding situation in Syria’s Idlib province. So much is at stake.
It is absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib. This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.
Almost half of Idlib’s population of 2.9 million people had gone there to seek refuge from conflict elsewhere in Syria.
They include close to one million children. Their lives have been upended and they have nowhere to go.
Idlib is the last so-called “de-escalation zone” in Syria. It must not be transformed into a blood bath.
I understand that the present situation in Idlib is not sustainable and the presence of terrorist groups cannot be tolerated. But fighting terrorism does not absolve warring parties of their core obligations under international law.
I appeal to all parties directly and indirectly involved — and in particular the three guarantors of the de-escalation zone, namely Iran, Russia and Turkey: Spare no effort to find solutions that protect civilians. Preserve basic services and hospitals. Ensure full respect for international humanitarian law.
It also goes without saying in the 21st century: any use of chemical weapons is totally unacceptable. Beyond the immediate human toll, such use would lead to a situation spiraling out of control.
All these factors underscore the urgent need to make greater progress in the Geneva process, and in particular the creation of a constitutional committee as part of the overall political package.
As I always said, there is no military solution to the conflict. The solution must be political.
I will continue to repeat these messages to the Security Council and all parties, both privately and publicly. And my Special Envoy will continue his round-the-clock efforts.
We have a collective responsibility to protect people who have already suffered so much.
Q: Secretary-General, would an all-out offensive on Idlib, a place which has such a large civilian population, in your view, amount to a war crime?
SG: I think what is important at the present moment is not to classify what has not yet happened; it’s to make sure that it doesn’t happen. Which means it is important that those – especially the three guarantors of the Astana process - find a way in which it is possible to isolate terrorist groups and it is possible to create a situation in which civilians will not be the price paid to solve the problem of Idlib.
Q: Mr. Secretary-General, during the Security Council, American Ambassador said that the Astana format is basically dead and doesn’t work. Do you think there is still need to continue efforts in Astana format?
SG: I think it is absolutely essential [for] Russia, Iran, and Turkey, not to mention other countries directly or indirectly involved in this situation, to really come together at the present moment more than ever because Idlib is such a mess that, without a strong commitment of all these parties, we could be moving into a situation that would lead to the kind of massive battle that would have unpredictable consequences. I think these countries will have the possibility to address Idlib. We recognize the Idlib situation is not sustainable, but to address this problem without a massive bloodbath.
Q: Mr. Secretary-General, the Security Council could not come up with a solution. The Russia, Iran, Turkey meeting did not come up with a solution. Is there anything you and the UN can do for the de-escalation zones or to ensure safe passage for civilians?
SG: At least what we can do is appeal for people to respect their own commitments. If you look at the Tehran Communiqué, it is said that it is necessary to fight terrorism, but it is necessary to protect civilians. What we want is exactly those commitments to be maintained in practical terms.
Q: I have a follow-up: You mention the guarantors. Is it their responsibility?
SG: I think it is the responsibility of all parties involved, but the guarantors, of course, because they have their own posts around the situation in Idlib and they have negotiated for a long time the de-escalation zones and different other forms and arrangements. The guarantors have a particular responsibility, and that is why my appeal – that is an appeal to all parties directly and indirectly involved – mentions specifically the guarantors. Thank you very much.