Mr. President and Members of the Council.
Earlier this month, the Syrian conflict entered its ninth year – there have been eight long, horrendous years of suffering by the Syrian people. And it seems far from over.
The Secretary-General has watched, with great concern, the situation in Idlib deteriorate in recent weeks amid escalating violence. We’ve seen reports of exchanges of artillery and mortars; of airstrikes, some reported to have hit civilian targets, causing civilian casualties and further displacement of tens of thousands. There are reports of rocket attacks and cross-line raids by HTS which have resulted in casualties among government soldiers and civilians. The United Nations is worried about the strain this escalation has placed on the Memorandum of Understanding between Russia and Turkey that, since September 2018, has largely contained the scope of military operations in the area. We hope the recently announced coordinated patrols by Russia and Turkey will help avoid further escalation in the northwest, and urge them to uphold their agreed arrangements for Idlib and press all concerned to halt violence and stabilize a dangerous situation.
We also call on the guarantors to work together to address the issue of Security Council-listed terrorist groups in full compliance with international humanitarian law. This is essential to avoid mass displacement, and yet another humanitarian catastrophe from unfolding.
Last week, the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, proclaimed the capture of Baghouz, the last remaining territory held by ISIL in Syria. This is an important advance in combatting terrorist groups, who have inflicted untold misery on countless victims. Much work remains, however, to fully address ISIL’s threat. Meanwhile, thousands, mostly women and children, are fleeing counter-ISIL operations in Deir ez Zor and have found their way to al Hol camp in Hasakah province. More than 140 people have died on the road or shortly after arriving at al Hol camp. There is a desperate need to maintain and ramp up the response to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of some 72,000 people there, with thousands more expected to arrive.
In the northeast, the United Nations is strongly encouraging international diplomatic efforts to ensure military escalation is avoided at all costs. Any escalation in the northeast could lead to devastating consequences for civilians and could create conditions conducive for ISIL’s re-emergence.
I reiterate the Secretary-General’s reminder to the international community, counter-terrorism operations cannot override the responsibilities to protect civilians.
You will soon hear from my OCHA colleague, but I add my own call for sustained and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian relief to civilians throughout Syria. But, in particular, to Rukban, where the United Nations last delivered assistance in mid-February. We have had reports that other commercial routes have been cut leaving the settlement’s inhabitants in an even more vulnerable position. The United Nations is working with all parties to find a durable solution, including relocation of the settlement’s residents to their areas of origin or of their choosing.
A durable solution can only succeed through a carefully planned, principled approach that ensures respect for core protection standards. It requires constructive engagement and coordination by all parties involved—the Syrian government, the armed opposition group present in the settlement, Russia, the United States, and Jordan. Meanwhile, the United Nations is awaiting approval from the government for humanitarian access for a third convoy of life-saving assistance. I urge all parties to cooperate constructively and with the sense of urgency that these humanitarian issues deserve.
Sustained de-escalation towards an eventual nation-wide ceasefire and tangible improvements for Syrian lives are essential for a credible political process that can achieve the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254. In that regard, Special Envoy Pedersen has been seeking to advance the five goals outlined to this Council on 28 February. The goals are:
First: To begin and deepen a sustained dialogue with the Syrian government and the opposition on building trust and confidence towards a safe, calm and neutral environment;
Second: To see more concrete action on detainees, abductees and missing persons;
Third: To engage and involve a wide range of Syrians in the political process;
Fourth: To convene a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee as soon as possible; and
Fifth: To help the international parties deepen their own dialogue towards the common purpose of a credible and sustainable political settlement of the Syrian conflict that can enjoy international legitimacy.
On the first goal, the Special Envoy held a second meeting with the Government of Syria in Damascus and a second meeting with the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission in Riyadh. Both consultations have gone into depth on the issues covered in resolution 2254. No subject has been off limits and both parties welcome a broad-ranging dialogue. This kind of regular and deep engagement is necessary to identify concrete steps to build trust and confidence towards a safe, calm, and neutral environment.
Our second goal – concrete action on the release of detainees/abductees and the clarification of the fate of missing persons – was also raised in depth with the Government and the opposition. On 18 March in Moscow, the Office of the Special Envoy put forward a number of concrete suggestions to the Working Group on detainees, abductees, and missing persons, of which the United Nations is a member along with Iran, Russia, and Turkey. A key United Nations request was to move beyond one-for-one exchanges and focus on simultaneous release of unequal numbers, which was met with no objection from other members of the Working Group.
However, details about the next release operation, including numbers of those to be released, timing of the release, and monitoring of the release, still need to be worked out in close cooperation with the Syrian parties. Furthermore, the United Nations has proposed that the Working Group meets in Geneva in the near future. Ultimately, the Secretary-General wants these discussions to move from good words to good deeds, and see the release of as many detained persons as possible and clarify the fate of missing persons.
Progress on this file could build confidence that a new Syria is possible, especially for those that want to return. So many Syrian families have been affected and they yearn to see the issue meaningfully addressed.
On the third goal, engagement continues to ensure that the priorities and voices of a broad range of Syrians – within Syria and across the diaspora - are included in the political process. Most recently, the United Nations heard the diverse voices of the Women’s Advisory Board and the Syrian civil society during the Brussels III conference. We heard about how the conflict has impacted their lives, but also about their strength and resilience in responding to the terrible needs wrought by this conflict. Such broad-based engagement, with all dimensions of Syrian society helps to strengthen Syrian ownership in shaping its future. These necessary, but difficult, discussions are a microcosm of the meaningful engagement required from both of the negotiating parties. The issues affecting Syrians, including obstacles preventing voluntary, safe and dignified returns, must be addressed. A political settlement that meets their needs and legitimate aspirations would help to advance this.
On the Constitutional Committee – the fourth goal to open the door to a broader political process – the discussions so far, including with the Government and the opposition, have led to an agreement, in principle, that a viable launch of a constitutional committee would require a set of understandings to regulate its work.
This would need to include understandings regarding the committee’s mandate, structure, voting and chairing arrangements, the United Nations facilitation role, and assurances regarding the safety and security of all constitutional committee participants. Discussions are also continuing to facilitate the finalization of the “middle third” list of committee members. There are no artificial deadlines, but the Special Envoy hopes now to be able to move forward as soon as possible to convene a credible, balanced, inclusive and viable constitutional committee under United Nations auspices in Geneva. We must remain committed to seeking to a minimum of 30 percent women’s representation on the committee.
The fifth goal is to improve international dialogue and cooperation on Syria. The situations in Idlib, Rukban and al-Hol, the uncertainty over the north-east, and the potential for regional escalation all underscore the need for such continuous cooperation. We must avoid misunderstandings and actions that could escalate matters.
In this regard, the Secretary-General has taken note of the developments regarding the occupied Syrian Golan. The United Nations position is determined by the Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on this issue. The efforts of the United Nations to facilitate a political process in Syria in accordance with resolution 2254 will continue to fully uphold the principles of Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity.
We welcome the generosity expressed by the donors at the Brussels conference in their record pledges to support the Syrian people and the wide expressions of support by all attendees for a political settlement for Syria under United Nations auspices.
As the Secretary-General reminded us on the grim anniversary of this conflict, it is a moral obligation and a political imperative for the international community to support Syrians to unite around a vision that addresses the root causes of the conflict and forges a negotiated political solution in accordance with this Council’s own resolution 2254.
Thank you, Mr. President.