Despite Fragile Calm in Syria, Political Track Has Yielded Few Results, Special Envoy Warns Security Council ahead of Constitutional Committee’s Fifth Session


Syria is experiencing the calmest period of its decade-long conflict, but the political process has yet to deliver substantive results for the Syrian people nor a real vision for the future, the senior United Nations mediator for the conflict told the Security Council during a 20 January videoconference meeting.

“The Syrian people have seen less all-out violence than before. The last 10 months have been the calmest in the history of the conflict. Frontlines have barely shifted,” said Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria.

“But this is a fragile calm. It could break down at any moment. This past month again showed us this,” he added, citing an abrupt and significant escalation around Ein Issa in north-east Syria, an intensification of airstrikes attributed to Israel, continuous attacks by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in the east and central area, and mutual shelling and airstrikes in and around Idlib. Civilians continue to be killed in ongoing cross-fire and improvised explosive device attacks. Adding to that, economic collapse compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption and mismanagement are producing a “slow tsunami that is crashing across Syria”.

“Steps that could build confidence are not being taken,” he said, noting that progress is lacking on full and unhindered humanitarian access; issues related to detainees, abductees and the missing; a nationwide ceasefire; and a cooperative and effective approach to countering United Nations-listed terrorist groups. Moreover, there are no political talks among the Syrians other than on a constitutional track. And free and fair elections to be held pursuant to a new constitution under United Nations supervision, as envisaged in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), seem far off.

He went on to point out that the conflict is highly internationalized, with five foreign armies active in Syria, calling for a more serious and cooperative international diplomacy. After all, despite their differences, key States are committed to resolution 2254 (2015) and they have common interests — including on issues such as stability, containing terrorism, the safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees, and preventing further conflict. “We must be able to build on these together,” he emphasized.

Turning to the Constitutional Committee, he said its fifth session will convene in Geneva from 25 to 29 January, COVID-19 conditions permitting. It will discuss basic principles of the constitution. In preparation for the Committee session, he has been virtually engaging the two co-chairs, he said, also noting that he met virtually with the Middle Third civil society group on Tuesday and with the Women’s Advisory Board twice virtually in December. The Board members have emphasized the importance of women's full participation, underscoring that the core constitutional rights of women across political, social and economic spheres must be safeguarded in the process.

This coming session of the Committee is “very important”, he said, stressing that the time has come for the co-chairs to establish effective and operational working methods, so that the meetings are better organized and more focused. The Committee must begin to move from preparing a constitutional reform to drafting one. The co-chairs can and should reach agreement on a workplan for future meetings with clear agendas and topics, and there needs to be more urgency in the process. “These are reasonable goals, but I cannot assure the Council that they will be met this time,” he said, appealing to the co-chairs and to all members of the Committee to be ready to move to a new phase of work during the upcoming session.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, focused on the economic crisis, the impact of COVID-19, civilian protection, humanitarian access and how aid organizations are providing assistance. Describing the current situation of declining currency value and food prices which are 236 per cent higher than in December 2019, he said domestic wheat production cannot meet demands and reports show that nearly one in five households have poor consumption levels and over 80 per cent rely on negative coping mechanisms to afford food. There is a growing reliance on child labour, as 10 per cent of families say they must rely on their children to contribute to the family income. In addition, fuel shortages, power cuts and winter weather conditions are compounding the situation. “As a result of heavy rainfall affecting thousands of people in the north-west this week, people are telling us that they, their children and their elderly parents are spending whole nights standing upright in their tents because they are inundated with so much water,” he said. The impact of the pandemic is compounding the economic crisis, he added, noting more than 50 per cent of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive in Sweida and Tartous.

On civilian protection, injuries and deaths are linked to explosive weapons and unexploded ordnance, which killed at least 13 children across Syria so far this year, he said. Most of Al Hol camp residents are children, who live in unacceptable conditions. He stressed the need to protect infrastructure that is indispensable to civilians’ survival and to continue to give technical teams safe access to water and electricity installations at Alouk. Regarding humanitarian access, the United Nations has been unable to proceed with a planned first cross-line mission from Damascus into Idlib, as parties on either side have yet to agree on the composition of the mission, he said, adding that the Organization will continue to engage with all relevant parties to work towards a solution that will allow the mission to go forward.

Meantime, cross-border operations into north-west Syria dispatched an average of 1,000 trucks of aid per month in 2020, reaching 2.4 million people each month throughout the year, he observed. The United Nations-coordinated operation assisted 7.6 million people per month on average in 2020, up 20 per cent from 2019. An overview released in December shows 13 million people inside the country require aid and another 10.1 million in the region, including 5.5 million Syrian refugees. Calculated based on independent assessments, the needs are the basis for a United Nations response focusing on lifesaving aid and repairs to critical humanitarian facilities, with a request for $10 billion for 2021, including $4.2 billion for needs inside Syria.

The Organization’s efforts continue to be guided by humanitarian principles, he said, adding that United Nations leadership remains attentive to the necessary oversight of its work on the ground through established internal coordination mechanisms and regular engagement with Member States. Appropriate internal oversight mechanisms and other frameworks remain in place, including the Parameters and Principles of United Nations Assistance in Syria, in compliance with Council resolutions and other relevant decisions, including General Assembly resolution 46/182. The United Nations country team has been in discussions with the Syrian Government and Member States in the region regarding work on resilience and early recovery and the new strategic framework for 2021-2023. Given the importance of further engagement, the United Nations in Syria is working on a six-month extension of the strategic framework, he said, adding that: “We will continue to use every opportunity we have to deliver aid to those most in need; this will require adequate funding, improved access, and an end to the violence that has tormented Syrians for nearly a decade.”

In the ensuing discussion, delegates traded accusations over who is responsible for the Council’s failure to help end the conflict in Syria, debated whether the United Nations-facilitated cross-border aid delivery should continue and exchanged views on the impact of sanctions.

The representative of the United States said the Council’s failure to serve the people of Syria is scandalous. The Council denied Syrians the path towards peace and stability and has failed millions of people there over the past 10 years. Recalling the importance of being a selfless public servant, she pledged her country’s support for the two briefers. Turning to the Constitutional Committee, she welcomed the upcoming fifth session, but stressed that she is under no illusion. The Assad regime is stalling the constitutional process. The current election framework for the 2021 presidential election does not meet basic international standards. Washington, D.C., will not recognize the legitimacy of such an election. Until there is further progress on the political track, her country will hold its reconstruction funding to Syria. Describing the plight of Syrians, who are displaced and detained, she encouraged the media to continue to air their voices even though the Russian Federation tells different stories. On cross-border aid, her delegation supports Ireland and Norway — co-leads on the Syrian humanitarian issue — towards renewing resolution 2532 (2020). Leaders exist not to rule but serve, and they are judged by their fidelity to freedom and democracy.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the fact that the Constitutional Committee’s fifth session is planned for next week amid COVID-19 demonstrates the resolve of the Syrian Government to stabilize the situation despite pressure from Western States. The Russian Federation repeatedly advocated that non-interference in Syria’s internal affairs be stated in resolution 2254 (2015), which does not say anything about the upcoming elections. The cross-border mechanism lacks transparency. On humanitarian aid delivery from Damascus to Idlib, he corrected Mr. Lowcock, citing a document signed by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in April 2020. Ireland and Norway, who lead the Council’s agenda on the humanitarian situation in Syria, should not repeat the failure of their predecessors, he said. The cross-border mechanism was established as a temporary measure in 2014 when Syria was torn apart by terrorists. However, now that Syria is rebuilding it is no longer the same, he said, stressing that the mechanism has outlived its objectives. Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be restored. Unlawful sanctions by Western States are undermining Syria’s humanitarian and pandemic responses. These coercive measures are blocking the supply of COVID-19 tests and medical personnel as well as access to the Internet. He asked Mr. Lowcock to explain why his approaches to Yemen and Syria are different and clarify his position on setting political conditions for the Organization’s development assistance for Syria.

The representative of Norway, speaking also on behalf of Ireland as co-authors of the Syrian humanitarian file, raised deep concerns about record high needs exacerbated by COVID-19, among them inadequate health services to handle the pandemic, alongside restricted water supplies, winter storms and mounting civilian protection requirements. At least 41,200 people have been affected by heavy rainfall across western Aleppo and Idlib, she said, requesting the urgent scaling up of the relief efforts. Action is also needed to address child deaths in accidents caused by unexploded ordnance in areas such as Daraa and Dayr al-Zawr, she said, noting that the hard work of humanitarian mine clearance has just begun.

To address growing needs, she continued, the United Nations, International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and non-governmental organization partners continue to mount one of the world’s largest humanitarian responses, reaching an average of 7.4 million people per month and demonstrating the need for ensuring a principled approach to humanitarian assistance and protection. She expressed hope that the progress seen in ensuring humanitarian access continues in 2021. Calling on all parties involved to facilitate a concerted scaling up of cross-line support, she said the United Nations and partners have made efforts at the crossing at Bab al Hawa, which continues to play an indispensable role in the delivery of aid to the 3 million people in need. Paying tribute to humanitarian and medical personnel for their tireless efforts, she called on all parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law and protect those who risk their lives while saving others.

Speaking in her national capacity, she voiced support for the Special Envoy, welcoming the resumption of Constitutional Committee meetings and emphasizing that Syrian parties must advance the process. Recalling the adoption of resolution 2254 (2015), she urged the parties and all involved actors to contribute to concrete progress. Expressing support for the Special Envoy’s call for taking stock of the political process to find the best possible way forward, she said wider efforts must address many issues, with the constructive engagement of regional and international partners and involved actors. Raising a range of concerns, she called on all parties to address the issue of countless persons who remain missing or in detention and to take all the requisite steps to better protect children and ensure their rights, including keeping schools and health facilities safe. Inclusivity is vital for a successful peace process, she said, commending the Special Envoy for his close dialogue with the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board. Recent attacks in central and eastern parts of Syria are a reminder that ISIL remains a serious threat, she said, expressing support for efforts to combat such actions and stressing that: “We must remain vigilant of their existence, and their potential to grow and inspire terrorist attacks far beyond Syria and Iraq.”

The representative of Ireland regretted to note that after almost 10 years of a brutal war with devastating consequences for the people of Syria, “we are no closer to a credible political solution that implements resolution 2254 (2015)”, which stems from the lack of serious engagement by the Syrian authorities in the political process. Commending the Special Envoy’s efforts, she anticipated a fruitful fifth session of the Constitutional Committee. Calling on all parties to work urgently and sincerely towards concrete outcomes on the basic principles of the Constitution, she underlined the importance of including women and civil society in political processes. Progress on the Constitution is critical to peace efforts, but stakeholders must urgently address other vital aspects of resolution 2254 (2015), including the grim reality of violent conflict and terrorism. While a fragile calm largely continues, it still falls far short of the lasting and verifiable nationwide ceasefire demanded in resolution 2254 (2015), as shelling, airstrikes and improvised explosive device attacks continue to kill and injure civilians. Moreover, there can be no sustainable peace without accountability and no true peace without justice, including when addressing the issue of heinous crimes, detainees, abductees and missing persons. Only a credible political solution will lead to refugees’ safe, voluntary and dignified return, which currently is far from being achieved. Ireland is concerned that ISIL and its affiliates remain active, exploiting the vacuum that exists in some parts of Syria, she said, noting that the European Union is contributing by non-military means to the Global Coalition to counter ISIL/Da’esh. “After nearly a decade of conflict, the political process has failed the Syrian people, and they continue to suffer unconscionably,” she said. “Only a political solution can end this suffering and prevent continued conflict and instability.”

The representative of the United Kingdom, emphasizing that more than 500,000 people have died in the conflict, said that the volume and frequency of humanitarian aid deliveries via Damascus to north-east Syria must increase. “An improvement in the humanitarian situation is only possible with a reduction of violence,” she said, adding that it is vital that the parties engage constructively on substantial issues at this month’s Constitutional Committee meeting. She rejected claims that Western sanctions are to blame for Syria’s failing economy, stating that the regime must bear responsibility for nepotism, corruption and funding brutal violence against its own people.

The speaker for Kenya said that the Council and the multilateral order must put the Syrian people first and that a long-term solution lies in the widest possible political dialogue that does not, however, reward terrorist groups and their leaders with political recognition. “What is needed now is urgent collaboration by the parties on the constitutional reform process as the basis for a political solution that can be the foundation for security,” he said. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he said there should be no limits on aid deliveries. To that end, he called for stronger cooperation between the Government and the United Nations to better support cross-line and cross-border humanitarian assistance.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed concern over the currency depreciation, food insecurity and shortages of other essential commodities in Syria, stressing that aid access facilitated by the cross-border mechanism, and other essential modalities, is vital to the humanitarian response. These modalities require significant scale up to ensure that those needing support receive aid in a timely, safe, sustained and unimpeded manner. She appealed for the lifting of unilateral coercive measures, and while recognizing the substantial threat posed by terrorism, recalled that all counter-terrorism and military activities must comply with international law. In addition, the Constitutional Committee is an essential component of efforts to resolve the conflict and she encouraged parties to negotiate in a spirit of compromise during its fifth session. It is likewise imperative that the issues of detainees and missing persons are urgently addressed, she said, calling more broadly for the withdrawal of all unauthorized foreign forces from Syria.

The speaker for Niger said that his position on the Syrian crisis remains constant, stressing that the outcome of the crisis must be based on a political and non-military, inclusive process led by the Syrians. He expressed firm support for the Special Envoy’s tireless efforts to promote dialogue and mutual trust between the parties, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015). Welcoming the resumption of the work of the Constitutional Committee, after several months of hiatus, he expressed hope that during the upcoming meetings, all members of the Committee will be involved in negotiations, in good faith, by seeking compromises to put Syria on the path to peace and security. On humanitarian aid, he said procedures at the Bab al Hawa crossing point and between the contact lines must be flexible to allow for faster aid delivery.

The representative of Mexico, expressing hope that the Constitutional Committee will continue progressing, recognized the Special Envoy’s efforts to include civil society and women in the process. Calling for a redoubling of efforts to promote political transition, he said a ceasefire, the release of detainees and the provision of updates on missing individuals are much needed. Dialogue, with the support of regional and international partners, is essential. Recognizing all humanitarian actors working on the ground, he said greater action is needed to alleviate the current worsening situation. Highlighting areas of particular concern, he said food insecurity must be addressed, including by providing aid and unfettered access to deliver it. Winter conditions lay bare the need for adequate housing and civilian protection in camps. A spike in COVID-19 cases is worrisome, he said, calling on all actors to guarantee access to medicine, vaccines and medical equipment to serve those in need and asking all parties to refrain from politicizing or deliberately impeding aid deliveries.

The speaker for France reiterated the call for a ceasefire to allow an effective response, including addressing the resurgence of ISIL. Turning to the catastrophic humanitarian situation, worsened by the pandemic, he said alarming shortfalls in medical assistance require that safe access is ensured for aid workers and deliveries. Civilian protection must be a priority. The Constitutional Committee will only have meaning if it leads the parties to agree on reforms. Drafting a constitution is only one step, and if that fails, the Council must reassess its approach. Progress must also be made on the issue of detainees and missing persons. Calling on the Special Envoy to implement these central elements of resolution 2254 (2015), he also called on the Russian Federation to do its part to ensure success in this regard. Refugees and internally displaced persons must be allowed to safely return to their homes. Meanwhile, the European Union and partners will continue to shoulder their responsibility regarding a humanitarian response. Unless the current regime commits to a smooth transition process, France will not support it. The United Nations must do the same to prevent involvement with the regime and heinous crimes committed against the Syrian people.

The representative of Estonia, raising concerns about chronic violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions, said “the war is far from over”. Extremist groups are in operation and millions are being forced to leave their homes, he said, emphasizing that humanitarian actors must have access to those in need. One year into a reduction of cross-border deliveries stemming from China and the Russian Federation’s double veto of the related Council resolution, the results are clear that aid is required to serve the population’s ever-growing needs. Citing a range of actions required to improve current conditions, he said a genuine political process must move forward to enable progress in meeting the many needs of the population. Meanwhile, resolution 2254 (2015) remains at the core of how actors should be providing humanitarian aid to Syria.

The speaker for Viet Nam urged the concerned parties to engage constructively during the upcoming Constitutional Committee meeting, which will hopefully agree on a timetable for further discussions. The relative calm on the ground is an opportunity to expedite the political process for the sake of peace, stability and development for all Syrians. He called for greater cooperation to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access, and for the international community to keep helping Syrians in need. At the same time, sanctions must not hamper the Syrian people’s capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The representative of India recalled that the Council first began discussing the situation in Syria in March 2011, “during the initial days of our previous innings in the Council”. The fact that the conflict has been so long-drawn and intractable makes a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process inevitable. Hopefully, all parties at the next Constitutional Committee meeting will show the commitment, flexibility and compromise required to move forward on the political track, with the international community — including the United Nations — assisting them. Underscoring the gravity of the humanitarian situation, he called on the international community to help Syria to rebuild its infrastructure, safeguard people’s livelihoods and fight COVID-19, while also being sensitive to the debilitating impact of sanctions on ordinary people.

The speaker for China, voicing support for covering both political and humanitarian issues in one Council meeting, expressed hope that parties in Syria will work under the Constitutional Committee process and use dialogue to resolve their differences. Stressing that the Constitutional Committee must remain free from outside interference, he noted that Syria has expressed a willingness to participate in its work, a point that should be acknowledged. Security threats stem mainly from foreign occupation terrorist activities, and only by addressing these issues will a political solution emerge. As Syria has the right to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to conduct anti-terrorist operations to defend its security, the international community should, in line with international law, support Syria in enhancing counter-terrorism efforts and not allow the sustained presence of terrorist forces. He pressed United Nations agencies to improve cooperation with Syria’s Government and to enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian operations. He also called for the lifting of unilateral coercive measures, stressing that “diplomacy that relies on sanctions will get us nowhere”.

The representative of Tunisia, Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, calling on the Syrian parties to be flexible and find common ground in order to make progress on political issues, as per resolution 2254 (2015). He hailed the role of Syrian women in the search for an overall settlement. Going forward, maintaining the ceasefire is both a necessity and a long-term objective. All parties must exercise restraint, respect international law and international humanitarian law, and guarantee the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers. The scope of humanitarian assistance must be broadened to reach all those in need, without discrimination, he said, adding that humanitarian projects should be expanded to include infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, roads, waterworks and sanitation.

Mr. LOWCOCK, responding to questions from Council members, said that Yemen is facing the world’s worst famine in 40 years due to the decision of the now-former United States Administration to designate Allah Ansar as a terrorist organization, effectively shutting down food imports into a country that grows little food. In Syria, however, there is no famine “and we must all work together to make sure there never is”.

The representative of the Russian Federation, on whether the Council should hold separate meetings on the political and humanitarian aspects of the situation in Syria, said that the Council could revert to that format if the two topics are not mixed, as was the case in the past. He added that if the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator is unable to comment in greater depth on a strategic framework for Syria, then the Council should invite another briefer who can do so. He went on to say that sanctions on Syria are no less harmful than those on Yemen.

The representative of Syria, citing resolution 1373 (2001) and subsequent anti-terrorism resolutions, stressed the need to unite international efforts to combat the scourge, including financing of such acts. Western countries have instrumentalized terrorism in Syria, destroying people’s lives and pillaging the country’s wealth and natural resources. The United States breathes new life into terrorist groups operating in his country while Turkey also supports groups that commit murder and steal harvest, but Mr. Lowcock said nothing about these crimes. The United States and the European Union continue to impose unilateral sanctions, which impede humanitarian assistance. In an Arria-formula meeting in November, the representative of a non-governmental organization described how sanctions were preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Syrians. He asked Mr. Lowcock to explain his view of Western hegemony and pillaging as well as of Turkey’s behavior. Expressing hope that the new United States Administration will be more judicious and shoulder its responsibility for international peace and security, he urged Washington, D.C., to withdraw its occupation forces from Syria and cease support for separatists. The political process must be Syrian-owned and led and the success of the Constitutional Committee rests on rejecting attempts to interfere in domestic affairs and dictate the outcome and timeline of the Committee.

The representative of Turkey said that people are suffering amid the lack of basic needs, such as food, water and shelter, pointing out that the Syrian regime rendered the country's health system totally unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic as it engaged in indiscriminate military campaigns. About 3 million internally displaced persons depend on aid passing through Turkey’s borders, he said, stressing that there is no alternative to the United Nations cross-border mechanism. Citing Ankara’s assistance in building housing units in Idlib, he called for the restoration of electricity and water supplies there. He also pointed out that the Syrian regime continues to violate the ceasefire in Idlib. Expressing hope that the Constitutional Committee will produce tangible results, he highlighted the critical importance of the Astana framework, to which his country is a party. Citing attacks by Kurdistan Workers’ Party/People’s Protection Units (PKK/YPG) in northern Syria, he emphasized the need to “call a spade a spade”. He said he will not respond to the Syrian speaker, whom he does not consider “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

The representative of Iran, underlining the importance of the Astana process, said that the Constitutional Committee must pursue its work with no external interference or pressure, and with no artificial deadlines. At the same time, the fight against terrorist groups must continue, he said, emphasizing that combating terrorism must not be used as a pretext to support separatism or to violate Syria’s sovereignty. He called for an end to the United States’ occupation of parts of Syria and for the immediate lifting of unilateral sanctions, which are preventing the return of refugees and obstructing reconstruction. He also called on Israel to end its “provocative military adventurism” in Syria and underscored Tehran’s continued support for the Syrian people and Government.

For information media. Not an official record.