Syria

Special Envoy Expresses Regret Over Inability of United Nations to End Syria War, as Security Council Considers Crisis on Prolonged Conflict’s Tenth Anniversary

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Damascus Representative Accuses Western States, Turkey of Launching ‘War of Aggression’, Backing Terrorist Groups in His Country

On the tenth anniversary of the start of conflict in Syria, the senior United Nations official for that country expressed his profound regret that the world body has not yet been able to broker an end to the crisis, while calling for new, creative international diplomacy, during a Security Council videoconference meeting today.

“The Syrian conflict has now raged for 10 years — roughly the length of [the First World War and Second World War] combined,” Geir Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, told Council members, adding that the tragedy will go down as one of the darkest chapters in recent history.

Lamenting that Syrians have been injured, maimed and killed in every way imaginable — their corpses even desecrated — he said they have also been snatched from the streets, thrown into prisons or abducted, “disappeared”, mistreated, tortured, paraded in cages, and ransomed or exchanged in prisoner-swap deals. Further, they have seen their homes, markets, hospitals, schools and utilities destroyed by air strikes, barrel bombs, rocket and mortar fire as well as improvised explosive devices, he noted.

He noted that Syrians have endured the unspeakable horrors of chemical weapons and been denied humanitarian assistance while facing human rights violations on an enormous and systematic scale. “Most Syrian children have never lived a day without war,” he pointed out, expressing regret that the international community has been divided, trapped in geopolitical competition, caught in their own competing narratives, and often focused on supporting one side in the conflict.

However, he expressed cautious optimism that amidst the tragedy, a relative calm exists, noting that the front lines have not shifted for a year now. Underscoring the importance of consolidating the fragile calm into a true nationwide ceasefire in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), he warned that even if the calm does not collapse, prolonged stasis could set in to create a new decade of desperation, despondency and despair without high-level and creative international diplomatic attention. Parties to the conflict will not progress far if a Syrian-led process is not supported by constructive international diplomacy on the situation.

“After all, this is among the most deeply internationalized conflicts of a generation, with many of the issues that matter most to Syrians not even in Syrian hands,” he said. Recalling his recent meetings with Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s new Foreign Minister, and Anas AlAbdah, President of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, he pledged that he will continue to explore possibilities, stressing in that regard the need to put a new means of international discussion in place and a new international format for the necessary diplomacy and cooperation.

Concerning sanctions, he reiterated the Secretary-General’s appeal regarding the importance of avoiding and mitigating any effects of such measures on Syria’s capacity to access food, essential health supplies and COVID-19 medical support, and on the plight of civilians across the country.

Turning to the Constitutional Committee, he emphasized that it cannot resolve the conflict on its own, but could be a door opener to a broader process to create safe, calm and neutral conditions for constitutional reform to take hold, and for the conduct of free and fair elections, administered under United Nations supervision, with all Syrians, including those in the diaspora, eligible to participate.

Stressing that the Constitutional Committee’s sixth session needs to be carefully prepared, he said assurances should be in place to ensure that it implements the terms of reference and core rules of procedure, restores and builds some trust and confidence, and makes progress on its own mandate. The next session must also be different from what went before, with some clear goals, credible working methods, enhanced cooperation between the Co-Chairs, and a future workplan.

The Co-Chairs have committed procedural proposals to writing and are both engaging, he said, pledging to continue facilitating their exchanges in the hope of concluding agreement. “The United Nations will be ready to convene a sixth session as soon as agreement is in place,” he added.

Bernard Duhaime, current member and former Chair-Rapporteur of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, condemned any act of enforced disappearance as a grave violation of human rights. The Working Group — the oldest special procedure of the Human Rights Council — was created in 1980 as a communications channel between the relatives of disappeared persons and the relevant authorities, with view to clarifying their fate and whereabouts, he recalled. As such, it receives reports from relatives and transmits them to the Governments concerned, requesting that they conduct investigations into disappearances and protect the rights to truth, justice, reparations and memory.

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the Working Group has transmitted 509 cases to that country’s Government concerning the alleged enforced disappearance of 478 men and 31 women, he said, adding that 490 cases remain outstanding. However, the Working Group has received very little information from the Government or the respective sources, he said, adding that the number of registered cases represents only “the tip of the iceberg” of a phenomenon that remains widespread and systematic, according to the recent report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

He went on to note that, since 2011, the Working Group has received no response to its request to Syria, citing Human Rights Council resolutions S-18/1 and 19/22, which calls upon the country to cooperate with the special procedures, and with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), including through the establishment of a field presence. In 2014, he recalled, the Working Group requested that the Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, a call that it has reiterated annually. “The vast majority of cases reported to the Working Group relate to enforced disappearances perpetrated by Syrian Government forces or armed groups that operate with its support or acquiescence,” he pointed out.

Explaining that the Working Group also examines acts that are tantamount to enforced disappearance perpetrated by non-State armed groups that exercise effective control and/or Government-like functions, he said: “Enforced disappearances are perpetrated unabatedly with impunity throughout Syria, in clear violation of international law.” In addition, there is an alarming pattern of arbitrarily arresting men at home or at checkpoints, he said, adding that the deprivation of liberty is normally followed by a refusal by the authorities — or non-State actors — to disclose information about the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned, or even to acknowledge their existence.

He went on to express alarm over numerous reports that several members of the same family were subjected to enforced disappearance, including children as young as seven years old. Emphasizing that all responsible must ensure full transparency and accountability in relation to persons in their custody, account for their fate and whereabouts to relatives, and ensure that due process and fair trial rights are respected, he said all places of detention — official and unofficial — should be disclosed, with complete lists of names and formal registration of all those held in such facilities.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates paid tribute to the victims of the decade-long conflict, agreeing that a political solution is the only way to end the crisis. However, some speakers traded accusations over responsibility for causing the prolonged war and expressed divergent visions of a post-conflict Syria. Many stressed the importance of accountability for the crimes committed as well as the need for truth, justice and reparations for victims.

The representative of the United States, Council President for March, spoke in her national capacity, asking colleagues to imagine being a 10-year-old Syrian who has never experienced a life free of conflict — one of 13 million people forced to flee their homes. For that child, the Council must empower humanitarians “to do their jobs and save people’s lives,” she emphasized. While calling for strengthened and expanded cross-border assistance, especially for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, she noted that cross-line aid alone cannot reach all those in need. However, it would be inhumane and unconscionable for the Security Council to halt the ability of the United Nations to deliver assistance to all Syrians, she said. The United States is committed to achieving a political solution, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), she added, denouncing the Assad regime’s refusal to engage in good faith. Calling upon the Russian Federation to pressure the regime to “quit stalling” and address the demand for all Syrians to live in dignity, free from torture, abuse and detention, she cautioned delegations not to be fooled by the upcoming elections. They will neither be free nor fair nor meet the criteria outlined in resolution 2254 (2015), including supervision by the United Nations, she predicted. The United States calls upon the Assad regime to release those arbitrarily detained and requests that the Special Envoy update the Council on his efforts to locate and release detainees, she said, expressing hope of seeing more United Nations personnel engaging with the families of detainees, former detainees themselves and civil society representatives.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that external forces intending to overthrow the legitimate Syrian authorities in March 2011 enabled the terrible conflict to last so long. Despite the unprecedented terrorist onslaught, Syria’s statehood stood firm, with decisive support from Moscow, he added. Within the Astana format, he noted, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran have jointly achieved a cessation of hostilities in most of the country despite occasional flare-ups in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Emphasizing the primacy of resolution 2254 (2015), he said that respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity is imperative. Intra-Syrian negotiation is a matter of domestic affairs, he added, rejecting artificially imposed deadlines and external pressure. He went on to stress that rebuilding infrastructure will facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, but “political opponents” decided to starve the country to death. After failing to forcibly overthrow the Government, they began to impose financial and economic sanctions that restrict normal life, he said. Expressing hope that Syria will return to the League of Arab States, he underlined that ending foreign occupation and hostilities is a main prerequisite for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

The representative of Mexico said the international community has failed to save succeeding generations of Syrians from the scourge of war, pointing out that civilians have paid the highest price. Despite the efforts of the United Nations, progress on the Constitutional Committee has stalled, he noted, urging the parties to engage in good faith to reach agreement that would bring a lasting peace. He recalled the story of Olympic refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria at 17 years old by swimming to the shore of Turkey when her raft capsized. Unlike her, thousands of women and girls remain trapped in the conflict, he said, stressing that the international community and the United Nations are indebted to women and girls. Recalling that the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism was established by the General Assembly, in light of the Council’s paralysis on accountability, he insisted that atrocity crimes should be referred to the International Criminal Court. He went on to call attention to the France-Mexico initiative to ban the wielding of a veto on atrocity crimes, declaring that Council members should be held accountable for their action.

The representative of Norway expressed her delegation’s support for the Special Envoy’s call for renewed international diplomacy to unlock the stalled peace process. Progress on the political track is the key to stability, development, and the return of refugees to Syria, she said. Noting that there will most likely not be a sixth round of negotiations in the Constitutional Committee before Ramadan, she welcomed the Special Envoy’s recent talks with the parties and other relevant actors. The coming weeks should be used to prepare for the next round of talks so that the parties can move closer to a reformed constitution, she said. Emphasizing also the need to ensure progress on other issues, she highlighted the importance of releasing arbitrarily imprisoned and detained persons.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said there is no alternative to a political resolution, emphasizing the need to reenergize the work of the Constitutional Committee, with the parties seeking progress in the pursuit of peace. She stressed the importance of participation by women and young people in all discussions. Success requires the parties to take confidence-building measures, particularly in relation to missing and arbitrarily detained persons, she said. With 5 March marking one year since the Idlib agreement, the parties should exercise maximum restraint to preserve the ceasefire, she urged, adding that they must also respect their obligations, under international law, in the conduct of military and counter-terrorism activities. She went on to echo calls for the international community to help rebuild the country, prioritize the needs of Syrians and set geopolitical disputes aside. “This dictates the removal of all unauthorized foreign forces” and the lifting of unilateral coercive measures, she stressed, demanding: “How much longer will we remain on this path — saying and doing the same thing and expecting a different result?”

The representative of Kenya expressed heartbreak that 10 years of conflict has resulted in 593,000 deaths, a colossal refugee and displacement dilemma, a humanitarian crisis and an impoverished population that once knew peace. Describing today’s reality as “an indictment of multilateralism, particularly the Security Council as the vanguard of international peace and security”, he pressed fellow Council members to close ranks so as to facilitate consensus towards a political solution. Expressing hope that the Special Envoy’s recent visit to Damascus will generate momentum for progress in the Constitutional Committee, he also called for constructive international diplomacy to bridge political divides and respect for a nationwide ceasefire.

The representative of China emphasized that the Constitutional Committee must remain independent in discharging its functions while cautioning that humanitarian and reconstruction assistance should not be linked to the political process, as that would undermine the trust of all parties. China supports the formation of a tripartite mechanism by the Russian Federation, Qatar and Turkey, he said, while urging respect for the Charter of the United Nations and for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also called for strengthening anti-terrorism cooperation through support for Syria’s own efforts to combat terrorist forces. Advancing the political process requires all parties to strengthen dialogue, build consensus and work together, he said, warning that sanctions will only create more confrontation.

The representative of Ireland denounced Syria’s lack of meaningful engagement in the work of the Constitutional Committee, pointing out that “the results achieved to date continue to fall far short of the expectations of the people of Syria.” He commended the Special Envoy’s engagement with the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board and other civil society groups, noting the deeply gendered impact of the conflict. Sexual violence, in particular, is perpetrated in Government detention centres, widely used as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism, he said, reiterating calls for an immediate end to such violations and accountability for the perpetrators. He went on to condemn the bombing of schools and hospitals as well as attacks against civil society and human rights defenders. Ireland supports calls for the release of arbitrary detainees and abductees, he said, urging the Council to demand that the authorities comply with their obligations under international law and end their brutal policies of suppression.

The representative of Niger expressed empathy with the Special Envoy’s frustration over stalled progress on the political track. Tangible progress on the Constitutional Committee must be achieved in tandem with other measures, such as withdrawing foreign forces and ending the pillaging of Syria’s resources, he said. Emphasizing the right of all Syrians to safety and freedom and to choose their leaders, he noted that the balance of power can only be changed through inclusive dialogue and processes. None of the parties can get what they want by military means, he added. Stressing the importance of confidence-building measures, he called for the release of detainees, including women and older people. It is time for the Council to seize the opportunity that is opening up for peace, he said.

The representative of Estonia said that many of the violations perpetrated in Syria constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. He reiterated the call for the creation of an international mechanism to locate missing people or their remains, emphasizing that “there must be accountability for the many war crimes and crimes against humanity — and an end to impunity”. The conflict will not end until the Syrian regime stops using torture to suppress free speech, he said, demanding the release of arbitrarily detained people. Noting that the Constitutional Committee has not produced expected results because the regime refuses to engage meaningfully in the process, he said the opposition’s legitimate claims must be taken into account. He went on to express support for free and fair elections, with all Syrians, including those in the diaspora, eligible to participate, saying “anything else would be considered yet another farce”.

The representative of Viet Nam said some developments give him reason to believe in tangible outcomes. The Geneva and Astana processes and other diplomatic efforts have been able to bring the parties to the negotiation table, he noted. The relative calm on the ground was preserved in the past year following the ceasefire agreement in Idlib and humanitarian assistance continues to reach people in need, despite certain operational challenges. “However, lasting peace and stability do not appear in sight,” he said, emphasizing that divergences after years of conflict cannot be bridged overnight. He went on to underline the importance of confidence-building measures, and called upon the parties to engage in constructive dialogue in pursuit of breakthroughs within the Constitutional Committee and in the broader political process. A viable political solution can be achieved only if the international community is united in supporting Syria, he stressed.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that the tenth anniversary of the conflict should remind the international community to do all it can to strengthen accountability for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes. The United Kingdom, he added, is finalizing an agreement with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and is, from today, tightening sanctions against six individuals deemed responsible for repressing civilians or enabling the Assad regime to do so. For their part, the authorities should provide comprehensive lists of the names of all detainees and clarify the whereabouts of those who have never emerged from arbitrary detention, he said, emphasizing that the United Kingdom stands with the Syrian people to deliver on all the steps enshrined in resolution 2254 (2015).

The representative of Tunisia, noting that a political solution to the crisis does not appear to be on the horizon, reiterated that there is no military solution to the conflict. A sustainable political solution, as called for in resolution 2254 (2015), must meet the aspirations of the Syrian people while also respecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said, cautioning that success will remain elusive as long as divisions and polarization persist. Tunisia, therefore, calls upon the parties to return to the negotiation table and for the Constitutional Committee to resume talks in Geneva as soon as possible, he said, urging them to engage in a manner that fosters understanding. Progress also requires broader support from the Security Council, which must speak in a common voice, he emphasized. There is also need for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees, and the meaningful participation of women in the political process.

The representative of India noted that the political situation facilitated by the United Nations has achieved little progress. Pointing to external influences impacting its efforts, he said it is unrealistic to expect any dramatic outcomes in the near future, unless the international community works to bridge differences. Progress requires a greater convergence of actions that strengthen the Special Envoy’s hand, he emphasized, recommending the de-linking of humanitarian and development efforts from progress on the political track in order to foster trust and confidence. Welcoming the latest round of the Astana process, he called upon the parties to break the impasse in the Constitutional Committee. He went on to point out that the involvement of external actors has enabled terrorist activities, stressing the imperative on all parties to uphold their international obligations to fight terrorism. He went on to underline that long-term security in the Middle East can only be achieved by preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. India also reaffirms the need to advance a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, United Nations-facilitated political process, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), he said, calling for the relaxation of sanctions and urging the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to expand the vaccination programme in Syria.

The representative of France recalled that 10 years ago, the Assad regime chose to respond with indiscriminate repression to demands for freedom and dignity expressed by the Syrian people in a peaceful manner. Assad tortured, besieged and bombarded his own population, including with chemical weapons, to preserve his clan, she said. Syria is devastated, she added, emphasizing that only a political solution will allow Syria to recover and avoid another lost decade, and urging the regime to enter good-faith negotiations in Geneva. Turning to the forthcoming presidential elections, she stressed that France will not recognize the results of elections that do not accord with the criteria set out in resolution 2254 (2015). She went on to express full support for the international mechanisms fighting impunity, saying advances in national court proceedings constitute important steps towards ensuring that those responsible for crimes do not go unpunished.

The representative of Syria recalled that on this day 10 years ago, the United States, the United Kingdom and France launched a war of aggression against his country in an attempt to target the legitimate Government and tarnish the image of its leadership, in particular, through their terrorist proxies. They have done their utmost to pit Syrians against one another, using terrorist groups to serve their hostile agendas and recruiting terrorists with help from the Turkish regime, he said. Those terrorists were used as an excuse to create an international coalition, based on a distorted interpretation of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, he added, suggesting that what happened in Raqqa is a case in point. The illegal coalition’s goal was not to combat terrorist groups of its own making, he said, but rather to weaken the Syrian army’s fights against ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups, and to destroy schools, hospitals, power plants and dams.

Over 10 years, they have given terrorist groups free reign to change Syria’s demography, recruit children, loot oil and deprive the people of drinking water, he continued, denouncing a policy of “Turkification” in that context, while emphasizing that the unilateral coercive measures imposed on his country can only be considered a form of economic terrorism. While those countries pay lip service to Syria’s sovereignty and territory, they have violated those principles, with United States forces occupying the north-east and south-east, Turkey’s in the north and north-west, and Israel’s continuing occupation of Syria’s Golan. “How can we believe these countries support a political solution in Syria or adhere to resolution 2254 (2015)?” he asked, pressing those Governments to rethink their hostile policies and develop constructive approaches based on international law, diplomacy and objective dialogue.

He went on to underline that the Special Envoy must take a clear position on the violations and exercise his role of upholding the United Nations Charter, which Syria helped to draft. Noting that the latest Astana declaration rejected separatist agendas aimed at undermining Syria’s sovereignty and establishing a de facto situation on the ground, he recalled that it also rejected the appropriation of Syria’s oil and demanded an end to attacks by Israel. As such, Syria calls upon the Turkish regime to fulfil its obligations under the Astana format, he said. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Committee’s agreed rules of procedure must be respected, he stressed, denouncing external interference in its work, especially to impose artificial deadlines. Syria anticipates a sixth round of talks as soon as possible, he said.

The representative of Iran emphasized that the Syrian people will not accept the continued occupation of their territory or the violation of their sovereignty and neither should the international community. Calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, particularly those of the United States, he condemned the unlawful 25 February military strike on the Syria-Iraq border as well as Israel’s continued military attacks against Syria, stressing that such military adventurism must end. Restoring Syria’s territorial integrity requires unabating combat against all terrorist groups, he said, warning that any pause in such operations will allow them to consolidate their presence and atrocious activities, prolong the conflict and delay a political solution to the conflict. At the same time, he added, Iran strongly rejects the abuse of counter-terrorism efforts aimed at supporting separatist tendencies or illegitimate self-rule initiatives. He went on to say that, by any measure, sanctions are unlawful and inhumane, violate the basic human rights of the Syrian people, and must therefore be lifted immediately.

The representative of Turkey pointed out that his country hosts nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, almost one fifth of that country’s entire population before the start of the conflict. Over the course of the conflict, terror groups established their own so-called states on Syrian territory because the tyrant in Damascus has denied his people their basic rights, he said. By releasing terrorists from prisons, ceding territory to and purchasing oil from them, the Assad regime has bred, raised and nurtured the extremist and separatist terrorists that flourished on Turkey’s doorstep, he said, emphasizing that today, the PKK/YPG poses a real and present threat to Syria’s civilians and unity. As for the Constitutional Committee, he said it is imperative that the parties get into the substance of the constitution should the sixth round be convened. The mere presence of the regime’s representative in the Security Council is an affront to millions of Syrians who suffered countless crimes at the regime’s hands for a decade, he said, adding that his hallucinatory statement and delusional accusations do not merit a response.

For information media. Not an official record.