Harsh Winter Conditions, ongoing Hostilities Have Forced Even Greater Displacement of Civilians in Syria, Emergency Relief Coordinator Tells Security Council
8454TH MEETING (AM)
Damascus Representative Reiterates Core Demands: End Support for Terrorists, Lift Sanctions, Remove Foreign Forces from Our Soil
Harsh winter conditions and ongoing hostilities in some parts of Syria have resulted in the forced displacement of tens of thousands more civilians across the war-ravaged country, exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator warned during his briefing to the Security Council today.
“The people of Syria are suffering a cold, hard winter,” said Mark Lowcock, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. Updating the 15-member Council on the humanitarian community’s ongoing deliveries of assistance, as well as those planned for the coming months, he said that Syria’s severe winter has resulted in millions living under tents and tarpaulins, or in damaged buildings without power or heating. Meanwhile, there are severe shortages of basic items, ranging from blankets to baby milk to bandages, he added.
Noting that the United Nations and its partners have raised $81 million in recent months to support more than a million Syrians with vital winter items, he called attention to the plight of 3 million people living in Idlib Governorate — where the risk of military escalation still looms despite the agreement reached in September between the Russian Federation and Turkey. Meanwhile, he outlined plans to deploy a second convoy to camps for internally displaced persons in Rukban, where some 42,000 people remain stranded in deteriorating conditions after receiving their first aid delivery in November.
Citing additional sources of concern, he said ongoing military operations in parts of Deir-ez-Zor — where tens of thousands have been displaced — also pose a threat, while an unknown number of people remain trapped under the control of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). Those displaced are exposed to hostilities, explosive hazards and intense cold, while receiving minimal assistance. While the United Nations is scaling up its assistance, the parties must do their utmost to protect civilians and allow them to move freely and seek safety and basic services, he said, calling for increased international support.
As delegates took the floor, many voiced concerns about the fate of millions of civilians facing harsh winter conditions. While several speakers underscored the need to boost funding for humanitarian assistance at an upcoming donor’s conference in Brussels, others emphasized that the delivery of aid would be most effective against the backdrop of an accelerated political process, led and owned by Syria and facilitated by the United Nations.
Kuwait’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Council’s co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file — Belgium, Germany and his own country — said that behind the alarming statistics are countless stories of immense human suffering. Security and bureaucratic obstacles have exacerbated the dire living conditions of many in need, leading to civilian deaths in the past few weeks, and to escalating violence that has destroyed civilian infrastructure. Strongly condemning reports of arbitrary detention, torture, frequent kidnappings, abductions, hostage-taking and forced disappearances, he described the recent abduction and killing of a humanitarian worker in Idlib as a “shameful act” and a reminder of the daily risks that such personnel face.
The Dominican Republic’s representative called upon all sides to protect civilians and allow their free movement under international law, urging the international community to support communities who wish to rebuild their lives. Indeed, greater efforts are needed to build up national capacity and render Syrians “agents of their own recovery”, he stressed, calling for a political solution through inclusive political dialogue “for and with the Syrians”.
The representative of the United States welcomed the approval by the Government of Syria of requests for humanitarian access, urging it to clear all outstanding requests for aid delivery. The Government should also allow the United Nations to conduct a survey in Rukban relating to the intention of internally displaced persons to leave their camps, he said. The United States will continue working to establish stability in north-eastern Syria while closely monitoring the situation in Idlib, he emphasized, urging the Council to ensure that the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed in September 2018 holds.
The Russian Federation’s representative echoed concerns about the situation in Idlib, saying it has fallen under the control of armed groups, and recalled that 65 people have been killed and more than 200 injured there since the signing of the Russian-Turkish memorandum. He pointed out that his delegation has always stressed that the agreement is not a sustainable solution, he said, adding that talks about counter-terrorism operations in the area are under way. He went on to condemn as unethical any selective or politicized approach to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, saying that another meeting of the Astana guarantor States, planned for February, will give further impetus to the quest for a peaceful political solution.
Syria’s representative outlined the many measures undertaken by his country’s Government during its unprecedented, eight-year-long war against terrorists with the aim of enabling the United Nations to deliver assistance within its territory. However, no solution can be achieved without addressing the root causes of suffering, he emphasized. Some partners — including the Council’s own co-penholders — have failed to commit to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, non-interference and cooperation with the Syrian Government, he noted. Expressing hope that both development and humanitarian gains will be achieved “without political interference”, he reiterated core demands, including: full respect for Syria’s sovereignty; ending support for terrorist groups; the lifting of sanctions; and the removal of foreign forces from Syrian territory.
Also speaking today were representatives of Indonesia, France, Peru, China, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Poland, United Kingdom and Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting began at 10:29 a.m. and ended at 12:04 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed Council members on recent developments, declaring: “The people of Syria are suffering a cold, hard winter,” with freezing temperatures, snowfall, heavy rain and flooding that have destroyed shelters and forced the movement of tens of thousands. Millions are living under tents or tarpaulins, or in damaged buildings without power or heating, he said, adding that there are severe shortages of basic items ranging from blankets to baby milk to bandages. Since late 2018, the United Nations and its partners have raised $81 million to support 1.2 million Syrians with vital winter items, he noted, calling particular attention to the difficult situation of some 3 million people living in Idlib Governorate — where the risk of a military escalation still looms. While the September agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey was followed by a significant decrease in ground fighting and air strikes there, he said, January has seen an increase in fighting between non-State armed groups, which places civilians at risk and results in injury and death.
Warning that a large-scale military operation in Idlib will have catastrophic humanitarian implications, he underlined the need to continue to provide the population with food, medicine, tents and other critical winter supplies. Meanwhile, he noted, some 42,000 people remain stranded in Rukban, along the Syria-Jordan border, where conditions are deteriorating. Recalling that the last humanitarian convoy to enter that area did so in early November, he called for a second aid delivery supported by the parties. Outlining United Nations preparations for that delivery — which, among other things, will continue the vaccination campaign begun by the first convoy — he detailed security considerations for the convoy’s planned seven days on the ground in Rukban, including a 5-kilometre “buffer zone” between the convoy and any armed groups present in the area. He said that his team received verbal approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Damascus, as well security guarantees from the Russian Federation and the International Coalition Forces, for the convoy to proceed.
Turning to north-eastern Syria, he expressed concern about the humanitarian impact of the ongoing military operations in parts of Deir-ez-Zor, where some 20,000 people have been displaced from the Hajin area to Al Hol camp since December. An unknown number of people remain trapped under the control of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), he said, adding that the displaced have been exposed to hostilities, explosive hazards, intense cold and prolonged security screenings, while receiving minimal assistance. The United Nations is scaling up its assistance in Al Hol, but people continue to arrive in critical condition, he noted. Calling upon the parties to do their utmost to protect civilians — and to allow them free movement to seek safety and basic services in a location of their choosing — he said the Council has been frequently updated about the “unacceptable risks” still posed to civilians by mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosives across the country. In that context, the United Nations Mine Action Service has just launched its first project in Syria, he reported.
Reiterating that humanitarian organizations have been fully mobilized to meet the needs of people across the country, he said the United Nations is finalizing its 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview ahead of the upcoming Brussels conference. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) undertook nearly 1,000 missions across Syria in the last three months of 2018, focusing mostly on monitoring and evaluation, he reported, underlining the current priorities requiring the Council’s support. They include avoiding a full military offensive in Idlib; allowing the humanitarian convoy to Rukban to proceed; ensuring that the parties facilitate safe, regular and sustained humanitarian access; and mobilizing financing for immediate, life-saving needs in support of the Syrian people through the present bitter winter and beyond, he said.
MANSOUR AL-OTAIBI (Kuwait), speaking on behalf of the co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file — Belgium, Germany and his own country — said that behind the alarming numbers from Syria are countless stories of immense human suffering. There are still challenges, obstacles and constraints — either bureaucratic, security-related or others — that limit sustainable humanitarian access to those in need, he noted. “This has exacerbated the dire living conditions of many in need, which has led to the deaths of a number of civilians, including children, over the past few weeks.” There is need to address the continued dramatic suffering of 42,000 people in Rukban camp, whose survival depends on the arrival of assistance, he said, stressing that obstructing access to those in need is unacceptable. The escalation of violence has destroyed civilian infrastructure, he continued, calling upon the parties to the conflict to respect Council resolutions pertaining to civilian structures, particularly hospitals and health facilities. Strongly condemning the arbitrary detention and torture of individuals, as well as frequent kidnappings, abductions, hostage-taking and forced disappearances, he described as a “shameful act” the abduction and killing of a humanitarian worker in Idlib earlier this year, saying it is just a reminder of the daily risks that such workers face as they try to help others. Those who commit these crimes must be held accountable, he stressed, while also underlining that any return of Syrian refugees to their homes must done in a safe, voluntary and dignified manner.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) highlighted the importance of implementing the provisions of resolution 2165 (2014), in particular those relating to delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need and to the facilitation of humanitarian access by the Government of Syria. While welcoming the Government’s approval of requests for access, he urged it to clear all outstanding requests for aid delivery. The Government should also allow the United Nations to conduct a survey in Rukban in relation to the intention of internally displaced persons to leave their camps. They should be able to return home at a time of their choosing, he said. Noting that Syria has disregarded the Security Council before, he emphasized that it should remain vigilant. The United States has supported efforts to defeat ISIL and will continue working towards establishing stability in north-eastern Syria while closely monitoring the situation in Idlib, he said, urging the Council to ensure that the Russian-Turkish ceasefire holds for the sake of the 3 million people there.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) called upon the parties to exercise maximum restraint, stressing the urgent need to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance. “The winter season has particularly worsened the situation, especially for children,” he emphasized, while welcoming the November 2018 delivery of assistance to Rukban and expressing support for a second convoy planned for early next week. He urged the parties to ensure that the delivery goes forward unimpeded, and went on to underline the importance of a political solution, the continued absence of which will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation. To that end, Indonesia supports a political process led and owned by Syrians and facilitated by the United Nations, with full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, he said.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) echoed concerns about Idlib — which has fallen under the control of armed groups — noting that 65 people have been killed and more than 200 injured there since the signing of the Russian-Turkish memorandum in September 2018. He said that his delegation has always stressed that the agreement was not a sustainable solution. The best solution entails transferring the territory to the legitimate control of the Syrian Government, he stressed, noting that stabilization is a precondition for the political process and for a return to normal life. Condemning as unethical any selective or politicized approach to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, he nevertheless emphasized that the Russian Federation stands ready to make compromises, as it demonstrated by agreeing to cross-border aid deliveries and by supporting the upcoming delivery to Rukban. “Normal life is returning,” he said, pointing out that his country provides Syria with assistance — including more than 3.2 million tonnes of humanitarian goods — on a non-politicized basis. Underlining that another meeting of the Astana guarantors, planned for February, will give further impetus to the quest for a peaceful political solution, he warned against any attempt to influence the newly appointed Special Envoy or to talk regional countries out of normalizing relations with Syria.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said it would be irresponsible for the Council to downplay the situation in Syria since escalation remains possible. The international community must remain engaged on three key priorities, he said, emphasizing that the first is maintaining the ceasefire. With terrorists seeking dominance of the area, “we must do everything possible to maintain the ceasefire as it is the only way to protect 3 million people living there”, including medical and humanitarian workers, he added. Secondly, the Syrian Government must ensure humanitarian access to all its territory, he stressed, pointing out that the Government is instead putting up obstacles to the delivery of aid and even criminalizing humanitarian organizations for political reasons. Thirdly, there can be no sustainable humanitarian solution without progress on credible political process, he said, cautioning that there is a small window of opportunity, but it might close quickly. Urging the redoubling of efforts to put a credible political process in place under United Nations facilitation, he said reconstruction cannot be envisioned until a credible, irreversible political transition is under way.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) underscored the need for the Syrian Government to authorize humanitarian convoys across the country, noting the currently limited nature of the humanitarian access. Urging the Government to expedite the authorization of aid convoys in Rukban, he also called for increased efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. The fight against terrorists should not put the lives of the 3 million people in the governorate at risk, he said. Highlighting the professionalism of humanitarian and United Nations personnel deployed in Idlib, he called for predictable and sustainable funding of humanitarian appeal plans.
MA ZHAOXU (China) described the situation in Syria’s north-eastern and north-western regions as troubling, while also voicing concern about the threats that cold weather poses to civilians across the country. As the security situation continues to stabilize, there is more room to address the humanitarian situation on the ground, he said, urging the parties to ensure security for such activities, including by respecting all existing agreements and facilitating humanitarian access. Also urging the international community to scale up its support, he declared: “Humanitarian aid operations should be dynamically adapted and improved.” The United Nations should oversee all such operations, in close coordination with the Syrian Government, he said. Recalling that China has consistently supported political negotiations as the only way out of the crisis, he called for further progress on that front, and urged the global community to “seize the current window of opportunity” to compel the parties to agree on a negotiated Syrian-owned and Syrian-led resolution of the conflict.
GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) expressed concern about the resurgence of fighting in the north, including Idlib Governorate, in contravention of the de-escalation zone agreement reached for that region. While threatening Syria’s political process, such an escalation also poses real risks to civilians, he said. Condemning attacks against men, women and children — as well as restrictions imposed on their free movement — he underlined the need for swift, unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of the country. Welcoming the European Union’s recent adoption of a €1.6 humanitarian budget for 2019, including aid for Syria, he said such assistance would be best delivered against the backdrop of a lasting political solution. Calling upon all parties to implement the de-escalation agreement, as well as other relevant resolutions and agreements in Idlib, he also urged them to agree on a constitutional committee to push Syria’s political process forward.
JERRY MATJILA (South Africa) noted that some 500,000 Syrians have died and 6.2 million have been displaced during eight years of conflict, adding that about 11.7 million are currently in dire need of humanitarian assistance. “These figures place the humanitarian situation in Syria among the worst in the world,” he said. Emphasizing that the United Nations will be unable to reach those in need without cross-border deliveries, he called upon the Organization to work alongside the Government of Syria to facilitate the early issuance of the authorization letters needed for the deployment of convoys. He went on to state that the dire situation on the ground will not be improved without progress on the political front, underscoring in that regard the importance of implementing resolution 2254 (2015) and the road map on Syria’s political future. In addition, he urged all parties — as well as the Security Council — to work towards the speedy establishment and convening of an inclusive, balanced constitutional committee. “This will mark progress in the political dialogue and will be a step in the right direction for a sustainable, negotiated political settlement of the situation.”
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said she is gravely concerned about continuing impunity for violations of international humanitarian law, stressing the legal obligation of all sides in the conflict to protect civilians. Troubled by the negative recent impact of armed conflict on civilians in many parts of Syria, she expressed concern about those living in Idlib, cautioning that the risk of military escalation there could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. The Russian-Turkish agreement on a de-escalation zone remains crucial to avoiding this, she said, reiterating that all parties to the conflict should ensure its full implementation. Calling on the parties to implement the ceasefire and ensure safe humanitarian access, she said practical measures must alleviate civilian suffering. Meanwhile, tangible progress towards overcoming the stalemate in the political process is of utmost importance, she stressed.
JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) expressed his delegation’s concern about the growing presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in north-eastern Syria as well as the 3 million vulnerable people in Idlib, 2 million of whom completely rely on humanitarian assistance. The international community should not lose sight of the risk that any military intervention in the area would cause a humanitarian catastrophe, he cautioned, emphasizing the that ceasefire must be maintained. Eight children died in Rukban recently, he recalled, noting that while the Syrian Government’s verbal approvals of aid convoys is welcome, it must follow through on the ground and in reality. More than half of United Nations requests for convoys were not approved, he said, adding that normality has also not returned to areas formerly held by the opposition. The conditions set out by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in relation to the safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees are not yet met, he said, underlining that Syria should not politicize humanitarian assistance. The United Kingdom has mobilized $3.5 billion in humanitarian aid, he added.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) said that regardless of who is responsible, the fighting has led to an increase in humanitarian needs. Access to areas affected by the conflict remains restricted and about 42,000 people are trapped like hostages inside the Rukban camps under cold weather. Noting that eight children have died there, he warned that more will die without medical assistance. The parties must guarantee the delivery of aid, including mobile hospitals. The withdrawal of United States troops should not lead to more fighting, he said, adding that the huge cost of reconstruction as well as the death toll, the number of displaced and other figures demonstrate the horror of war and the need to end the crisis. The parties must find a diplomatic solution, he emphasized.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic), Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, echoing concerns about the ongoing displacement crisis and other grave humanitarian needs across Syria. Calling attention to the severe challenges faced by humanitarian personnel on the ground, and to the special needs of civilians living in remote or hard-to-reach areas, he said the difficult winter has exacerbated such challenges and forced thousands more civilians to flee their homes in recent months. All parties must protect civilians and allow their free movement under international law, he stressed, urging full respect for their dignity and their right to decide where to go after forced displacement. Meanwhile, the international community should support communities who wish to rebuild their lives. On the situation in Rukban, he welcomed plans to send a humanitarian convoy to assess the deplorable conditions revealed in November. Urging the relevant authorities to pay close attention to the situation in Rukban and to meet the needs of people living there, he emphasized the importance of increasing national capacity to meet those needs, calling for efforts to render Syrians “agents of their own recovery”. A resolution of the crisis can only be realized through a political solution, achieved through an inclusive political dialogue “for and with the Syrians”, he said.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said that his country’s Government has spared no effort to meet the needs of its people impacted by the unprecedented terrorist war. While demanding respect for its sovereignty, Syria has undertaken many measures to allow the United Nations to deliver aid within its territory, he said, adding that Government forces have even risked their lives on many occasions in order to protect humanitarian actors. Sustainable development is critical and should not be separated from humanitarian assistance, he said, adding that it is easy to see which countries bear good will to Syria and which do not. No solution can be realized without addressing the root causes of the Syrian people’s suffering, he emphasized, pointing out that some partners — including the Council’s own co-penholders — failed to commit to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, non-interference and full cooperation with the Syrian Government.
Welcoming the honest, ongoing dialogue between the Syrian Government and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, he expressed hope that development and humanitarian gains will be achieved “without political interference”. He went on to reiterate his warning against relying on false information or misleading reports, such as fabricated stories of suffering children and false allegations — spread by the “White Helmets” group — of chemical weapons use. Recalling the German newspaper Der Speigel’s recent revelation that one of its reporters fabricated news stories about Syria, he called on all parties to recommit to respecting his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; support sustainable development; avoid cross-border operations or activities in neighbouring countries by actors with hostile agendas; address the remnants of terrorist groups, including Al-Nusra Front, while ending all support for them; end the illegal presence of United States, British, French and Turkish forces in Syria; and end all unilateral coercive measures — essentially “economic terrorism” imposed by the United States and others against Syria.
For information media. Not an official record.