Thank you, Madam President, for this opportunity. We believe this is a very appropriate timing for doing it, particularly because the focus is on Idlib. We have been hearing it during these last few days, we are all terribly concerned. All the ingredients exist for a “perfect storm” with potentially devastating humanitarian consequences, and other consequences as well.
First of all, a little summary of facts. I’m sure John Ging will be also able to refer to the humanitarian aspects of it. The UN’s independent and best-available assessments put at least 2.9 million people inside the Idlib area, 2.9 million people, almost 3 million - among them one million children and 1.4 million people who already have been displaced at least once. There are listed Security Council terrorist groups – including non-Syrians, foreign fighters. Those that have been doing terrible things in many other places. They are also there. And there are also armed opposition groups, many of whom have been evacuated to Idlib through reconciliation agreements and are not part of the terrorist groups. But the overwhelming preponderance of people in Idlib are civilians.
President Assad has stated that restoring sovereignty and defeating terrorists remain the priority of the Syrian government. Senior government officials have further stated that retaking Idlib is the next goal. Senior Iranian and Russian officials have spoken in strong terms of their determination to purge terrorists in Idlib.
At the same time, they have indicated that 1) the Government would prefer to see so-called reconciliation agreements rather than military action, 2) that a Russian-Turkish understanding is crucially important, and 3) that Syria does not want a confrontation with Turkey. These are Syrian government official statements we have been recording recently. Russia has been in intensive dialogue with Turkey, and all eyes today are on what transpires after the Presidential Summit between Iran, Russia and Turkey, which has just concluded in Tehran.
Meanwhile, reports suggest increased deployments of government and its affiliated forces and equipment near the Idlib de-escalation zone. Yes, this used to be, and still officially is, a de-escalation zone. Airstrikes and mutual artillery shelling have been reported on its perimeter for the past month, resulting in deaths and injuries on both sides – with an intensification since 4 September.
Meanwhile, the leader of what they call Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but basically al-Nusra, has publicly signaled the group’s intention to fight. On 2 September, photos of a weaponized drone were circulated online, after it landed on the Ghab plain – ostensibly the same model that the Russian Federation claims was used to carry out several attacks on the Hmeimim airbase in recent months.
For their part, armed opposition groups in Idlib have reportedly been fortifying their own positions, digging tunnels and trenches and detonating bridges. Many of these armed opposition groups, those who are not terrorist groups, have in parallel pleaded publicly for the Astana guarantors to secure a non-military solution.
Since early August, almost every single armed opposition group in Idlib has now come under the banner of what is called the National Liberation Front. This includes various groups who have been operating under the same banner with al-Nusra in the past. If this is confirmed, and we seem to be hearing that, this can be taken as a sign of their willingness to separate from al-Nusra. And we hope that they now take even further steps to separate themselves from listed terrorist groups. I note in this context that, at the end of August, Turkey made it clear that it views Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – that is al-Nusra – as a terrorist organization, sending a strong signal to armed groups to separate from al-Nusra from now on.
We have seen statements and counter-statements regarding potential chemical weapons use; we have seen warnings and counter-warnings about the dangers of a major assault on Idlib; and we have seen intensified military presence in the region.
I have laid out for you, Madam President, all the ingredients for a perfect storm. The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib would be a horrific and bloody battle. Civilians are its potential victims, and there are ever-present dangers, in the case of a full-scale assault, of incidents or rapid escalations involving regional and international players. Let’s remember that there is no Idlib after Idlib to which people can be evacuated or at least feel safer during combat.
There must be and is another way than all out military escalation. The Security Council cannot accept that the civilians of Idlib must face this fate. Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international law and the moral conscience of humanity. We must put the sanctity of human, civilian lives above everything else. That is why we are urging all stakeholders to contribute to find a formula to prevent a terrible tragedy while at the same time allow the issue of Security Council-designated terrorist groups to be addressed. The declaration issued by Presidents Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani states that they decided to address the situation in Idlib, and I quote, “in the spirit of cooperation that characterized the Astana format”. We don’t have much more details on that. We would like to see what this means in practice in order to address this issue. They are the guarantors of this last de-escalation area. Therefore, they have a direct influence over the warring parties, and responsibility to solve it. And I’m sure Idlib is at the top of their agenda as it was shown in the Tehran meeting.
I look at other key actors - including the Gulf, and many other countries - who have leverage over non-terrorist armed opposition groups to do whatever they can to ensure that they put civilians first and separate from Al-Nusra. I am concerned about reports that many groups - not all - have become increasingly desperate and in some cases ruthless.
My colleague John Ging from OCHA will brief you on what must happen on the humanitarian side to protect civilians and the humanitarian response plan, but let me emphasize: people should be granted safe passage to places of their choosing if they want to leave temporarily. We must allow the opening of a sufficient number of protected voluntary evacuation routes for civilians in any direction: east, north and south. And for that, we [the UN] must be granted access, at scale. The UN stands ready, me included and I am sure all my colleagues of the humanitarian team, to work with all parties on the spot and elsewhere on the modalities and parameters for the establishment and functioning of such voluntary evacuation routes, if it was required, with full respect for international humanitarian law and human rights principles.
Let me further reiterate the Secretary-General’s clear position that any use of chemical weapons is totally, totally, unacceptable. As the OPCW has found, the norm against the use of chemical weapons has been repeatedly violated in Syria. This must not happen again. I cannot stress enough the danger associated with any alleged use of these weapons, not only in humanitarian terms, but also the acute threat to maintaining international peace and security. But I equally strongly underscore that the overwhelming majority of civilians have been killed in Syria by indiscriminate or sometimes targeted attacks against civilians by conventional weapons, and these are also abhorrent and unacceptable.
One last point: all this talk of an assault which can produce a “perfect storm” on Idlib is happening at exactly the same time than there is serious talk of moving on a constitutional committee, and desires to urge Syrian refugees to return to their country. These narratives do not sit well one beside the other. Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a post-war political scenario, or we will see this war reach new levels of horror. That is why today’s meeting in Tehran is so important, and why I am convening Iran, Russia and Turkey in Geneva next Monday and Tuesday, and then, on Friday, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It would be the ultimate failure of imagination and of diplomacy if with all this effort we simply saw in increase of military activities.
Let me conclude with two points, if I may, Madam President. The first one is: I have seen today many people coming from Idlib. Civilians. They are civilians representing 2.9 million people. They are women, normal doctors, farmers, people. They are almost 3 million. They have been initiating demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations. They have been lighting candlelights at night, to show that in these homes there are normal people, not terrorists. They are 3 million civilians. And I have been inspired by what they have been telling me because they have been asking us, the UN, and through us yourselves, to also express their voices. In that context if you allow me, in the private chamber, since the question of separating terrorists from others and protecting civilians and giving a voice to the civilians, since I have been asked if we have ideas at the UN, we do have some ideas and I will take the liberty of elaborating on them when we meet in the private chamber. Any idea, any proposal to avoid this becoming the biggest humanitarian tragedy at the end of the most horrible recent conflict in our history, should be given a chance.