United Nations Security Council | April 28, 2021
With Violence Flaring across Syria, Chief United Nations Mediator Calls for ‘New Means’ of International Discussion, as Security Council Explores Options
(Edlib Media Center via Associated Press)
Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns that Halting Cross-Border Deliveries in North-West Will Sever ‘Lifeline to Millions’
A flare up of violence in Syria could trigger a rapid deterioration of the situation amid efforts to overcome a stalemate in constitutional talks ahead of general elections in May, the senior United Nations mediator warned the Security Council today during a videoconference meeting.
Geir O. Pedersen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, sounded a warning to all parties to prioritize the search for a settlement to the decade-long conflict. Providing an overview of the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2021/390), he raised concerns about a significant escalation in the north-west. From a recent air strike on Syria by Israel to fresh attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Daesh), a steady rise in hostilities, kidnappings and troop movements bring the spectre of imminent escalation.
He said a nationwide ceasefire outlined in resolution 2254 (2015) is essential, as is a cooperative approach to eradicating listed terrorist groups. Recent developments include a meeting in Geneva of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, where members voiced fears over Syria’s permanent division, alongside hope for a renewal of the political process. Persistent challenges include the destitution facing the Syrian people after a decade of conflict, corruption and mismanagement, war economies, Lebanon’s financial collapse, the pandemic, sanctions and fuel shortages. He appealed for continued donor support to the response plan and shared calls by the United Nations Civil Society Support Room for humanitarian and livelihoods programmes, and the application of all humanitarian exceptions to sanctions regimes.
Stressing the importance of unblocking progress on detainees, abductees and missing persons, he said that as long as this file remains largely frozen, many Syrians will be unable to even begin to think about moving on, and the country’s social fabric cannot be restored. He called on the Government — and all other Syrian parties — to carry out unilateral releases of detainees and abductees and undertake meaningful actions on missing persons.
“If this highly internationalized conflict is to move towards resolution, we need a more constructive and comprehensive international diplomacy on Syria to try to unlock progress step for step,” he insisted. A new means of international discussion or a new format could bring stakeholders with something to add to the table. Exploratory consultations could help test the possibilities and bridge the mistrust hindering progress. “We must begin to lay the groundwork for such an effort,” he said.
Stressing that the United Nations is not involved in the 26 May presidential election, he said it was called under the auspices of the current Constitution and is not part of the political process established by resolution 2254 (2015), which mandates the Organization to facilitate a political process that culminates in the holding of free and fair elections, in accordance with a new constitution and the highest international standards of transparency and accountability.
He then drew attention to the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned Constitutional Committee, established by an agreement between the Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and facilitated by the United Nations. Appealing to the Co-Chairs and members to respect the Terms of Reference and adhere to the Code of Conduct in public statements, he said a newly discussed proposal, if implemented, would help the Committee to gradually advance its work. “We cannot get there all in one go, but there are steps that could be taken to generate some movement, and it requires constructive international diplomacy to identify and implement them,” he said. “I am open to any suggestions or advice, but I see no other path than this to help the Syrian people to navigate out of their terrible crisis and towards a better future that meets their legitimate aspirations and restores Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity.”
Turning to the pandemic, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said COVID-19 testing across Syria is so limited that it only shows “the very tip of the iceberg”, but all signs point to the virus accelerating rapidly. The number of new cases recorded by the Ministry of Health in March was double the figure for February, and hospitals in Damascus are full. While the United Nations is providing personal protection equipment and training for medical workers and supporting the rollout of vaccination campaigns, he noted that doses supplied through the COVID‑19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility will cover 20 per cent of the population. Although not nearly enough, it is a vital first step in protecting medical workers and those most vulnerable.
On the economic crisis, he cited volatility in the exchange rate in April, though it strengthened to around 3,400 Syrian pounds to the United States dollar on the informal market, from its lowest point of 4,700 to the dollar in March. Food prices overall remain at historic levels, with subsidized bread prices doubled this month in Al Hassakeh. More than half of Syrian households are reporting insufficient or insufficiently nutritious food. “That’s an increase of over 70 per cent compared to last year,” he said, while fuel shortages forced the cancellation of several humanitarian field missions.
Addressing violence across the country, he condemned the killing of two more aid workers — volunteers for national non-Governmental organization Al Bir and Al Ehsan Ras Al Ain, who died in a 17 April attack near Deir ez-Zor. “Humanitarian workers in Syria deliver life-saving aid under the most challenging circumstances and at great personal risk,” he stressed. “They must be protected.” The organization is also monitoring tensions in and around Qamishli and Al Hassakeh cities, where clashes killed three civilians and displaced 15,000 people. Along with insecurity at al Hol camp, “we are seeing a collective failure to protect women and children” he said, with tens of thousands of children growing up in desperate conditions there and elsewhere. He urged relevant Member States to rapidly and safely allow for the voluntary repatriation of their nationals in line with international law and standards.
He went on to stress that the Alouk water station has again been interrupted for the past two weeks, impacting nearly half a million people in Al Hassakeh. Across the north-west, millions of people live along the border in an active war zone, dependent on aid delivered from Turkey. As the operation reaches 2.4 million people every month, “a failure to extend the cross-border authorization would sever this lifeline,” he assured. In the north-east, 25 trucks containing food rations have been stuck outside Qamishli since 23 April due to violence. And while the United Nations has scaled up cross-line deliveries, “needs continue to outstrip our ability to respond”, particularly since the removal of Al Yarubiyah as an authorized border crossing in January 2020. Conditions at Rukban refugee camp meanwhile remain dire, with no cross-line assistance delivered to its 12,000 people since September 2019.
Although the United States and European Union have assured that their sanctions do not ban the flow of humanitarian supplies to Syria, he pointed out that more than half of the international Damascus-based non-governmental organizations have reported serious banking issues in 2021. And despite the $4.4 billion pledged at the fifth Brussels Conference in March, much more is needed in order for humanitarian organizations to meet the needs of 12.3 million Syrians this year.
In the ensuing debate, some delegates welcomed the forthcoming presidential election, while others objected to its planned conduct in May under the current Constitution, arguing that the decision defies the political process by preventing millions of Syrians displaced or living as refugees from voting or running as candidates. Speakers roundly welcomed the COVAX vaccine deliveries and called for all steps to be taken to advance a political solution to end the conflict.
The representative of Ireland, speaking also for Norway, said that 9 in 10 Syrians now live in poverty, with 60 per cent of the population at risk of going hungry this year, representing the worst numbers in the history of the conflict at a time when COVID-19 is exacerbating the situation. Condemning reports of grave violations against children and recent violence against humanitarian workers, she expressed strong support for all efforts to ensure aid reaches the growing numbers of those in need in north-west Syria, where 3.4 million people — 21 per cent more than in 2020 — require assistance.
Expressing support for all efforts to put in place a cross-line support mission to north-west Syria, she called on all parties to engage constructively and in a spirit of compromise to ensure this important mission can proceed. The United Nations-mandated cross-border operation in the north-west reaches almost 85 per cent of people in need every month. Without this sustained and predictable access, civilian suffering would rise to levels not seen in a decade of conflict, further driving instability in Syria and the region. The immense humanitarian needs clearly demonstrate that Security Council resolution 2533 (2020) must be renewed.
Speaking in her national capacity, she noted with regret Syria’s lack of substantive engagement in the work of the Constitutional Committee, which frustrates the possibilities for real progress and falls far short of the legitimate expectations of the people. Highlighting other concerns, she called on all parties to take measures to prevent and end child casualties in the conduct of hostilities, end their recruitment and unconditionally release them from the ranks of all armed groups. Attacks on schools and their use for military purposes are reprehensible and must end, and all parties must remove the obstacles to education in areas under their control. It is past time for the Council to shoulder its responsibility and call on Syrian authorities to engage meaningfully within the Constitutional Committee and a wider political process, she said, as outlined in resolution 2254 (2015). The Council should also demand that authorities comply with their obligations under international law and end their brutal policies, so that the people of Syria can live in freedom and without fear.
The representative of the Russian Federation said the Council’s virtual format is unjustifiable, especially when United Nations Headquarters is safe. His delegation held 10 in-person meetings under its 2020 presidency and the General Assembly regularly convenes live sessions. Nothing is stopping the Council from doing the same, he said, urging the current Vietnamese and upcoming Chinese presidencies to hold live meetings.
Turning to the situation in Syria, he said worsening humanitarian conditions are linked to sanctions imposed by the collective West, and chronic instability remains tied to occupying and foreign forces, including Israel’s air strikes. The Russian Federation continues to work towards advancing the political process, which must be Syrian-owned without any outside interference, he said, urging actors to refrain from pushing negative narratives ahead of general elections.
Raising other concerns, he said the United States claims that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — which the Council listed as a terrorist organization — should be supported because it is “the lesser of two evils”. Welcoming COVAX vaccine deliveries, he said Syria is working on this issue as well as granting permission for aid deliveries. Aid supplies currently stuck in warehouses due to fuel shortages can be linked to United States oil extraction activities in occupied Syrian territory. Turning to the fifth Brussels Conference and its call for contributions, he said Syria has not been involved with these matters and typically receives very few contributions. The Russian Federation has recently repatriated children and, given the worsening situation in camps, he called on Council colleagues to ensure decent conditions for their own citizens. Finally, the absence of launching even one humanitarian convoy from Damascus is “open sabotage”, he said, questioning how colleagues can discuss the territorial integrity of Syria in the Council if they do not want to open a corridor.
The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the first delivery of more than 250,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX Facility last week, noting her Government has pledged $700 million in support. While more than 50,000 vaccines arrived through the north-west Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, she expressed concern over the predicted disruption to future deliveries, should the Council fail to renew that mandate. Such a move would contradict the Council’s own ambition, she said, as the life-saving aid includes World Food Programme (WFP) deliveries serving millions of people and facilitates non-governmental organization operations providing protection, health, water and sanitation. Citing the Secretary-General’s warnings, she stressed that even if deployed regularly, cross-line convoys cannot replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operation. On the political track, she noted the core of conflict resolution requires a new Syrian constitution, followed by free and fair elections. However, holding presidential elections in May under the previous constitution runs counter to that process, with millions of Syrians displaced or living as refugees and prevented from voting or running for the office. Referring to “vanity elections”, she urged the regime to focus on actively and genuinely participating in the implementation of resolution 2254 (2015).
The representative of Estonia said the spread of COVID-19 in Syria endangers the most vulnerable groups and hampers the humanitarian response. Cross-line aid meanwhile is irregular and unreliable, he added, making cross-border aid deliveries in July “our utmost duty” to ensure the Syrian people will receive necessary food items, medicine and vaccines. The economic situation remains fragile across the country, with corruption, warlordism and intra-communal fighting preventing the safe return of refugees. Weakening neighbouring economies have caused substantial losses for Syria, he said, as Syrian businesses have historically been strongly interlinked with those in Lebanon and elsewhere. Politically, Constitutional Committee talks in Geneva have not produced genuine dialogue, with proposed elections in May further undermining the process. The legitimate claims of the Syrian opposition must be taken into account, with free and fair elections including members of the diaspora. “Anything else would be considered yet another farce,” he said, with the Constitutional Committee continually “under-delivering”. He reiterated calls fo