Let me update you first on the latest developments, and then turn to the way ahead on the political track and the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254.
First, what’s happening on the ground. The Amman discussions and the meetings which have taken place very effectively in Astana have created four zones of de-escalation – in the south, in Eastern Ghouta, north of Homs, and in Idlib province. We also now have two other so-called de-confliction zones which have been brokered by the Russian Federation in Ifreen and Eastern Qalamoun.
However, the situation, you know it, we know it, remains still fragile. We are concerned by the al Nusra offensive in Idlib and Hama provinces following the Astana meeting, and the heavy fighting that has been taking place there. This includes some of the first airstrikes in the area since April, some allegedly hitting civilians and civilian infrastructure including health facilities, as well as heavy opposition shelling on civilian towns under government control in Hama and Latakia. We are also concerned at heavy fighting in other places. So the situation is far from perfect. Nevertheless, we have to admit, and we want to reaffirm it here, the creation of the de-escalation zones is a very important step in the effort to de-escalate the violence in the whole country and we are seeing the results of it.
ISIL is being beaten back. Government forces have advanced in the eastern countryside of Hama and Homs and broken the three-year of the so-called siege of, which is taking place de facto in Deir Ez Zor city. The Government and allies recently crossed the Euphrates River. Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces with the backing of the International Coalition made further advances against ISIL, taking control of most of the city of Raqqa, while the SDF-led Deir Ez Zor military council has made advances against ISIL on the eastern banks of the Euphrates. The Government and its allies have reportedly increased their strikes on SDF positions. Armed opposition groups are also involved in battle against ISIL in Daraa. I wish to recall the United Nations’ calls for the protection of civilians – and this is the right place to do it – in Idlib, in Deir ez Zor, in Raqqa and elsewhere where fighting is still going on.
In the midst of this intensive military activity, while we all recognize that the fighting against ISIL is important, we need to remember that the civilians cannot be punished twice: already because they have been under the rule of ISIL and then because they happen to be unlucky enough to be there when the fighting goes on. I would like to urge that more needs to be done in the field of protection of civilians: more needs to be done to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure from military assault, and to ensure safe, sustained and unimpeded access to all civilians in need in Syria, wherever they are. You will hear more from my colleague Mark Lowcock on the latest humanitarian developments.
Allow me nevertheless to specifically underline the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons. Thousands of them according to their families are still missing, abducted or detained. We have not seen any progress on this issue – neither in Astana, despite several attempts and hopes; nor in Geneva. A very large number of Syrian families are suffering from the absence of their all detained or missing relatives, and lack above all information on their fate. They don’t even know if they are alive or not. The time has come to address this issue now as a major priority, particularly in this period when we see de-escalation taking place.
I also hope that concrete results can be achieved in the near future on the issue of humanitarian mine action - I hate mines, I had three of my colleagues killed by mines both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I’ve seen them in action - as this would constitute another important confidence-building measure. I note with interest the ongoing dialogue between UNMAS and the Government of Syria in this regard.
There is wide consensus that de-escalation arrangements must not lead to a soft partition of Syria, must not lead to a soft partition of Syria, and that Syria’s unity and territorial integrity must be fully upheld. I found many common perspectives through the hundreds of Syrians we are meeting regularly; Syrians of all backgrounds have voiced their strong rejection of any partitioning of Syria – its territory and its people.
That is why de-escalation should be a pre-cursor to a truly nation-wide ceasefire, and to action on the humanitarian and confidence-building fronts – the issues identified in paras 12-14 of 2254. The Astana effort -- and the Amman one too -- should be seen as laying the basis for a renewed Geneva process -- one that moves from preparatory talks into genuine negotiations on the political future of Syria as envisaged in resolution 2254, tackling all four baskets of the agenda, and as welcomed by this Council.
I have engaged both sides, as well as all those who have an influence over them, during the General Assembly, which has been as usual very useful. I attended a number of multilateral meetings in its margins, including one convened by the European Union - and I want to thank the European Union for that initiative - with a wide cross-section of international actors. I also had the opportunity to visit Washington on Monday, while my Deputy, Ambassador Ramzy, visited Moscow yesterday and today. I intend to maintain a high level of engagement with all concerned countries and Syrian parties in the weeks ahead.
We will continue to engage with all participants in the Civil Society Support Room and to draw on the insights of the Women’s Advisory Board. Participants from both have strongly underscored to me the expectations of a broad cross section of Syrians for an inclusive political solution reflecting the interests of all Syrians and grounded in human rights, equality, and justice. They continue to call attention to the voices missing from the political process, including women who are half the population if not more. They should have an equal voice in the decisions shaping the future of their country.
I wish to confirm today my intention to convene the 8th round of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva – I discussed it with the Secretary-General yesterday – in about a month from now – the precise date is to be determined. It should be no later than end October or very early in November. I am reaffirming that timeframe so that all concerned can use the crucial month from now until then to create conditions for those talks to be particularly meaningful. And I am calling on both sides – I repeat, both sides – to assess the situation with realism and responsibility to the people of Syria and to prepare seriously to participate in the Geneva talks without preconditions – without preconditions. Let me explain exactly what we mean by that.
We believe the Government has an interest and indeed a duty to genuinely negotiate with the opposition that this Council has identified by name in 2254. Until now, the Government has conditioned its readiness to move from talks to real negotiations on the issue of opposition unity, and a commitment to certain essential principles. I also know how important the terrorism and counter-terrorism issue has been to the Government. But it is precisely at this time, as terrorism is starting to be defeated in Syria, - and we are watching it with our own eyes - that we need to preserve those gains on the ground and sustain them through a real and inclusive political process – guided by resolution 2254.
The Government therefore should be urged to show by word and action that it genuinely wants to have a negotiation about credible, inclusive governance locally and centrally; about a schedule and process for a new constitution; about UN supervised elections -- all while the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Syria are preserved -- all while terrorism is combatted and defeated. It is important that those states who are friends of the Syrian Government encourage it to show its readiness to move forward, including on the substance of 2254, the agenda of the baskets, not just in broad terms, but in specifics, with details, sequencing and implementation modalities. This will not be easy, but it has to start, and the United Nations will be more than willing to be an honest broker in enabling real negotiations with the opposition.
For its part, we also believe that the opposition has an interest and indeed a duty now to signal that it does want to speak with one voice and with a common platform in genuine negotiations with the Government on those 4 baskets and on the implementation of resolution 2254. No one is asking the opposition to suddenly stop being the opposition – but we are urging the opposition to realize that it is at its most credible and effective when it stands together, and shows readiness to negotiate, which means to give and take.
In this regard, there has been a lot of hard work done by my office frankly. There is much to build from. My office facilitated valuable technical work of the three opposition platforms from May to July. The opposition should be urged now to take the opportunity presented by the effort of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to convene what they call an inclusive Riyadh 2 conference – which we hope and trust will take place in October before the Geneva talks and before Astana. That conference should be the time and place for the opposition, with the encouragement of those who have influence over it – and some of them are in this room – to ensure that it comes together, and presents a strategic approach to the negotiation process to realize the vision which remains always the same of 2254. The United Nations is ready to support this in any way we can.
Let me caution all sides against illusions of victory or dreams of shortcuts. There is no substitute for a UN, internationally supported process based in Geneva on a comprehensive and inclusive approach that also helps Syrians to re-discover a modicum of trust and social cohesion after this bitter conflict.
We need to remember: hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions carry the physical or psychological wounds of a brutal conflict. Millions are displaced, either within Syria or beyond, even as some are trying to return home. Thousands are detained, thousands have disappeared – many without a trace, and with no progress on revealing their fate. Infrastructure – particularly civilian infrastructure – has been destroyed on a scale that is not imaginable. Internationally proscribed terrorist groups, even if they are on the back foot today and they have shown their resilience in other places of the world in surviving battlefield reverses and thriving again – which they will or they could if there is no new political compact that enables the society to transition to a shared, inclusive, democratic future. The need to address the unmet grievances that exist in Syria is apparent to me from the range of Syrian voices who are not aligned neither with the Government nor the opposition.
That is why, Mr. President, the time has come for the focus to return to Geneva, and the intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the United Nations – yourselves. That is the only forum in which the transitional political process envisaged by this Council in resolution 2254 can be developed with the Syrian parties themselves, with the full legitimacy that the UN provides and the backing of the international community. We have a month until those talks - that is why we want to all work in this month. Let us use it to prepare them well.
Thank you, Mr. President.