Briefing Security Council, Special Envoy for Syria Warns of ‘Perfect Storm’ with Severe Humanitarian Consequences Taking Shape in Idlib, 7 September 2018
7 SEPTEMBER 2018
The Syrian Government and its partners — currently poised at the brink of a massive military strike against the north‑west province of Idlib — must urgently rethink its strategy, the Security Council heard today, as delegates sounded the alarm about such repercussions as mass civilian casualties and the flood of up to 700,000 refugees into neighbouring countries, Europe and beyond.
Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy for Syria, briefing the Council via videoconference from Geneva, underscored that the last few days have seen the ingredients for a “perfect storm” taking shape with potentially severe humanitarian consequences. Some 2.9 million people — more than 98 per cent of whom are civilians — reside in the Idlib area, he said, noting that while members of terrorist groups and non‑terrorist armed factions are also present, they are relatively few in number. Describing vigils being held by civilians in the area, he said they have pleaded with the United Nations and the Astana guarantor States — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — to reach a non‑military solution.
“The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib would be […] horrific and bloody,” he continued, calling on any parties with leverage over non‑terrorist armed opposition factions in Idlib to ensure that they separate from such groups as Nusrah Front and put civilian lives first. One alternative entails armed groups being given a deadline to exit Idlib’s most populated areas — rendering them safe for civilians and sparing lives — he said, expressing hope that other, similarly concrete suggestions will emerge from the ongoing talks between Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation. “Any proposals to avoid this becoming the biggest humanitarian crisis, at the end of the most horrible recent crisis in our memory, must be given a chance,” he stressed.
John Ging, Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said more than 2 million people in Idlib need humanitarian assistance. Outlining efforts under way to ensure humanitarian support for civilians in the event of increased hostilities, he described a response plan to assist up to 900,000 people — including up to 700,000 who may be displaced. All parties to the conflict must urgently cease hostilities in the area, he stressed, also demanding that they protect civilians, civilian infrastructure and humanitarian and medical personnel while allowing allow safe, rapid, unhindered and sustained access to those in need.
Council members taking the floor largely stood united in demanding that actors in and around Idlib avoid any form of military escalation. France’s delegate, describing the situation as a “ticking time bomb”, said the civilians in Idlib — many of whom have been moved from other parts of the country — have nowhere else to go. The military operation, should it occur, could spawn another crisis in the north of Syria and possibly spread to Europe and the rest of the world, including by causing the proliferation of jihadist groups. Calling on all parties to act with restraint, he also condemned any plans to use chemical weapons. “There is still time to avoid a crisis in Idlib, but we have not a minute to lose,” he said.
Kuwait’s delegate, also speaking for Sweden, emphasized the need to respect Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2401 (2018) which called for “humanitarian pauses” and demanded the protection of civilians. “Resolutions that are not implemented on the ground have no value,” he stressed, underlining the need for accountability. The Council has a humanitarian, moral and legal responsibility to the population of Idlib, and must seek preventive action.
The representative of the United States, Council President for September, said in her national capacity that Syrian President Bashar Al‑Assad’s regime and its enablers — the Russian Federation and Iran — have a playbook for the war in Syria, which includes labelling all the residents of a city “terrorists” and then perpetrating a “starve and surrender” campaign against them. “The atrocities committed by Assad will be a permanent stain on history and a black mark on this Council”, which has been repeatedly prevented from acting. The United States will not consider funding reconstruction projects in Syria until concrete progress is made towards a political solution ending the war, she said, declaring: “No one else should, either.”
The representative of the Russian Federation, however, said freezing the situation in Idlib — part of the sovereign Syrian State — is not possible given the fact that up to 50,000 terrorist fighters are currently located there. Asking the Council how those fighters obtained their weapons, he described intense negotiations currently under way between his country and its Astana partners, all while Western countries are preparing aggressive plans to prevent the last terrorist‑held area from falling.
Syria’s representative emphasized that it remains his country’s sovereign right to carry out operations against the 50,000 terrorist fighters in Idlib. Such a huge number would never be tolerated in a Western city, he stressed, asking Council members to envision 50,000 terrorist fighters spread across the United Kingdom’s city of Manchester. The United States, which holds the Council Presidency for September, has already forced several discussions on domestic matters that pose no threat to international peace and security — including, today, in his country — he said, emphasizing that the main drivers of terrorism are in fact three Council members who continue to fund the spread of Wahabi ideology across the Middle East.
Also speaking today were representatives of Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, China, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Sweden.
The meeting began at 9:35 a.m. and ended at noon.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Envoy for Syria, briefing the Council via videoconference from Geneva, underscored that the last few days have seen the ingredients for a “perfect storm” taking shape in Syria’s Idlib Province with potentially severe humanitarian consequences. Some 2.9 million people — about 98 per cent of which are civilians, and which include some 1.4 million who have already been displaced at least once — reside in the Idlib area. As well, members of terrorist groups and non‑terrorist armed opposition groups are also present there. While key international actors, including the Russian Federation and Turkey, have been meeting in recent days, weapons have nevertheless been moved closer to Idlib and opposition groups have been fortifying their positions by digging trenches and tunnels and destroying bridges. Those groups, some of which are separate from terrorist organizations or which have already taken steps to separate from such groups including Nusrah Front, are pleading for the Astana guarantors — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — to reach a non‑military solution.
“The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib would be a horrific and bloody battle” resulting in largely civilian casualties, he stressed, adding that it could result in rapid escalations among regional and international players. The Council cannot allow such a fate to befall Idlib’s civilians and efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede the sanctity of human life in international law. Recalling that Idlib is officially one of Syria’s “de‑escalation zones”, he said other partners with leverage over non‑terrorist armed opposition groups must ensure that they separate from such groups as Nusrah Front and put civilian lives first. In addition, civilians must be granted safe passage to places of their own choosing, with the creation of safe evacuation routes necessitating full humanitarian access for United Nations and partner organizations.
Noting that there have also been discussions about a possible imminent chemical weapons attack in or near Idlib, he stated that the use of any such weapons — as well as the use of conventional weapons on civilians — is totally unacceptable. Emphasizing that the events described today are happening at the same time as political talks aimed at moving Syria towards a post‑war scenario, he said the two tracks are incompatible. Early next week, a meeting between Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey will be convened, with another among additional international stakeholders taking place later in the week. Idlib’s civilians have specifically requested the United Nations to stand up for them, he underlined, adding: “Any proposals to avoid this becoming the biggest humanitarian crisis, at the end of the most horrible recent crisis in our memory, must be given a chance.”
JOHN GING, Director of the Coordination and Response Division, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that there are some 3 million people living in the Idlib de‑escalation zone. Of these, 2.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.4 million people who are internally displaced. While the United Nations humanitarian response currently focuses on supporting the 2.1 million people in need, there is concerned for the safety of all civilians, should there be an intensification of hostilities.
Efforts have been ongoing to ensure that people in need can be supported in the event of an increase in hostilities, he said, adding that “our teams in Damascus and Gaziantep have together developed a readiness plan that sets out a coordinated, flexible response for the affected population for the coming period”. Plans are in place to support up to 900,000 women, children and men that could be affected by conflict, including for up to a potential 700,000 people who may be displaced north within Idlib and 100,000 who may cross into Government‑controlled areas. In addition, if the conflict spreads to the Tal Refaat area, it is estimated that 100,000 people may seek to move towards other areas in Aleppo Governorate and to north‑east Syria.
He highlighted five key asks to the Council, to all parties to the conflict and to all those who have influence over those parties. First, cease hostilities in the area and, at a minimum, ensure there is no escalation. Second, ensure the protection of civilians, and civilian infrastructure, including humanitarian and medical personnel and assets. Third, respect and enable freedom of movement for people who wish to move in any direction. Civilians who chose to stay must be allowed to do so and must remain protected. Fourth, allow and facilitate safe, rapid, unhindered and sustained humanitarian access to people in need through the most direct routes, including areas that have changed control. And fifth, increase funding for priority response and readiness activities, noting that the humanitarian response is already ongoing.
KHALED AL-JARALLAH, Deputy Foreign Minister of Kuwait, speaking also for Sweden, stressed the need to respect Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2401 (2018), submitted by Kuwait and Sweden in February this year, which called for a cessation of hostilities without delay and the delivery of humanitarian aid. “Resolutions that are not implemented on the ground have no value,” he said, rejecting impunity and stressing the need for accountability.
The Security Council has a humanitarian, moral and legal responsibility towards the population of Idlib, and this Council must seek preventive action, he stated. The best way to reach a sustainable solution to the Syrian crisis and end the humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib remains a United Nations‑facilitated political process. Both Kuwait and Sweden will do their utmost to push the Security Council to explore all meaningful options.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) pointed out that today’s meeting is taking place at a critical juncture in the situation in Idlib. “Syria once again finds itself at the brink of an abyss,” he said, describing the situation as a “ticking time bomb” due to the imminent threat of a major offensive by the Syrian regime. Noting that rarely have major military operations had so much warning beforehand, he said that such a large‑scale operation would generate yet another humanitarian disaster. The civilians in Idlib — many of whom have already been moved from other parts of the country — have nowhere else to go. The operation, should it occur, could spawn another crisis in the north of Syria and possibly in Europe and the rest of the world, including by causing the proliferation of jihadist groups. Calling on the Astana guarantors to urgently halt that spiral, he urged them to respect the ceasefire; ensure full safe and unfettered humanitarian access to all civilians; and help bring about a credible political solution to the conflict in Syria. Also condemning any plans to use chemical weapons in Syria and calling for the acceleration of critical political negotiations, he said actors and partners are obligated to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Idlib, not simply to manage it. “There is still time to avoid a crisis in Idlib, but we have not a minute to lose,” he stressed.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) voiced his concern regarding the military activities around Idlib and a possible humanitarian catastrophe in the last terrorist enclave, to which the Government troops are moving closer. He called on the parties to the conflict to exercise restraint. He urged that efforts be made to avoid a military offense, reiterating an inclusive political process. The meeting among the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey is a valuable one, and more time should be allowed for dialogues. It is inconceivable to continue to sacrifice Syrian people, he said, adding that Idlib cannot be compared with other areas; it is the shelter of many civilians, in addition to armed fighters and their families. “If we fail, we will see the most crucial war in our generation,” he emphasized.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland), condemning the intensification of hostilities in Idlib, said they should be halted immediately to avoid any further humanitarian catastrophe. There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis, she stressed, adding that efforts to achieve one are counterproductive for an inclusive and credible political process under the auspices of the United Nations. Calling on the Astana guarantors and other actors with influence over the parties to live up to their commitments to protect civilians, she emphasized the need to secure full and unhindered humanitarian access to Syria, including Idlib, and to take all measures to enhance the protection of humanitarian workers. In addition, refugees must be given the opportunity for a safe, free and dignified return to their homes. A major operation in Idlib may hinder this goal and result in a new wave of refugees, she warned, voicing particular concern about such vulnerable residents as children, women and religious minorities, and underlining her country’s concern about the possibility of another chemical weapons attack, which would not only be an act of horrifying barbarism but also a crime under international law.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) expressed alarm about the prospects of fresh escalations of violence in Idlib. The levels of violence already seen in such Syrian cities as Aleppo and eastern Ghouta should compel the international community to avoid yet another catastrophe, he stressed, also warning against the serious repercussions that a “new episode of barbarism” would have on Syria’s ongoing political process. Additionally, a new military operation in Idlib could lead to escalating tension and further divisions among international actors, including Council members. Calling on all parties to fully respect international law, he strongly condemned all forms of terrorism and stressed that terrorist groups present in Idlib must be brought to justice for their crimes. However, that cannot justify any further violence against civilians. In that regard, he recalled that the Council’s 10 elected members recently issued a joint statement calling on the parties to avert another humanitarian crisis and work together to reach a political solution to the crisis.
GBOLIÉ DESIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) agreed that information about imminent fighting in Idlib represents a grave concern, as it could exacerbate Syria’s already horrific humanitarian situation. Any resumption of fighting there would spawn a massive displacement of between 450,000 and 700,000 people. In addition, the possible use of chemical weapons would constitute a breach of international law. “There is no alternative to seeking peace except through frank and serious dialogue in Syria,” he stressed, calling upon the parties to work in line with the terms of Council resolution 2254 (2015) which laid out a political road map for peace; act with restraint in order to pre‑empt any further military escalation; and adhere to all their obligations under international law, including those relating to the protection of civilians.
MA ZHAOXU (China), noting that he is closely following the situation in Syria, including the reconstruction of infrastructure and the return of refugees to their home areas, stressed that the international community must continue to support humanitarian aid. Terrorist activities are rampant. Given the current situation, all parties and stakeholders must step up efforts to avoid military escalation. The international community must continue to combat terrorists but must avoid civilian casualties. “We are duty‑bound to the United Nations Charter,” he said, stressing the need to respect Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity and no use of threat of force. China always stands for a political solution, which is the only way out of this crisis.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) expressed her strong support for the primacy of political process and the need to avoid military escalation. “The fate of 3 million people is at stake,” she said, commending the mediation efforts by Turkey and the United Nations and urging the Russian Federation and Iran to use their influence to avoid military escalation. Turning to the military situation, she noted that dozens of Russian air strikes killed 38 civilians on 4 September alone. The United Nations estimates that there are 15,000 terrorist fighters in Idlib, but there are “more babies than those terrorists”. The Secretary‑General made it clear that indiscriminate attacks in populated areas constitute a war crime. If there is a major military offensive, the international community will hold the perpetrators accountable. She also noted that her Government just announced an additional $15 million package of humanitarian aid.
KAREL J. G. VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) said, “we are here today to prevent a further military escalation in the last de‑escalation zone in Syria”. The risk of regional escalation is large, including the creation of possible new flows of refugees. For the sake of 1.5 million internationally displaced people in Idlib and those in need of aid, he once again called for the full implementation of all Security Council resolutions, including 2401 (2018). It is essential that the United Nations‑led political process is inclusive and is based on resolution 2254 (2105), with a political transition aimed at addressing root causes. There should be no reconstruction aid before a sustainable political transition is in place.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) underlined the importance of full implementation of Council resolution 2254 (2015) and the Astana agreements. Any measures to combat terrorism must include the protection of civilians and respect all relevant international protocols and conventions, he stressed, also calling for all of Syria’s populated areas — including Raqqa — to be cleared of explosive remnants of war. The return of any refugees to such areas must be voluntary, dignified and safe. Echoing calls from other speakers on those who support armed groups in Syria to step up pressure on them, he rejected any attempts to splinter the Syrian population, stressing that it is their right to freely decide their own future. The only way forward is therefore a Syrian‑led political process, he said.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia) said members of United Nations‑designated terrorist groups are present in Idlib Province, who must be defeated with coordinated international efforts. However, the fact that a military escalation against them would further aggravate the humanitarian crisis is worrying. Everything possible must be done to protect the lives of millions of civilians. Voicing support for ongoing consultations, particularly among the Astana guarantors, he recalled that Idlib is a de‑escalation zone. States with influence over Syrian actors must also play a constructive role in efforts to avoid a humanitarian disaster, he said, calling for full humanitarian access to those in need and the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers. The people of Syria have gone through an unspeakable tragedy in recent years, and they deserve a comprehensive and sustainable political solution that meets their legitimate aspirations. The crisis in Idlib can only be resolved through political dialogue, he said.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) expressed support for the Special Envoy’s participation within the framework of the Astana process, despite the escalation of the situation around Idlib, as well as his constructive role in the process of political settlement in Syria. He also voiced his hope that the summit of the Presidents of the guarantor States of the Astana process — namely the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran — which is being held in Tehran, will promote a mutually acceptable decision to restore confidence between the conflicting parties, facilitate the humanitarian situation and invigorate the process of a political solution.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) said the situation in Idlib is different from those in Aleppo, eastern Ghouta and Dara’a “because there is nowhere left to flee” for the 3 million civilians trapped there. Reminding all actors of their obligation under international law to protect civilians, he stressed the need for the Astana guarantors — currently meeting at the highest level — to immediately implement their own de‑escalation agreement in Idlib and to prioritize civilians. Asking them to act now to avoid the enormous humanitarian catastrophe “that will unfold before our eyes” if a large‑scale military intervention is pursued in Idlib, he also called on Council members to continue to explore all meaningful preventive options.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) reminded the Council that today’s meeting is taking place under the agenda item, “the situation in the Middle East”. Yet, Idlib has been talked about as if it is a discrete State, but it is an integral part of Syria. That country’s sovereignty should be not cast into question. There is a large concentration of terrorists in Idlib. They pose a threat to peace and security. They have military capability. Therefore, freezing the situation is not acceptable. The fight against terrorists must go on. This situation should not be used as leverage to achieve a political aim. It is not acceptable to rebuild Syria on some political conditions. There are up to 50 armed groups in Idlib totalling 50,000 rebel fighters. The Russian Federation has destroyed 55 weaponized drones that flew over the de‑escalation zone. Air strikes were far from residential areas. How did these terrorists obtain weapons? he asked. That is the issue the international community should address. His country is undertaking intense negotiations with its Astana partners in Tehran, while Western partners are preparing aggressive plans to prevent the last terrorist‑held area to fall. The Russian Federation is fully committed to the Syrian‑led political process under resolution 2254 (2015).
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States), Council President for September, spoke in her national capacity, saying the Assad regime and its enablers — the Russian Federation and Iran — have a playbook for the war in Syria, which includes labelling all the residents of a city “terrorists” and then perpetrating a “starve and surrender” campaign against them. That pattern played out in eastern Ghouta in February and in Dara’a in July, she said, and before that, in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. “The atrocities committed by Assad will be a permanent stain on history and a black mark on this Council,” which has been prevented, again and again, from acting to stop such tragedies, she stated. Emphasizing that any assault on Idlib will represent a dangerous escalation of the conflict, with dire consequences, she urgently called on all actors to avoid a military offensive there.
Stressing that many other options exist for effectively targeting terrorist groups in Idlib, she warned the Russian Federation and the Assad regime not to bomb or slaughter civilians. The United States will not consider funding reconstruction projects in Syria — essentially, cleaning up the mess made by those parties — until concrete progress is made towards a political solution ending the war in line with Council resolution 2254 (2015). “No one else should either,” she added. “A military offensive in Idlib will only leave Syria weaker and more broken,” she continued, and she urged the Russian Federation in particular to carefully consider its options and work with the United Nations — instead of with President Assad — to end the fighting.
Mr. DE MISTURA, taking the floor again to respond to comments raised, agreed that time is of the essence. Displaying a photograph of a candlelight vigil held recently by civilian women in Idlib, he stressed that terrorist fighters only represent a very small percentage of the district’s population. Civilians want to stand up against terrorism, but they refuse to be bombed in the process. While he has not yet learned the outcome of today’s meeting between the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey, he expressed hope that concrete proposals for a peaceful solution will emerge from it, in particular on ways to separate Idlib’s terrorists from non‑terrorist groups and the civilian population.
Outlining one such proposal — suggested to him directly by the district’s residents — he said Nusrah Front fighters, and not civilians, should be asked to leave Idlib. Turkey could exert its influence over armed groups in the area to those ends. The main objective of such a plan would be to prevent a mass exodus of civilians by instead giving militant fighters a deadline to exit Idlib’s populated areas. The populated areas — once vacated by terrorists — would remain under the control of civilians and local police. Meanwhile, Syrian authorities and their international partners would commit to refrain from aerial bombardments or other military offensives.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) recalled that the Astana process resulted in a temporary de‑escalation agreement, which could be renewed if armed groups disassociate themselves from terrorist organizations. However, that has not happened in Idlib. “The countries sponsoring terrorists do not want to distinguish between terrorists and armed opposition [groups],” he stressed. While Mr. de Mistura has said there are “very few” terrorists in Idlib, the number is actually around 50,000. Such a huge number would never be tolerated in a Western city, he pointed out, asking Council members to envision 50,000 terrorist fighters in the United Kingdom’s city of Manchester. The United States, which holds the Council Presidency for September, has already forced a discussion of Nicaragua — despite the fact that that country poses no threat to international peace and security — and is now taking up domestic affairs in Syria. Next it will be Venezuela and then Iran, he said, citing reports that a high‑level meeting on the latter is already scheduled for late September.
His Government never wished for this bitter situation in the Council, he said. In recent years, three of the organ’s permanent members have collectively held hundreds of meetings, sounded alarms and used menacing language against Syria whenever its Government made any progress towards defeating terrorist groups. Those three countries and their local partners are, in fact, the main cause of Syria’s crisis, attempting to spread their Wahabi Saudi brand of terrorism across the region. Any action to expel terrorists from Idlib or elsewhere in Syria is his nation’s sovereign right, he stressed, adding that such operations have been explicitly requested by civilians still besieged by those groups. Syria has allowed plenty of time for armed groups in Idlib to lay down their arms and disassociate themselves from organizations not covered by the Astana process. However, if they refuse to do so, the Government is prepared to act against them while taking all precautions to protect civilians.
Calling on all international agencies operating in Syria to prepare to meet the people’s humanitarian needs, he said the United States, United Kingdom and France have long refused calls to place the Nusrah Front on the Council’s designated list of terrorist groups. Supporting Syria’s operations against terrorists today is a “true test” of those three countries’ desire to combat terrorism, he stated, also urging them to use their influence on local terrorist fighters to prevent the use of chemical weapons. Addressing the representative of Kuwait, he said some of that country’s leaders organized a campaign in 2012 to send thousands of terrorists to Syria, as well as millions of dollars to fund their activities.
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