An attempted prison break by detainees with suspected links to Islamic State groups — and subsequent clashes involving international forces — have once again raised the spectre of resurgent terrorism in Syria’s decade-long civil conflict, the senior United Nations official in the country warned the Security Council today, as he briefed members on recent developments.
Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, recounted an unprecedented attempt at a prison break in the north-east town of Al-Hasakah by thousands of detainees with suspected links to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), which sparked clashes with the United States-led global coalition. While most of the ISIL fighters have now surrendered, there is great concern for the safety of civilians, many of whom have been displaced.
“Even if this particular ISIL uprising might have been quashed, this episode brings back terrible memories of the prison breaks that fuelled the original rise of ISIL in 2014 and 2015,” he said, adding that it sends a clear message on the importance of uniting to combat the threat of internationally proscribed terrorist groups and resolving the broader conflict. Civilians also continue to suffer amid shelling, airstrikes, improvised explosive device attacks and terrorist attacks that target them directly, especially in north-east and central Syria.
“In this context, the tragedy of the Syrian people is only deepening,” he said, noting that 14 million civilians now need humanitarian assistance, more than 12 million remain displaced and many are now facing freezing winter conditions. Meanwhile, the Syrian economy has collapsed and criminality and smuggling are flourishing, despite a continued “strategic stalemate” that has kept the conflict’s front lines frozen for more than two years.
Outlining his own diplomatic and mediation efforts, he cited recent visits to Tehran and Doha, as well as a meeting with the Syrian Negotiations Commission and with the Astana Guarantors, all aimed at promoting “step-by-step” confidence-building measures and more frank negotiations. He also noted his plan to reconvene the Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, United Nations-facilitated Constitutional Committee, urging the parties to be prepared to find some common ground on that crucial front “or at least narrow differences”.
Civil society leader Thuraya Hijazi, Director of the organization Release Me in northern Syria, also briefed the Council via videoconference. Noting that the regime continues to operate with impunity, she said 90 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line and 5.6 million people require humanitarian assistance, the provision of which is constantly politicized. Despite many efforts, the Security Council has so far failed at finding a political solution, leading the Syrian people to lose hope. Meanwhile, no action plan has been laid out to address the serious crimes being committed against Syrian women, which include sexual violence and the inability to make their voices heard.
As Council members took the floor, many expressed deep concern over the incident at the Al-Hasakah prison and its impact on nearby civilians, as well as its potential broader indications regarding the status of ISIL/Da’esh in the region. However, delegates largely diverged on the other threats facing Syria, with some stressing the importance of the constitution-drafting process and others focusing instead on the need to respect national sovereignty and resist imposing external pressure or artificial deadlines on the parties.
The representative of the United States said that his delegation supports the pursuit of lasting peace in Syria, including by sustaining the coalition campaign to prevent the resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh. Noting that recent events at the Al-Hasakah detention centre show that the group remains a real threat, he also emphasized the need to expand full, unhindered humanitarian access across Syria and keep border crossings open.
The representative of Ireland also condemned the recent attack by ISIL/Da’esh in Al-Hasakah and expressed grave concern about the continued uptick in violent incidents, adding: “Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes.” Calling on all parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law, she called for full accountability for all crimes committed in Syria, commending Germany and other States that have recently taken domestic action to prosecute crimes committed there under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
China’s delegate echoed concern over the incidents at the Al-Hasakah prison. The international community must take a clear stance against terrorism, respect the Syrian Government’s leadership in that arena and refrain from engaging in double standards, he stressed. Noting the need for an integrated international approach to threats to Syria’s sovereignty and independence, he said such examples as theft of oil from the country’s north-east and the construction of settlements in the Golan Heights both constitute serious violations of Syria’s rights.
The representative of the Russian Federation emphasized that no alternate exists to a Syrian-led, United Nations-supported political process free from foreign interference and artificial deadlines. Pointing out that Damascus stands ready to engage in the next round of Constitutional Committee talks, he added that natural ties must be resumed with Syria’s neighbours. He also echoed expressions of concern over the attack on the Al-Hasakah prison, stressing that the Council needs additional information on the situation unfolding in north-east Syria.
Syria’s representative said the situation in Al-Hasakah requires the Council’s attention, including because it reflects the broader problem of the continued United States presence in Syria. Noting that his country stands committed to finding a political solution based on national dialogue and full respect for sovereignty, he rejected outside attempts to impose artificial timelines on the Constitutional Committee process. Meanwhile, he pointed out that the Council held not one session to condemn Israel’s recent aggression against his country.
Also speaking were the representatives of Gabon, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Albania, United Kingdom, France, Ghana, Kenya, India, Brazil, Norway, Turkey and Iran.
The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 4:55 p.m.