Medical Supplies Could Fall amid Spiking Violence, Dire Humanitarian Conditions in North-West Syria, Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns Security Council
We Will Not Give Up Our Sovereignty, Vows Permanent Representative, Rejecting Fabricated Figures, False Allegations
The senior United Nations humanitarian official deplored spiking violence and dire humanitarian conditions in north-western Syria today, while warning of a possible drop in available medical supplies.
“Let us make no mistake about it, civilians are still suffering terribly”, said Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, as he briefed the Security Council on the heels of the latter’s decision to restrict aid deliveries to two crossing points along Syria’s border with Turkey.
Despite the ceasefire announced by the Russian Federation and Turkey on 12 January, the fighting in and around Idlib Governorate remains more intense than at any time in the past year, he said. Civilians are subjected to bombings and shelling, with more than 80 men, women and children reported killed in just a single week in January.
Meanwhile, some 115,000 people have left the area in the past week alone, he said, describing roads clogged with vehicles as people seek to flee Idlib. Humanitarian conditions are dire, he added, noting that following the Council’s adoption of resolution 2504 (2020) on 10 January — thereby reducing from four to two the number of authorized crossing points for aid entering Syria — the removal of the Al Yarubiyah crossing point on the border with Iraq led the World Health Organization to forecast reduced availability of medical supplies. Hundreds of thousands of items remain stuck on trucks in Iraq, unable to cross into Syria, he added.
Council members taking the floor echoed the Under-Secretary-General’s concerns over the loss of the Al Yarubiyah crossing point. Some noted that resolution 2504 (2020) tasked the Secretary-General with exploring the feasibility of an alternative delivery point in its place, saying they look forward to his report on the matter by the end of February. However, others described Al Yarubiyah question as politicized, the target of manipulation by parties intent on meddling in Syria’s affairs, while emphasizing that sufficient aid is already flowing through the two remaining crossing points.
France’s representative stressed that the fight against terrorists cannot be used as a pretext to commit violations of international law. Underlining the need for unimpeded humanitarian access — including through the United Nations cross-border aid operation — she said resolution 2504 (2020) seriously reduced the capacity of the United Nations to provide medicine and aid to those in need. “Let us not delude ourselves”, she said in that regard, also expressing disappointment that resolution 2504 (2020) only renewed the cross-border operation for six months, rather than a full year.
The United Kingdom’s representative expressed disappointment that the 12 January ceasefire agreement held for only a few days. All parties — including those seated around the Council table — must remember their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law, he said, recalling that due to the vetoes cast by China and the Russian Federation earlier this month — thereby rejecting competing drafts and ultimately leading the Council to adopt resolution 2504 (2020) — many communities in Syria are no longer receiving the help they need.
Striking a different note, the Russian Federation’s representative described a trend of increasing stability in many parts of Syria, while noting that hotbeds of terrorism still exist, including in Idlib, and that radical groups continue to shell Syrian forces and kill civilians. Humanitarian corridors in the north-west have been maintained even as the terrorists prevent their use and treat civilians as human shields, he said. Pointing out that the lion’s share of assistance entering Syria flows through two crossing points, he said one result of resolution 2504 (2020) will be a renewed focus on resolving challenges alongside the legitimate national authorities.
Syria’s representative rejected fabricated figures and false allegations associated with his country. Citing the real impact of the occupation, terrorism, aggression and coercive unilateral measures, he described them as collective punishment intended to dissuading Syria from controlling its own affairs. It is absurd that the United States — which continues to steal Syria’s oil and gas, occupy parts of its territory and sponsor terrorist groups — is now asking its Government to deliver aid to areas full of terrorists, he said, vowing: “Despite the pressure on the Syrian people, we will not give up our sovereignty.”
Also speaking today were representatives of Belgium, United States, China, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Indonesia, Estonia, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Niger and Viet Nam.
The meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 11:56 a.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, expressed alarm over the dire humanitarian situation in north-west Syria as hostilities escalated in recent weeks. Noting that fighting has become more intense in Idlib Governorate and surrounding areas than anything seen in the past year, he said civilians were subjected to bombing and shelling. At least 20 were reportedly killed by air strikes in Idlib on 11 January, and eight in Kafr Taal, western Aleppo, on 21 January after an air strike landed near their home. Overall, in the week of 15-23 January, he added, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented incidents in which at least 81 civilians — mostly women and children — were killed in such attacks, in addition to more than 1,500 verified civilian deaths since the military escalation in the north-west began in April 2019.
Meanwhile, non-State armed groups continue to shell Aleppo, killing or injuring dozens of civilians, he said. Roads are clogged with vehicles as people seek to flee, with most of the displaced moving from southern Idlib to other locations in non-Government-controlled areas. At least 20,000 people have moved in the last two days and some 115,000 have left in the past week, he said, adding that nearly 339,000 have fled in the past two months. On 12 January, Turkey and the Russian Federation announced a ceasefire, but that did not hold. Deploring the ongoing violence, he said that amid the fighting, humanitarian groups have provided food assistance to more than 1.4 million civilians and health supplies to treat almost 200,000 in recent weeks, all arriving through the cross-border aid operation authorized by the Council under resolution 2504 (2020).
While noting that the cross-border operation has staved off a massive humanitarian catastrophe in north-western Syria, he declared: “Let us make no mistake about it, civilians are still suffering terribly.” Under the current conditions, humanitarian responders lack the capacity to meet the level of need being seen on the ground. Describing his recent conversations with Syrians, he said people feel increasingly under siege as the bombardments follow them from place to place. “They are traumatized and feel totally abandoned by the world”, he said, adding that they do not understand why the Council remains unable to stop the carnage. The most urgent need is to scale up the humanitarian response, he emphasized, calling upon all sides in the conflict to facilitate safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and supplies.
Turning to the situation in north-eastern Syria, he said some 70,000 people are still displaced following the military operations carried out there in October 2019. An additional 90,000 people are living in camps for internally displaced persons, including more than 66,000 in Al-Hol. While an average of 850,000 people there are receiving humanitarian assistance every month, the recent removal of the Al Yarubiyah crossing point led the World Health Organization (WHO) to forecast a drop in available medical supplies, with hundreds of thousands of items stuck on trucks in Iraq, unable to cross into Syria. No United Nations convoys containing medical supplies went from Damascus to the north-east in January, he said, adding that a cross-line assessment mission to Rad-al-Ain — originally planned for earlier this month — has not materialized due to conditions imposed by all parties relating to the mission’s composition.
“Experienced United Nations staff are not surprised by any of this,” he continued, pointing out that they are all too familiar with the difficulties of delivering essential aid across borders in the last nine years. In accordance with resolution 2504 (2019), the Secretary-General will report to the Council by the end of February on the feasibility of using an alternate to the Al Yarubiyah border crossing, he said. As for the situation in Rukban, he reported that nearly 20,000 people have left the camp in the past months and reports indicate that thousands more still wish to leave. Efforts to facilitate voluntary returns have not been successful, he said, asking the relevant parties to find lasting solutions for all residents of Rukban.
Touching briefly on the country’s economic situation, he said the Syrian pound continues to depreciate on the informal market and now has only half the value it had six months ago. Food security has also worsened over the past year, and the World Food Programme (WFP) now supports 4.5 million people across Syria each month, he added. “Any further deterioration in the Syrian economy will leave even more people vulnerable and in need of assistance in the year ahead”, he cautioned, stressing the vital need for continued support from donors. Unless the hostilities end, an even greater humanitarian catastrophe is expected, he warned, stressing: “I hope you will take every step to avoid that.”
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), also speaking on behalf of Germany, expressed deep concern about the safety of the 4 million civilians in north-west Syria, especially after reports of ongoing air strikes and shelling. Over recent months, and since last weekend in particular, the military offensive has again intensified, causing further human suffering, he said, emphasizing the right of civilians to be protected from the horrors of war and the obligation of the warring parties to ensure their protection. Calling for an end to the hostilities, he said that while his delegation condemns attacks perpetrated by Security Council-designated terrorist groups, counter-terrorism efforts can never absolve the parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law. He went on to recall that the Council prolonged the cross-border mechanism on 10 January, ensuring the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Idlib, while expressing extreme disappointment that the Yarubiyah crossing point could not be renewed due to opposition by a Member State.
CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States) noted that the humanitarian crisis has deteriorated since the Security Council met last month. The lives of millions of civilians are at greater risk as the combined forces of the Assad regime, the Russian Federation, the Iranian regime and Hizbullah seek a military end to the conflict, she said. With China following, the Russian Federation has escalated its campaign to restrict humanitarian access in Syria and to undermine the cross-border mechanism, she said, describing the step by those countries on 10 January to reduce aid delivery as part of a strategy to sever the cross-border lifeline upon which 4 million people rely. The Council must work with humanitarian partners on the task at hand, ensuring that assistance reaches Syrians, including in the north-east, she emphasized. Noting that closure of the Yarubiyah crossing halted approximately 40 per cent of United Nations medical supplies to civilians in north-eastern Syria, she stressed that there is not a single good reason for the border crossing ever to have been closed.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France) condemned the intense air strikes carried out in Idlib by the Syrian regime and its allies, emphasizing that the fight against terrorists cannot be used as a pretext to commit violations of international law. It is unacceptable and scandalous that schools and other civilian infrastructure continue to be targeted for attack, she said, noting that such attacks constitute war crimes. Those responsible will have to answer for their actions, she added, calling upon the signatories to the 12 January ceasefire agreement — especially the Russian Federation — to cease hostilities immediately. She went on to stress the need to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access, including through the United Nations cross-border aid operation. “Let us not delude ourselves”, she said in that regard, pointing out that resolution 2504 (2020) seriously reduced the capacity of the United Nations to provide medicine and aid to those in need. Supplies now linger across the border from Syria, unable to enter the country, she pointed out, calling upon all Council members to act responsibly in considering the options to be presented in the Secretary-General’s analysis. She went on to express disappointment that the cross-border aid operation was only renewed for six months, proposing that the Council return to a year-long mandate when it takes up the matter again in July.
JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) joined others in expressing disappointment that the 12 January ceasefire agreement held for only a few days. Noting that the population density of Idlib is already greater than that of the Gaza Strip — and growing denser — he noted that innocent civilians trapped there remain in urgent need of assistance. All parties — including those seated around the Council table — must remember their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law, he emphasized, calling for a full cessation of hostilities. Cautioning Council members not to neglect civilians denied assistance in other parts of Syria, he said that due to the vetoes cast by China and the Russian Federation earlier this month, the United Nations can no longer use an important border crossing, and as a result many communities around the country are not receiving the help they need. The United Kingdom has contributed more than $4 billion since 2012, he said, emphasizing the importance of ensuring that those funds are reaching all those needing support — wherever they may be. Turning to Rubkan, he said more must be done to ensure the safety of those remaining in the camp as well as those leaving, and to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance. “Let the United Nations do its job to save lives”, he stressed.
ZHANG JUN (China) described the counter-terrorism situation in Syria as complex and related to the humanitarian situation. To resolve humanitarian issues, the international community must take all factors into consideration, he said. While scaling up humanitarian assistance, steps should be taken to improve the living conditions of the Syrian people by lifting economic sanctions and supporting reconstruction projects. Noting that the Government of Syria is working to rebuild housing and medical and education facilities, he said insufficient funding for reconstruction is a major challenge to efforts to relieve the humanitarian situation. China will participate in Syria’s reconstruction project under the Belt and Road Initiative, provide humanitarian assistance and help to train more personnel for reconstruction, he said. Urging the international community to work together in combating all forms of terrorism, he reiterated that humanitarian and security issues in Syria are intertwined, emphasizing the need to eliminate terrorist forces in order to restore peace. He went on to noted that the representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom have once again abused the platform of the Council to make accusations against China and another country. Those accusations are totally groundless and unwarranted, he stressed.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), noting that Syria remains the world’s largest refugee crisis, said conditions should be cultivated within the country to facilitate the safe, voluntary, well-informed and dignified return of its nationals. Hostilities continue to intensify even in areas where ceasefire agreements have been established, she said, condemning attacks that have disrupted medical and education services. Reminding all sides that operations to eradicate terrorism do not absolve them of their obligations under international law, she emphasized that accountability for acts committed in violation of international law is inextricably linked to peace. It is, therefore, important that perpetrators be held responsible in order to prevent impunity and bolster confidence in justice, she emphasized, welcoming the Board of Inquiry established by the Secretary-General to investigate a series of incidents in north-west Syria.
HARSHANA BHASKAR GOOLAB (South Africa) said armed groups must cease their activities, adding that State actors with influence to impress upon them the need to abide by the ceasefire and to comply with international law must do so. While South Africa recognizes the right of States to combat terrorism, all related actions must be in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, she emphasized. Noting that tens of thousands of people remain in camps within Syria and that many are seeking to leave, she called upon the relevant authorities to grant the necessary access to the United Nations and its partners, stressing that Syria’s political and humanitarian situations cannot be addressed independently of each other.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said it is imperative that all parties with influence on the ground ensure that the Syrian people are protected. Expressing alarm and frustration over the growing number of displaced persons — including many displaced multiple times — he emphasized the need for humanitarian assistance such as food, health services, water and sanitation, as well as winterized items, not only in the north-west but also in the north-east of Syria. Noting that cross-border operations continued to scale up during December and January — with more than 1,000 trucks full of humanitarian items arriving — he emphasized that the Council’s decision to renew the cross-border mechanism with only two crossing points must be reviewed and assessed comprehensively on the basis of actual information on the ground and the needs of the Syrian people. Meanwhile, safe, unimpeded and sustained access to all requested areas must be granted to the United Nations and its humanitarian partners, in accordance with the Organization’s comprehensive assessment of needs, he stressed.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said military operations by the Syrian army, supported by the Russian Federation, have “unleashed a mass exodus”. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 350,000 people have left their homes in the southern parts of Idlib and some are now heading towards the Turkish border. Pointing out that Turkey is already the largest host of Syrian refugees, with more than 3.6 million living there, he called for an emergency humanitarian ceasefire in Idlib and across Syria, emphasizing that anti-terrorism efforts should not lead to violations of human rights and dignity. Besides scarce aid, one of the immediate effects of Al Yarubiyah’s closure was that humanitarian organizations are increasingly looking to work through local partner networks. He went on to state that the challenges of the north-east are most visible in the Al-Hol camp, where recent winter floods caused substantial damages. Deteriorating living conditions have led to new tensions, he said, recalling that in January two murders and three attempts to kidnap children were reported in that camp.
MONCEF BAATI (Tunisia) emphasized the urgent need to end the violence in the north-west, saying it is hindering efforts to find a negotiated solution to the conflict. Expressing concern over increased escalation in Idlib, as well as indications of unprecedented renewed clashes in the region, he condemned attacks on civilians, including those perpetrated by terrorist groups and their allies, and called upon all parties to respect their obligations under international law to ensure the protection of civilians at all times. He went on to express regret over violations of the ceasefire agreement of 19 January, particularly because the ceasefire did not allow for the return home of some displaced persons. He called upon the guarantors to promote a lasting ceasefire, reduce tensions and calm the situation until stability and security can be restored.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) expressed regret over the inability to fully renew the cross-border mechanism through which millions of people received food and health assistance. Despite pressing needs, humanitarian action in Syria remains deplorably politicized, he said, adding that “pointing fingers seems to have become a priority”, thereby undermining the international community’s capacity to comply with its moral obligations. It is important to recall, he emphasized, that just as the sovereignty of a country is a fundamental international principle, it is also the responsibility of States to protect their people and to not cause them suffering. Noting that continued hostilities in north-western Syria are forcing civilians to abandon their homes in search of security and access to basic services, he said that, unfortunately, many are now living in tents or improvised structures. Developments in north-western Syria are a monument to the indifference and inability of all parties to take robust measures for the protection of civilians, he said, stressing that it is precisely for such situations that international humanitarian law exists. Flagrant violations of international law have made the humanitarian situation in Syria chaotic, with women and children bearing the brunt, he noted.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) echoed expressions of concern over the increasing numbers of displaced persons in north-west Syria, calling upon all aides to facilitate assistance to those in need and to commit to a dialogue process aimed at ending the conflict. Emphasizing that not enough assistance is currently being delivered, he said the Council must respond to the analysis soon to be delivered by the Secretary-General. “A United Council, especially on humanitarian issues, is an efficient Council”, he stressed.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said there is a growing trend of stabilization in many parts of Syria and life for its people is returning to normal. However, hotbeds of terrorism still exist and territories outside Government control, such as Idlib Governorate, are of particular concern. Radical groups led by the recognized terrorist organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham continue to shell Syrian forces, often killing civilians, he said, emphasizing that such attacks cannot go unanswered. Noting that some delegates alleged once again today that schools, hospitals and other facilities have been targeted by the Syrian Government and its allies, he asked them to identify the sources of that information, pointing out that humanitarian corridors have been maintained even as the terrorists prevent their use and treat civilians as human shields.
He went on to state that the Russian Federation’s October 2019 memorandum of understanding with Turkey established joint patrols beyond the Euphrates River and Russian forces are helping to rebuild destroyed infrastructure. Outside the north-west, Syria’s main humanitarian challenge is the situation in camps for internally displaced persons controlled by the United States, where humanitarian assistance remains blocked. Pointing out that the lion’s share of assistance entering Syria goes through two crossing points, he said one result of resolution 2504 (2020) will be a renewed focus on resolving challenges together with the legitimate Syrian authorities. Rather than whipping up passions in the Council, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should work closely with those authorities to get aid to those who need it, he said, emphasizing that alternatives to the Al Yarubiyah crossing point do exist. Noting that assistance from international partners has decreased as more territory comes under the Syrian Government’s control, he warned against politicization and asked all States to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria.
DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, saying that continued reports of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in north-western Syria is of particular concern. Viet Nam shares the concern about the high number of civilian casualties and internally displaced persons. All parties to the conflict must fully respect international law and carry out their obligations to protect civilians, he said calling upon all sides to abide by the latest ceasefire brokered by the Russian Federation and Turkey. “Humanitarian aid must go to the right people”, he said, emphasizing that the Syrian Government bears primary responsibility in that regard, with the joint support of Member States and international organizations. Humanitarian efforts should also help to create a favourable environment for the political process and for reconciliation and reconstruction, he said, stressing that they must be carried out with respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. All disputes and conflicts must be settled by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, he reiterated.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) announced that Syrian Government forces liberated the city of Maaret al-Naman today, adding that similar successes in neighbouring cities will soon negate any need for the cross-border aid mechanism. Noting that some delegations presented fabricated figures and made false allegations today, he called attention to the real impacts of the occupation, terrorism, aggression and coercive unilateral measures facing Syria. Such collective punishment was imposed as an attempt to dissuade Syria from making its own sovereign choices, he said, emphasizing that such actions by Western countries directly contravene all the purposes and principles of the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shamefully ignores the real needs of Syrians as its staff, in private consultations, express concerns that they might lose their jobs if they raise such matters.
He went on to describe as absurd requests by the United States — which continues to steal Syria’s oil and gas, occupy parts of its territory and sponsor terrorist groups which massacre men, women and children — that the Government of Syria deliver assistance to areas full of terrorists. In dozens of reports and hundreds of briefings, he said, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has failed to address the ban on importing surgical threads and other basic medical equipment, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths. Conveniently, Al Yarubiyah was the only crossing point where the importation of such equipment was allowed, he noted. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also fails to report on so-called “collateral damage” resulting from the coercive economic measures imposed on Syria. He went on to underline that Syria has no problem with the Office itself, but is concerned that its staff members are substituting the political agendas of their home countries for the principles of humanitarian assistance. “Despite the pressure on the Syrian people, we will not give up our sovereignty”, he stressed.