Madam President, Members of the Security Council
These are indeed chilling days, as the Secretary-General said, for Syria and for the people of Aleppo in particular. The past week has been one of the worst ones in Syria during the near six years of this devastating conflict. Earlier in the week I had to deeply regret the fact that the meeting of the International Syria Support Group did not yield the results we were hoping, and actually saw the outcome that it put in jeopardy the agreement reached by the two co-chairs – in which we want to continue to believe – on 9 September in Geneva, which was meant to reinvigorate the concept and the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities.
The ISSG meeting took place in the middle of news of the government of Syria declared an offensive of now a de facto besieged eastern Aleppo. And it came on the footsteps of two unrelated but compounding tragic events. One refers to the incident in Deir El Zor. The second one was the attack on a humanitarian convoy. I can only reiterate the concern expressed by the Secretary-General on the first incident, which was acknowledged as a tragic mistake by the US, and our shared deep outrage on the deadly attack on the humanitarian convoy. But no incident, irrespective of whether it can be attributed or not, does justify what is going on in front of our own eyes: the unravelling of the CoH and the simultaneous unleashing of unprecedented military violence affecting innocent civilians as well.
Madam President, let us recall briefly that following the 9 September announcement of the agreement between the Russian Federation and the US – which was a complicated agreement which took long time and which required long evening and night discussions –, the renewed cessation of hostilities that came into effect three days later did indeed reduce violence. Even Aleppo witnessed a reduction of military activities. We heard of families coming out of their shelters and houses to celebrate Eid on the streets. People started to become cautiously optimistic. But there was still sporadic shelling inside of the city and some airstrikes in the countryside, but at a lower level.
And then on 18 September, airstrikes resumed on Aleppo City, when five districts were hit reportedly with five severe airstrikes. And when the Government unilaterally declared the end of the cessation of hostilities on 19 September, we began to hear reports of use of barrel bombs and airstrikes in eastern Aleppo, where, I want to remind all of us, up to 275,000 people are currently de facto trapped – fair enough, there is 1.6 million people on the other side of Aleppo, but they are not isolated as the ones in eastern Aleppo. Only minutes after the Government’s announcement, our own team in Aleppo – which happened to be there because we had sent them to accompany and assist these possible truck convoy that was meant to leave Turkey in order to get via Castello Road to eastern Aleppo – they clearly heard the sounds of shelling and bombardment begin in Aleppo.
As the Secretary-General has reported to this Council, on the evening of the same 19 September, there was a horrific attack which took place against a humanitarian convoy to Oram Al-Kubra, killing 20 humanitarian Syrian workers and drivers including the team leader, destroying 18 out of 31 clearly identified trucks. We have condemned this attack in the strongest terms – as have many other Member States around this table who have offered condolences and have been calling for an enquiry and for those who committed such an action to be held accountable.
Since that fateful day, we have seen the situation in eastern Aleppo deteriorate to new heights of horror. Amid intensive airstrikes reported on Friday, following the announcement of the beginning of a government offensive – an announcement made by the government itself –, the community across opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo even called off their own Friday prayers. Information received by OHCHR indicates dozens of airstrikes on Friday and Saturday, that have been hitting residential buildings across the de facto besieged eastern Aleppo, causing scores of reported civilian deaths and injuries, including those of many children.
First responders appear overwhelmed and unable to respond to many of the sites. We have seen reports of 3 of the 4 centres operated by the White Helmets in eastern Aleppo being hit. As numbers of casualties are rising, rescue workers struggle to remove people from under the rubble. Even tools that might or might have been able to mitigate some of the suffering of civilians have reportedly been destroyed in the attacks against the civil defence stations.
Information received from sources on the ground, allegedly due to airstrikes on AOG-held areas, suggest the following numbers to date – we can’t verify them but these are the figures we are seeing at the moment: 213 fatalities in Aleppo province, 139 fatalities in eastern Aleppo, 74 fatalities in rural Aleppo, all including dozens of women and children.
How many airstrikes? Obviously we have no independent capacity to verify. And sources on the ground tell us that they no longer have the capacity to count them accurately, given the chaos in Aleppo city, due to the fact they often take place at night and with remarkable new intensity. We heard the words “unprecedented”, in quantity and also in scale and type, in the types of bombing. We have seen reports, videos and pictures of reported use of incendiary bombs, that create fireballs of such intensity that they light up the pitch darkness in eastern Aleppo, as though it was actually daylight. We now hear of bunker-busting bombs being used and see pictures of large craters in the earth much larger than in previous aerial bombings. If it is confirmed, the systematic indiscriminate use of such weapons in areas where civilians and civilian infrastructure are present may amount to war crimes. Civilians across town must be asking themselves where on earth is now safe to be in this tormented city.
We have also seen reports of armed opposition groups firing hellfire rockets – you know what they are? they are basically gas canisters full of nails, stones and iron, which are being thrown in a rudimentary way across the other side of the line and do kill civilians, including one which hit al-Maari school in Hamidiyey neighbourhood on 22 September. On 19 September, the area close to the UN hub in western Aleppo was actually hit with two mortar shells coming from the opposition, killing one civilian.
Reports continue that medical centres are being targeted, including an alleged strike on an ambulance and medical triage centre in an AOG-held area of south-western Aleppo, which has caused fatalities also amongst medical staff, once again. We hear of streets so filled with rubble, huge piles of rubbles due to this new type of bombs, that ambulances cannot even pass through them.
Madam President, up to 275,000 people – and they can’t be all terrorists frankly – in Eastern Aleppo have now been under a form of de facto siege for almost 20 days, since the al-Ramouseh corridor was closed and after the Castello road was blocked since 7 July.
Since this closure, the humanitarian situation has taken a turn for the worse. In essence, basically supplies are running out. WFP stocks inside eastern Aleppo amount to only 12,000 food rations (which means basically sufficient for 60,000 people out of 275,000). And there is no prospect of replenishing them, since both roads are blocked. Bread is available only for 3 days a week and bakeries are being hit (which could reduce again in coming days). There is lack of fuel for general public use, reducing the services on transport, private wells, and household use - especially for cooking.
As this Council is aware, the UN/WFP had planned to send a convoy to eastern Aleppo at the beginning of the renewed cessation of hostilities and WFP had mobilized a convoy of 40 trucks – I have the pictures here, every morning at 5 o’clock they are ready, they are waiting to go –, loaded with food rations sufficient to provide full food rations for some 35,000 people and wheat flour assistance for an additional 130,000 people of the 275,000. We all know what happened: the convoy never moved because it never received sufficient guarantees – frankly, let’s be honest – from either side and the cessation of hostilities broke down. We had complicated arguments raised by the government, such as driving licences suddenly becoming crucial in the whole conflict, and on the opposition side all sorts of arguments asking for all sorts of impossible conditions in order to make sure we would have the guarantees. Obviously there was a hesitation from both sides to see this convoy moving, and we saw the result of this.
2 million people now have no access to running water through the public network, after intense fighting stopped water pumping from the two key pumping stations that service the population - both eastern and western parts of the city. On 22 September, the Bab Al-Nairab water pumping station, that serves the eastern part of the city, was reportedly hit by airstrikes. And Jaish al-Fateh turned off as a retaliation the water to 1.5 million people in the western part of the city –so no water-, in a grave tit-for-tat type of move. Water has now been luckily, and we hope more regularly, turned back on, after difficult last-minute negotiations led by UNICEF. However, people in eastern Aleppo still remain at risk due to interruptions to safe drinking water. Water from wells, which used to be plenty, has become, due to the conflict, highly contaminated and people, particularly vulnerable children, are at risk of catastrophic outbreaks of waterborne diseases. God forbid, that’s the last thing we need in a moment like this.
If nothing else, from a humanitarian point of view, we ask this Council: (1) to press for a cessation of the violence and protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure. (2) weekly 48-hour pauses in the fighting to ensure at least that the UN and partners can reach eastern Aleppo – without preconditions neither from the government nor frankly from the opposition. (3) to press for medical evacuations, and there are several cases, for urgent cases from eastern Aleppo.
Returning to the military situation on the ground, where we have several accounts of almost each event, there were reports of the Government announcement to retake all of Aleppo city. Indeed, shortly after the agreement announced in Geneva on 9 September close to midnight between Russia and the US, President Assad visited what was left of Darayya and he announced his intention to “liberate every inch of Syria”. Furthermore we saw reports that indicated that the reported objective of government and pro-government forces is to “squeeze out terrorists without civilian casualties” – I repeat “squeeze out terrorists without civilian casualties” –, and maintain a corridor for fighters to leave eastern Aleppo. However, we are seeing it, civilians are dying, and are dying in large numbers.
The last days have seen intense military clashes on major front lines including Handrat, Shaikh Sa’id, Old Aleppo, Old Ramousa and Hamdaniah districts. Yesterday, government forces said they had taken over Handrat district north of the city – a claim that armed opposition groups now dispute – whatever the case it is a fact there has bee heavy fighting there. There were contradicting statements from the opposition on whether counter offensives are led by Al-Nusra Front or Fatteh Halab Operations Room of FSA groups. We have seen information from other sources that tell us that more than half of fighters present in eastern Aleppo are Al Nusra. We have also seen reports alleging the intentional placement of firing positions close to social infrastructure and inside civilian quarters. We have seen that in other conflict, it is not a reason for anyone to destroy the whole building.
The one constant in this violently unpredictable conflict is that neither side will win and therefore both ultimately will lose, and above all Syrian people are going to lose and they are losing their lives day by day. All we can expect from Aleppo, if the Syrian Government is intent on retaking it is completely – and this is a military analysis done by people far more competent than us – a slow, grinding, street-by-street fight, over the course of months, if not years, whereby the ancient city will be almost completely destroyed. In the face of these illusions of imminent victory, I must reiterate what we now believe to be an almost self-evident truth, but a truth that does not seem to be actually implemented: a so-called military ‘solution’ or victory in Syria is impossible, including in Aleppo.
Syrians on all sides still make clear their demand for a ceasefire and a credible political solution. But trust is seriously broken. On 9 September, in Geneva that night, I remember very much both Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry being concerned about it, saying they can’t go on making statements that do not have a follow-up. But I want to believe – because I am still a naïve UN official – that they really meant what they said and they really negotiated hard, comma by comma, because they wanted every word. But frankly the international community and the Syrians are swiftly losing any remaining hope and the international community is losing any credibility with the parties – unless we salvage what was agreed upon.
A tiny window of opportunity, dear friends, still exists, and we want to believe does exist, for the Russian Federation and the US to actually help the Syrians and the region step away from the brink of more years of bloody conflict which risks to become even worse.
On Wednesday I reported to the Security Council how the Secretary-General has asked me to present a framework of proposals to the sides as a starting point for negotiations in resumed talks as requested by the ISSG co-chairs. I am ready to do just that. But the ISSG and the co-chairs, including this very Council as suggested through an important comment made by HE the Chinese Foreign Minister on Thursday at the ISSG, that this Council has a responsibility to ensure the relaunching the Cessation of Hostilities without delay and ensure its implementation, with all the risks and difficulties this entails.
We all know that this conflict cannot be resolved through negotiations without the help and assistance of the co-chairs and the region. So I am asking, indeed urging, both of them to go that extra mile to see if they can save their agreement of 9 September and do so at the eleventh hour – since that agreement not only provides some basis for the resumption of talks, but it also provides a wider framework for how to combat terrorism – we have no doubts about that, I want to believe we all agree on that – and de-conflict the region more generally and ground the Syrian air force, as it was part of that agreement.
My appeal to this Council today is the following: please, develop a common course of action to enforce a cessation of hostilities in Syria. I am still convinced that we can turn the course of events. We have proven this more than once before. We have come a long way to date to not allow the small but tangible achievements of the CoH to be buried under the dust of Aleppo’s rubble.
I have been asked, Madam President, by many – Mr de Mistura, why don’t you resign at this point? Frankly all this is leading nowhere and this will send a strong signal. No I am not. Because any sign of me resigning would be a signal that the international community is abandoning the Syrians, and we will not abandon the Syrians, and neither will you. We don’t need that kind of signal that would make news for five minutes and then not only Syria would be abandoned by everyone but also the hope that the international community does believe that we want to get out of the conflict.
Thank you Madam President.