Mr President and Dear Karel,
I am joining you by VTC from Brussels because I had very minor eye surgery on my right eye which had been affected in many missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and it was useful to do so. The only consequence of it was that I am not allowed to fly until Sunday. My apologies for doing it from Brussels, that is why I am here with VTC. The good thing is that I have two eyes and I can speak and work. That is why we have been constantly, round-the-clock, in spite of this minor local surgery, in touch with the Secretary-General and my colleagues in the field and with all those with influence, because of the events (some of which are very worrisome) that have been taking place in the last few days.
On 7 March, I briefed you in consultations on the status of the implementation of resolution 2401. At the time, I said that there had not been a sustained ceasefire and there had not been enough humanitarian access at that stage. On 12 March, the Secretary-General himself orally reported to this Council on the implementation of resolution 2401, including UN efforts to create those conditions by using its own good offices and his own teams, including ourselves. The Secretary-General also underscored that it is incumbent on the parties and all those with influence - in this Council, in Astana, in the broader ISSG - to act on the resolution, throughout Syria, without delay.
Let me update, with your permission, on where we stand on these matters, since the Secretary-General made a comprehensive report – and on the very day after the sad anniversary of the beginning of this conflict. We are entering the eighth year. In everything we are doing in this horrific conflict, our compass, and I know you feel the same, has been, is and should be the Syrian people, wherever they are, who are telling us they are fed up with this conflict and the way civilians are being affected in the cross-fighting. So whatever we do these days and whatever we suggest, including our current facilitation role, is constantly framed by the urgent need of the ordinary civilians – women, children and men.
Further meetings have taken place between the Russian Federation and Jaish al-Islam, in the last few days, on the outskirts of Douma – the northernmost of the three opposition-controlled enclaves in Eastern Ghouta. As a result of this engagement, a tenuous, fragile ceasefire between the Government, the Russian military and Jaish al Islam forces has continued to largely hold, for 6 days now, and we hope it will continue so, notwithstanding engagement between government forces and Jaish al-Islam in other areas outside of Douma, such as the village of Reihan. The ceasefire was effective and implemented with Jaish al-Islam in Douma, but not beyond that. But this is only one part of Eastern Ghouta. It is not being replicated in the rest of Eastern Ghouta or elsewhere and it is extremely fragile. As we are talking, I understand, at this very moment, some delicate meetings are taking place regarding the follow-up to this arrangement regarding Douma. Let us hope that this ceasefire holds, because it is at least one good news among very bad news.
The UN has been proactively offering its own good offices, but efforts to facilitate meaningful contacts between the Russian Federation and Failaq al-Rahman or Ahrar al-Sham have not yet produced results. These are the dominant forces in the two other enclaves of Eastern Ghouta, in Harasta and around Kafr Batna/Ain Terma/Irbin/Zamalka/Jobar respectively. In those two other areas we have not seen any ceasefire to speak of. Rather, we have seen Government forces and their allies pursue a concerted escalation against these two enclaves, with rapid ground offensives, accompanied by shelling and airstrikes. Reports are just coming in a public market in Kafr Batna having been hit - we need to verify this of course because they are fresh reports - with numerous civilian casualties. And we have also seen continuous outgoing shelling from these areas of Eastern Ghouta inside civilian areas of Damascus. We are also hearing from people inside Eastern Ghouta asking the UN, this Council, and members states with influence to pressure AOGs to let civilians to leave and to pressure all parties for a ceasefire and protection for those who do not want to leave and want to stay. The bottom line is too many civilians are suffering, too many have died in that area.
But let me first say: it need not be this way. Negotiations in Douma in the last few days do show that there is a way to create the conditions to advance the implementation of your resolution 2401. The UN therefore stands ready to offer its own good offices, as we have done so far, to all parties, to facilitate further engagement of this kind, so as to make a concrete contribution to the realisation of resolution 2401, in all areas of Eastern Ghouta. What the UN is not ready is to facilitate ultimatums from any side to the other one. Rather, what the UN is ready to, is facilitate discussion, facilitate ceasefire, facilitate evacuations.
Meanwhile, violence has escalated across many other parts of Syria, where there is no ceasefire to speak of. In Afrin, Turkish Government forces and their armed allies continue to take ground rapidly. We have also received reports of shelling on besieged Fouah and Kefraya, these two villages which have been for a long time besieged by opposition. And there have been airstrikes in Idlib, a new armed opposition offensive in Hama, and clashes and airstrikes in Daraa in southern Syria. Well, if this is a de-escalation moment, you better try to convince me that this is exactly a de-escalation. All what we are seeing on the map looks actually the opposite: escalation. Let me re-emphasise: resolution 2401 cannot be applied piecemeal. It is not a menu à-la-carte. It applies to all non-Security Council-listed terrorist groups, across all of Syria. Let me also re-emphasise, and I quote from the Secretary-General, that: “even efforts to combat terrorist groups identified by this Council do not supersede these obligations” under international law.
On the humanitarian side, I am sure you will be having opportunity to hear a briefing from Mark Lowcock, but meanwhile, since I have this opportunity today, let me give some elements of information. On the humanitarian front, on 13 March, the UN observed the evacuation of 147 civilians (among them 10 critical medical cases), finally, mostly women and children from Douma to the Dweir collective shelter in Rural Damascus. On 15 March - and this was the outcome of discussions and meetings between Russian military and Jaish al-Islam, facilitated by the UN - United Nations colleagues also delivered a convoy of food assistance to Douma for 26,100 people in need. Additional medical cases were evacuated. These, let us be honest and admit it, positive efforts, which are long overdue, are welcome but they are still limited. These civilians need much, much more, including medical and health supplies, the restoration of water, commercial access and freedom of movement. You must have seen a report where Peter Maurer was meeting some of the people in Eastern Ghouta who were asking just water. Humanitarian colleagues who entered into these areas spoke of having seen hunger, dire want, poverty, haggard faces and despair all around, and even for experience people like my own and humanitarian colleagues it was an unsustainable situation, where people are, literally, at the tip of collapse. And that is in few kilometres, 20 minutes of drive from Damascus.
And let me be clear: this is only in Douma, an area where we have seen a few days of ceasefire and some positive movement on humanitarian access. Can you imagine elsewhere? In the other two enclaves of Eastern Ghouta, further south, we have seen no ceasefire to speak of and, to borrow the words of the Secretary General, people are still living in a “hell on earth”: scores killed and the injured unattended because health workers could not reach them due to relentless airstrikes. We have seen fresh allegations of the use of incendiary weapons in these areas, urban areas, and the targeting of medical facilities since 12 March, as well as fresh and disturbing allegation of chlorine use in the area; as the Secretary-General said, we cannot independently verify these allegations but we also cannot nor should ignore them. We have also received reports of thousands displaced – some moving further into Eastern Ghouta and many others exiting en masse, in large groups, – as a result of Syrian Government advances in Hammouriyeh and in Saqba. Evacuations not observed by the UN staff are also reported to have taken place, including from Misraba and other areas. The UN was not present to observe these evacuations so is unable to know the precise number.
We urge all parties that any evacuations must take place in accordance with the highest protection standards under international humanitarian and human rights law. Whether civilians choose to stay or leave, they must be protected against attack and have access to the essentials to survive. Evacuations must be safe, voluntary and to a place of their choosing. The UN stands ready to provide assistance to people in need, both those who wants to stay and those who want to leave.
We are also highly concerned at the situation for civilians across all of Syria. This means: those being displaced as well as the almost 3 million in besieged and hard-to-reach areas and those caught up in escalations in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Daraa. Resolution 2401 demands to “all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas”. We have not seen this as you know.
The situation in Afrin is particularly worrying, according to my own colleagues: we have received reports of tens of thousands of people displaced within Afrin and to nearby Tal Refaat and surrounding villages, Nubul and Zahra and other areas of Aleppo governorate. The UN has also received reports of civilian casualties, some restrictions on movement for many of the large numbers of civilians seeking to leave the city of Afrin, with violence on the main exit road. I urge all parties to ensure that those civilians seeking to leave Afrin be given safe passage. Since 6 March, people in Afrin city have also reportedly suffered from severe water shortages again as the source of water to Afrin city has reportedly been damaged by fighting.
Allow me to add a point of particular importance, and this came out through recent report: Syrian women face specific threats, particularly in this moment of evacuation and end of a siege and of a battle, to their security in areas of conflict, including widespread sexual and gender based violence, which has been widely documented as well as voiced by women’s groups. Their protection and needs must be forefront in our own response.
On a separate humanitarian issue, Mr President: On 14 March, my technical team participated in the first session of the Working Group on detainees and missing people in Astana. We have pressed the Astana guarantors, on that occasion and before, to make progress on this crucial issue, which to us is one of the main reasons to attend Astana, because there is an issue which has been on the forefront of our concern, and we have offered to host a Standing Secretariat so that they can be keeping the detainees file moving between one meeting and other of the Working Group. The Guarantors so far simply agreed to consider our proposal about the Standing Secretariat in Geneva to follow up on detainee issue, but no final decision, even this time, was taken. We will intensify our contacts with them and the parties in order to accelerate the work of this important humanitarian issue. We should remind ourselves that the issue of detainees and missing people was first raised in Astana one year ago and sadly we are not seeing any concrete progress so far. We owe it to the Syrian families who have been waiting for too long to know the fate of their relatives on all sides.
Mr President, Members of the Security Council,
Even though the logic of war is clearly still prevailing, what we have just seen and said, and resolution 2401 is not being implemented as it must be - as the Secretary-General said -, we refuse to lose hope to see Syria rising from the own ashes. Syrian people deserve to be helped. Syrian people are proud, they love their country. We need to help them go back to having a normal country. There too, it is with the people of Syria in mind and their legitimate aspirations for the long-term shape of their own country that we continue our political efforts, in spite what we see on the ground, for a sustainable settlement of the conflict. And there too, the voice of women across Syria conveying their wish to play a meaningful role, like we are having with our own web of civil society, in the next stage of the political process must be heard.
My team and I have therefore continued to consult, in the context of the political process, widely and intensively on the formation of the constitutional committee in Geneva, in an effort to advance the full and complete implementation of resolution 2254, within the framework of the UN-facilitated political process in Geneva – and to this end seeking to leverage the momentum produced by the Sochi Final Declaration, which emphasized the fact we should have a constitutional committee in Geneva with an assistance of the UN. We take note of the statement of the Astana guarantors in their ministerial meeting today, in which they reaffirmed “the results of the Sochi Congress, especially to form the Constitutional Committee and to facilitate the beginning of its work in Geneva with the assistance of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria as soon as possible.”
However, I have to be frank, I must report that at this stage, which is more than two weeks after one month since the Sochi Congress, we have not yet received the complete inputs on the pool of candidates for a constitutional committee developed in Sochi, from the three guarantors. It is my intention, in close consultations with all concerned, to look carefully at this pool when we receive it and at others as required and consistent with resolution 2254 to facilitate the establishment of the constitutional committee. I must also report, once again, that there is still some serious homework to be done regarding the Syrian Government’s readiness to engage on implementing the Sochi Final Declaration and carrying forward a constitutional committee in Geneva. I have impressed this on the relevant guarantors repeatedly in recent weeks, just as I continue to make clear the readiness of the UN to engage the Government of Syria on this matter. We need them to be part of it. We need to have a comprehensive participation of all Syrian parties.
In the meantime, we have been proactive in offering creative suggestions as to how to expedite the formation of that constitutional committee. We continue to assess various options on how to advance discussions on all four baskets of the political process in Geneva. In particular, it is clear that there must be more serious talks with the Government, opposition and all Syrian and international stakeholders on what is required to establish a secure, calm, neutral environment, as per resolution 2254, in which a constitutional process and UN-supervised presidential and parliamentary elections pursuant to a new constitution could viably take place. We remained determined to engage everyone.
As I said in my last briefing a month ago, conflict is increasingly spilling even over Syria’s borders, or at least has the danger of doing so. This month we have further incidents of international potential and real confrontation within Syria, that we cannot independently verify but which concern us. This risk is precisely why we need urgent action on the political front. Syrians need to see some positive movement on the political process.
On Monday I will be attending a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers here in Brussels - so I do not need to fly, and by Tuesday I should be allowed by doctors to take a flight which would bring me back to Geneva - at the invitation of High Representative Mogherini - and in the context of the preparatory efforts by the EU and the UN, in their own joint Ministerial Conference in Brussels at the end of April. I hope the Conference will provide a significant opportunity to further the international support to the Syrian people though humanitarian commitments. I also hope that the gathering of an important number of Foreign Ministers in Brussels in that occasion, will also represent a chance to reinvigorate the collective efforts by the international community towards a sustainable peace through the UN-led peace process in Geneva within the framework of resolution 2254 and other relevant resolutions.
Mr President, in conclusion, let me finishing by cautioning: we are witnessing developments of substantial gravity on the ground, we have to recognise, that demand action, and the world is worried and watching. I remain concerned that concrete matters that we have been trying to advance - resolution 2401, detainees and a constitutional committee – need to move faster and with more meaningful impact than has so far proven possible. And de-escalation needs to replace what we are watching at the moment – escalation. I will continue creatively and determinedly to seek to facilitate the overall political process. As the Secretary-General said on Monday, the ultimate goal is the Syrian people, and the ultimate goal is to “see a united, democratic Syria able to avoid fragmentation and sectarianism with its sovereignty and territorial integrity respected and to see a Syrian people able to freely decide their future and choose their political leadership.”
Thank you Mr. President and members of the Council.