Regular press briefing by the Information Service: Syria (8 November 2019)

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Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by spokespersons for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, in addition to the Permanent Representative of the International Organization of La Francophonie to the United Nations in Geneva.


Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, said that the Special Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, would provide an update on the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee at a press conference to be held that afternoon.

Ms. Fenton also said that the Syria Humanitarian Task Force had convened in Geneva the previous day with the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Najat Rochdi, who had noted that the safety and protection of hundreds of thousands of civilians affected by the recent escalation of hostilities in north-east Syria remained a grave concern. While the intensity and scope of the violence had declined in recent weeks, localized heavy fighting continued. Of the more than 200,000 people who had fled the fighting in recent weeks, close to 100,000 people had not yet been able to return home and were dispersed across improvised camps and collective shelters. Ms. Rochdi had urged all parties to do more to facilitate guaranteed, safe, unimpeded and sustained access for the United Nations and its humanitarian partners. The situation in Rukban had also been discussed. Since late March, more than 18,300 people had departed from the area. The United Nations stood ready to further support voluntary and informed departures, and to continue its provision of essential humanitarian assistance. The United Nations had received positive signals from relevant parties that the necessary security guarantees and authorizations would be forthcoming. It had also requested authorizations to access collective shelters in Homs to support those who had already departed from Rukban. The increasing violence in north-west Syria, in particular airstrikes on a nearly daily basis that continued to impact civilians and civilian infrastructure, remained alarming. The previous month, the United Nations had begun its winterization campaign, which aimed to reach 900,000 people. Plummeting temperatures had made life in tents and make-shift shelters extremely harsh and precarious, especially for the most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and the sick.

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), read the following statement:

“With just eight weeks left to go in the year, UNICEF’s emergency operations in Syria are just over half – 53 per cent – funded. Of the USD 295 million required in 2019, we have received just USD 138 million.

Despite the massive security, access and capacity challenges we face, this funding shortfall now represents the most serious obstacle to reaching children who need help urgently.

In north-east Syria – home to some of the most vulnerable children in the country, UNICEF’s work in 2019 has included vaccinating over half a million children, providing nearly 150,000 children with psychosocial support and enabling over 100,000 children to enrol in formal education.

Without additional funding, implications for UNICEF’s response in the north-east include:

  • Not giving over 1,700 children the specialized care they need after they lived through extremely brutal experiences – this includes children who were either associated with, or lived in areas controlled by armed groups.

  • Not reaching 170,000 people at risk with mine risk education. One in two Syrians is at risk of unexploded ordnance, children especially, and in this part of the country in particular.

  • Not providing emergency water, sanitation and hygiene support to over 100,000 people, nor improving poor water supplies to 300,000 more.

  • Not providing 55,000 children with routine immunization, and nearly 140,000 women and children with health and nutrition consultation.

  • Not reaching 70,000 children non-formal education support, including learning spaces and supplies.

Across the country, 5.5 million children require assistance.

With temperatures dropping quickly, UNICEF’s aim is to provide 578,000 children aged 0-14 years in camps, collective shelters, host communities and areas of acute need with crucial winter clothing. At this point, we have funds for 356,000 children – without additional funding, 222,000 children will go without.

We face many obstacles in delivering lifesaving support. Funding should not be one of them. We appeal to donors’ generosity.”

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Syria, which required nearly USD 3.3 billion, was currently 52 per cent funded overall. Of the various sectors within the Plan, some were particularly underfunded, including health; education; water, sanitation and hygiene; shelter and non-food items; protection; and early recovery and livelihoods. Humanitarians urged donors to consider increasing their funding with any resources that might still be available for 2019.

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), read the following statement:

“Civilians continue to pay a very high price in the ongoing hostilities in Syria. Dozens have been killed and injured in the largely separate situations occurring simultaneously in north-eastern and north-western Syria, from a variety of causes including airstrikes and ground-based strikes, and increasingly as a result of what appears to be an indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas, including in local markets.

Since the launch of the Turkish-led military offensive in north-eastern Syria on 9 October, we have verified incidents which – as of 5 November – have resulted in the deaths of a total of at least 92 civilians in northern and north-eastern Syria.

Of these, 49 were victims of airstrikes, ground-based strikes, sniper fire, and executions carried out by opposing Turkish-affiliated armed groups and Kurdish armed groups. In addition, during the same period, we have verified the deaths of a further 31 civilians killed by IEDs, or explosive remnants of war, within the geographic area of Turkey’s military offensive i.e. in Al-Hassakeh, Ar-Raqqa and parts of Aleppo Governorate. And we have recorded the killing of another 12 civilians over the same period as a result of attacks with IEDs or ground-based strikes by Kurdish armed groups, and other unidentified perpetrators, in areas beyond the scope of the Turkish military operation, such as Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab, and Azaz.

Attacks with improvised explosive devices have noticeably escalated in recent days, mainly in areas under the control of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which suggests they have most likely been carried out by groups opposing the Turkish military offensive.

We are very concerned about the increasing number of civilians being killed and injured as a result of the use of IEDs in populated areas. The indiscriminate use of such weapons is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. We remind all parties to the conflict of their responsibility to protect civilians and to comply with their obligations under international law.

Another issue of concern in the north-east, relates to people recently displaced during the military offensive who have subsequently been subjected to arbitrary detention, in addition to enforced disappearances, after returning to their homes. This is occurring both in areas controlled by Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated armed groups, and in areas controlled by Kurdish armed groups. We remind all parties of the urgent need to facilitate immediate and safe return of displaced civilians who wish to go back to their homes, in accordance with international humanitarian principles. And all people held in custody, regardless of the reason, must be treated humanely and be accounted for.

Separately, while much of the international attention is on north-eastern Syria, in the north-western part of the country, after the lull in hostilities in Idlib Governorate during October, there has been a recent upsurge in airstrikes and ground-based strikes, mostly in parts of southern and western Idlib, including yet more attacks affecting medical facilities. Despite the focus placed on such attacks by the UN and others, and the establishment of a Board of Inquiry by the Secretary-General, health facilities continue to be directly hit or significantly damaged whenever there is a military escalation in Idlib.

Four separate facilities were damaged on 4 and 6 November, taking the total number of health facilities we have recorded being hit since 29 April to 61. The Kafr Nobol hospital, which was hit on 6 November, had already been repeatedly struck and damaged in May and July. On the same day at around 1.30 a.m., three civilian medics were injured as a result of several alleged airstrikes by Government-affiliated forces. Two of the airstrikes directly hit the hospital of al-Ikhlas in the village of Shanan in Jabal al-Zawya area in southern rural Idlib, putting it out of service.

We repeat yet again that all parties must ensure that hospital and medical services, including medical staff, are respected and protected in all circumstances.

We stress that the figures are not comprehensive, as we are not able to track all casualties. Nor are we able to verify every single incident. Instead, we are attempting primarily to monitor patterns of hostilities with a particular emphasis on emblematic incidents that we are able to verify in order to identify such patterns.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that he was not in a position to state whether OHCHR had confirmed that three medical personnel had been summarily executed in October. The 61 strikes against health facilities since 29 April 2019 had happened all in Idlib Governorate. He would have to check whether they were all on the deconfliction list. Some facilities had been hit multiple times. There had recently been a lull in hostilities, with the result that, in October, very few, if any, health facilities had been damaged.

Asked whether the United Nations continued to give the coordinates of medical facilities to Russian and Syrian forces, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR was not involved in the provision of coordinates. While OHCHR was not able to determine whether every single attack was deliberate, the large scale of the attacks and the fact that they occurred every time that there was a military escalation strongly suggested that the Government-affiliated forces responsible for them were deliberately striking health facilities, which would constitute a war crime. However, it would be for the Board of Inquiry to determine such matters.

Asked to comment on the situation of detainees in Syria and on whether OHCHR was in contact with the authorities there, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had limited contact with the authorities and had not been able to enter the country since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic established by the Human Rights Council periodically addressed the situation of detainees.

Of particular concern to OHCHR were allegations that relatives of some of the thousands of persons detained or forcibly disappeared in Government-run detention facilities had received death notifications from the government authorities. Such notifications tended not to include details, such as where the body had been buried. There had also been reports of individuals being detained after returning to Syria in response to the granting of a partial amnesty by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He did not have information, including statistics, on the total number of death notifications received, on the number and location of confirmed summary executions, or on the persons responsible for them. He recalled, however, that there was video footage that appeared to show the executions of three Kurdish captives by Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters on 12 October 2019.

Asked when the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Najat Rochdi, would hold a press conference, Ms. Fenton said that Ms. Rochdi had recently returned from Damascus and would not be in Geneva the following week. Efforts were being made to arrange a date; once that was done, all relevant stakeholders would be informed. Details of whom Ms. Rochdi had met during her visit to Syria and what topics had been discussed would also be shared in due course. Asked to confirm reports that there were some 11,000 detainees in Syria, including 2,000 foreigners from 50 different countries, she said that the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria did not confirm figures. Asked whether the International Syria Support Group's Ceasefire Task Force would agree to brief journalists, she said that the Task Force’s meetings were closed, but that she would pass on any information that became available.

Asked which sectors of the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) were currently best funded, Mr. Laerke said that food security, which required USD 1.1 billion, was one of the best-funded sectors with USD 574 million, or 53 per cent. Other sectors included nutrition, at 54 per cent, and emergency telecommunications, at 66 per cent.