Since I last briefed the Council a month ago, violence in Northwest Syria continues unabated as parties on the ground try to advance militarily.
Our unflagging efforts to mediate a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot move forward in an environment of open conflict. Our efforts will stall if Russia and Turkey cannot uphold their ceasefire agreement. Our efforts will suffer if this Security Council, as well as the Astana Group and the Small Group—many of whom sit around this table today—cannot find a way to work together in common support of the Special Envoy’s efforts to implement resolution 2254.
The UN understands very well the positions of the guarantors of the Idlib Memorandum, an agreement which until a few months ago had delivered relative calm to the people of Idlib. For Russia, the presence of Security Council-designated Hayat Tahrir al Sham, or HTS, in the de-escalation area is not tolerable. For Turkey, time is required to effectively isolate and address HTS’s most hardline fighters.
As the Secretary-General said a few hours ago: “The situation in Idlib is especially dangerous” and “Yet again, civilians are paying a horrific price.”
Airstrikes continue; barrel bomb use and cluster munitions, exchanges of mortar and artillery fire are ongoing, resulting in civilian casualties and massive displacement. Population centers and civilian infrastructure including schools and medical facilities have been attacked, mostly inside the de-escalation area.
It is imperative that we address HTS without triggering the humanitarian catastrophe that we see unfolding before our eyes, with hundreds of thousands on the move, being pushed closer to Turkey’s border.
Despite all this violence, the frontlines have hardly shifted, suggesting a stalemate. But if so, it is plainly turning out to be a bloody and quite pointless stalemate with devastating humanitarian consequences that far outstrip any damage done to HTS.
Undoubtedly, the situation in Idlib is complex. But, as we have repeatedly said, counter-terrorism cannot overtake obligations under international law to protect civilians and the obligation to strictly observe the principles of distinction and proportionality. The problem posed by HTS will need to be dealt with in a more effective and sustainable way, one where civilians do not pay the price. That can only begin with the restoration of calm.
The Secretary-General, the Special Envoy and I have been pressing for the need for a solution in Idlib in all of our engagements at all levels.
We welcome Russia and Turkey’s continued efforts to contain the violence, most recently in their working group meeting on 16-17 June. However, if a solution is not found, then the consequences will be unimaginable – and not just in humanitarian terms. Let us remember the international players involved and the potential for escalation.
Over the weekend, Turkey announced that one of its observation posts had been shelled by government forces “intentionally” and that it “retaliated” with heavy weapons. This was the second such incident in less than a week that impacted a Turkish observation post—defensive positions meant to maintain the lines agreed in the September Memorandum. Today, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem assured that Syria did not want to see an armed confrontation between its forces and Turkey. These close military exchanges underscore how Idlib is not just a humanitarian issue—it also poses a grave risk to regional security.
As we look to the upcoming G20 meeting where world leaders who can contain this conflict will be present, we stress the need for diplomacy to produce an outcome in Idlib that can create the necessary conditions for the political process to advance. We call on international stakeholders—in particular, the Russian Federation and Turkey, as guarantors of the September 2018 Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib—to exert the efforts needed to end the violence and restore calm. All that is required is the political will.
As the Secretary-General stated today “there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. It was clear at the start and it remains clear more than eight years later: the solution is political.”
The Syrian people have paid a high price for the failures of the international community to end this war. More than half the population is displaced and in need, more than five million refugees are uncertain of when it will be safe to return, hundreds of thousands have paid with their lives, tens of thousands detained, missing, tortured. Are we really asking them to pay more? We must collectively work together to ensure the answer to that question is no.
Thank you, Mr. President.