The situation in the Middle East (Syria).
The international diplomacy needed to spur humanitarian and early recovery efforts will be more precarious against the new backdrop of military operations in Ukraine, the top United Nations official on Syria warned the Security Council today, as he briefed members on recent developments.
Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, cautioned that “it is plain that there is a stalemate, that there is acute suffering and that a political solution is the only way out.” This requires a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political process, supported by constructive, global diplomatic efforts, he said, “however hard that is, and especially right now”.
He warned that “all signs of an ongoing hot conflict” still exist and that “any of a number of flashpoints could ignite a broader conflagration”. Pointing to an array of issues, including the use of improvised explosive devices, as well as shelling and skirmishes across frontlines, he went on to sound the alarm over aggression across international borders, including Israeli strikes in the south and Damascus and drone strikes in the north-east.
The Special Envoy outlined several arenas for ongoing discussion, including the upcoming session of the Small Body of the Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, United Nations-facilitated Constitutional Committee, set to be held in March 2022. In addition, he met with the Women’s Advisory Board in Norway and is set to attend the Civil Society Support Room in Geneva. He emphasized that he is always encouraged to see discussions “on how to rebuild a Syrian society based on common civic values of independence, participation, plurality, transparency, dialogue and equality”. Alongside these efforts, he engaged with the Syrian Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission, as well as the Foreign Ministers of Jordan, Turkey and the Russian Federation.
Joyce Msuya, Assistant-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, briefing the Council on what she described as a “very bleak picture”, with more people in need today than at any time since the beginning of the conflict. The agency’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan focuses on access to basic services and measures to extend humanitarian access in north-west Syria, including through cross-border operations that deliver food, medicine, and other vital supplies “in a transparent and principled manner.” She also described the new distribution system for cross-line aid.
Some 12 million people in Syria are food insecure, she continued, with food prices rising while the economy plummets, with the result that households have to spend approximately 50 per cent more than they earn. This leads to households making “unbearable choices”, as can be seen in the uptick in child marriages and the fact that children are being pulled out of school. She also expressed her concern over the recent attack on a prison in Al-Hasakah in January and noted the vulnerable situation of hundreds of children in detention centres and camps, in desperate need of protection.
Syria’s delegate decried the fact that, eight months after the adoption of Security Council resolution 2585 (2021) and with just four months left of that mandate, there has been no progress with regard to early recovery projects. On cross-line work, he said it continues to be hamstrung by Turkey, as well as terrorist groups, derailing access to humanitarian aid. He went on to criticize the United States occupation forces for plundering oil and gas pipelines and seizing Syrian wheat production. His Government is trying to rebuild, he said, but these obstacles are hindering its efforts.
The current political approach needs to change to put the interests of the Syrian people first and to end the Turkish, American and Israeli occupation of Syrian territories, he stressed. He outlined the deleterious impact of unilateral coercive measures by the United States and the European Union, lamenting their impact on the banking, energy and communication sectors, as well as those of land, sea, air and maritime transportation.
The Russian Federation’s delegate also highlighted the detrimental effect of sanctions, noting the socioeconomic challenges faced by internally displaced Syrians returning home. He noted with concern the lack of access to the area operated by Turkey and the fact that only two domestic convoys carrying humanitarian assistance have been able to reach Idlib. Underscoring that the issue of aid had been politicized by Western donors, he said that positing one element of humanitarian assistance above another was an unacceptable attempt to “cherry-pick”.
Turkey’s delegate said that “There is no replacement to cross-border operations” and that it was malicious to call for cross-line access for humanitarian aid while undertaking attacks. Furthermore, the Assad Government diverts such assistance for its own purposes, he said, asking for the issue to be monitored. He also offered a rebuttal to any suggestion that relations with Damascus be normalized, saying that it is the lives of millions of Syrians that should be normalized, giving them a society that is democratic, secular and prosperous. The “criminal regime”, on the other hand, must not be legitimized, he cautioned.
Iran’s representative underscored that “nothing is more important or urgent” than ending sanctions that had hit Syria’s access to medicine, health care, food, water, electricity and communications. He went on to sound a note of alarm over the free movement enjoyed by terrorist organizations in areas where foreign forces were illegally present, stressing that fighting such groups could never be used as a pretext to undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.
France’s delegate underlined that the position of his country and that of the European Union on sanctions is unchanged and will remain so until the conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees has been met. With that in mind, it is imperative that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) be allowed access to those returning to Syria.
The delegate of the United Arab Emirates stressed that the stability of Syria is linked to that of the region. There should be an increased Arab role alongside a rejection of foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs. Referring to fatal confrontations on the Jordanian border between armed forces and drug-smuggling groups, he emphasized the need for a nationwide ceasefire. The precarious security situation means that any provocations could reverberate through neighbouring States.
Echoing those sentiments, Kenya’s representative, also speaking for Gabon and Ghana, stressed that regional efforts play a critical role. He highlighted the experience of Africa as an example of how the active engagement of adjoining and nearby countries is vital in order to resolve complex crises.
The United Kingdom’s delegate drew a parallel between the plight of Syrians and Ukrainians, noting that it did not augur well for either. “As we look in horror at the unfolding situation in Ukraine, the daily struggles of men, women and children in Syria should serve as a dire warning to the international community,” she said. The decimation of civilian infrastructure has left over three quarters of the population unable to meet their most basic needs. Ending the conflict requires a United Nations-led political process, she said, welcoming the Special Envoy’s intention to reconvene Constitutional Committee talks in March and underlining that the Syrian regime must engage with this process.
The representative of the United States also welcomed the announcement of the new round of talks of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and called on all parties to adhere to the format of the meeting, and to participate in a constructive manner. He also called on Damascus to provide information about the tens of thousands of missing persons, noting that “nations should not normalize relations with a regime that forcibly locks up and disappears its own people”.
Also speaking were representatives of Ireland (on behalf of the co-penholders of the Syrian humanitarian file and in its national capacity), Albania, India, Brazil, Mexico, China and Norway.