As you have heard the UN say many times before, the security situation in Syria remains extremely volatile. Nevertheless, over the past weeks, we have seen an encouraging surge of diplomatic activity on the northeast, though some uncertainties remain.
On 17 October, Turkey and the United States announced agreement on a 120 hour pause in Turkey’s operation in order to, and I quote, “allow the withdrawal of YPG from the safe zone,” end of quote.
On Tuesday, 22 October, the Presidents of Turkey and the Russian Federation reiterated, and I quote, “their commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria and the protection of national security of Turkey,” end of quote.
They decided to preserve the “status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area covering Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn with a depth of 32 km”. They also decided that Russian military police and Syrian border guards would enter areas east and west of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, in order “to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons to the depth of 30 km from the Turkish-Syrian border.” The UN takes note of these agreements and welcomes any efforts to de-escalate the situation in line with the UN Charter and to protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law. The UN also takes note of Turkey’s announcement that “at this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area.”
The Memorandum of Understanding of 22 October between Turkey and Russia also indicated that “joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner”. The President of Turkey previously stated that the “main aim of [Turkey’s] operation is to […] facilitate the return of Syrian refugees”. He emphasized that up to two million refugees could be resettled in the area.
I would like to reiterate our concern about the humanitarian impact of military operations in northern Syria since Turkey and allied Syrian opposition groups began “Operation Peace Spring” on 9 October. While violence has subsided since 20 October, when the Syrian Democratic Forces withdrew from Ras al Ayn, the situation remains in flux. Civilians in northeast Syria continue to express concerns amid continued uncertainty as to what may lie ahead. Many are reminded of what occurred previously in Afrin and fear further displacement from major cities and towns and the disruption of humanitarian access. Many civilians also fear potential consequences of a possible return of government forces. This includes fears of arbitrary detention, violent political retribution and imposition of conscription.
We cannot stress enough that civilians including captured fighters, must be protected under international human rights and international humanitarian law. It is crucial that the Security Council and all Member States present in this chamber to do everything in their power to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, to ensure full and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to help the parties resolve their security concerns through peaceful means.
We recognize Turkey’s and other neighbouring countries’ generosity in hosting so many refugees fleeing Syria’s devastating conflict. We urge the international community to provide strengthened support to Syria’s neighboring countries in shouldering this burden. It is also important to stress that refugee returns must be voluntary, safe, dignified and well informed.
Let me also highlight the situation in al Hol and Roj camps in northeast Syria. Some 70,000 civilians, more than 95 per cent of them women and children, are currently sheltered in the camps. Most have been exposed to violence and trauma under ISIL. They are now living in extremely difficult conditions where they face a range of challenges, and an uncertain and disconcerting fate. This includes the risk of being denied repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration or a fair trial.
All children, including those suspected of being associated with armed groups, are entitled to special care and protection under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They must be treated first and foremost as victims. Solutions for foreign nationals need to be urgently found. We call on all Member States to take all measures necessary to ensure that their nationals are repatriated for the purposes of prosecution, rehabilitation and/or reintegration, as appropriate, and in line with international law and standards.
I would also like to briefly update you on the situation in the greater Idlib area. Following the announcement of a ceasefire in late August, there was a marked reduction in air strikes, although heavy ground-based artillery shelling continued to be reported. Unfortunately, air strikes are reported to have increased again since 12 October. There have also been reports of helicopter attacks and the use of barrel bombs. We count on all parties, especially Turkey and the Russian Federation, as guarantors of the de-escalation agreement, to press all parties to the full implementation of the September 2018 Memorandum of Understanding. As the Secretary-General has said many times before, any large-scale military offensive in Idlib would come at an unacceptable cost in terms of loss of human lives and suffering.
We appreciate this Council’s full support that has helped us continue to chart a political path forward on implementation of resolution 2254. The launch of the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned Constitutional Committee will be facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva later this month.
Resolution 2254 called for a nationwide ceasefire, reaffirmed the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and stressed that the only sustainable solution to the current conflict in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
The need to implement resolution 2254 has been reaffirmed by this Council repeatedly, most recently in your presidential statement of 8 October. What is most urgently needed now is decisive action for a consolidation of the ceasefires in northeast and northwest Syria, the protection of civilians throughout the country, and full support to ensure that the political track remains on course.