Food Insecurity, Impact of COVID-19 among Critical Challenges Facing Syria, Humanitarian Affairs Senior Official Tells Security Council
The spread of COVID-19 in Syria is likely more severe than official data suggests, a senior United Nations official told the Security Council during a videoconference meeting* on 27 August, adding that food insecurity remains a nationwide concern and that humanitarian convoys are suffering delays after the 15-member organ in July reduced the number of authorized border crossings to one.
Briefing at the Council’s monthly meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria, Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that reports of health-care facilities filling up, as well as rising numbers of death notices and burials, “all seem to indicate that actual cases [of the coronavirus] far exceed official figures”. Out of the 2,440 cases so far confirmed by the Ministry of Health, most cannot be traced to a known source, indicating that community transmission is widespread. Many people are reluctant to seek care at medical facilities, leading to more complications when they do arrive, he said, adding that health workers still lack sufficient personal protective equipment and associated supplies.
He drew attention to the situation at the Al Hol camp for refugees and internally displaced persons in north-east Syria, where a dozen health facilities suspended operations in August due to a lack of personal protective equipment or staff becoming infected. Of the 65,000 people at Al Hol, the majority — some 35,000 — are under the age of five. “No child should be forced to live under the challenging and potentially dangerous conditions at Al Hol camp,” he said, adding that the camp has also endured repeated water supply disruptions in August.
One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria has been a disruption in commercial supply chains, which are also liable to be affected to varying degrees by the 4 August explosion in the Port of Beirut, he said. While the value of the Syrian pound has stabilized, food prices are still rising. Humanitarian operations are reaching 7.2 million people every month, with food assistance reaching 5.4 million per month. “This assistance is all the more critical as food insecurity continues to rise in Syria. It must be sustained,” he said, as the Council took up the Secretary-General’s latest report on the humanitarian situation in Syria (document S/2020/813).
Turning to the protection of civilians, he said that the ceasefire in north‑west Syria is largely holding, “but it will hardly seem that way for civilians in front‑line areas”. Increased shelling has been reported in Idlib, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo Governorates, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded at least 10 civilian deaths — including 3 children — in ground and air strikes in the so-called “de-escalation area” in June and July. Contamination of large parts of Syria by explosive hazards is another concern, he said, recalling that a group of around 70 people, travelling with local smugglers, walked into an area littered with explosive remnants in the vicinity of Nubul and Zahraa in rural Aleppo on 12 August, triggering blasts that drew fire from armed actors in the area. Some bodies have been recovered, but it remains unclear how many were killed, he said.
He also updated the Council on humanitarian deliveries after the organ’s adoption on 11 July of resolution 2533 (2020), which reduced to one the number of authorized crossing points through which aid can enter Syria from Turkey. (See Press Release SC/14247.) The first convoy to set off via Bab al-Hawa, on 28 July, took 11 hours to reach its destination, Al-Bab, in northern rural Aleppo, after multiple delays. Normal travel time from the no-longer-authorized Bab al-Salam crossing would have been two hours, he said, adding that a subsequent delivery on 21 August was also delayed. Capacity at Bab al-Hawa needs to be expected, together with the capacity at crossing points within Syria, he said, adding that significant roadwork must be completed before winter sets in.
Within Syria, work is under way to draw up a response plan for Khan Shaykhun and Khuwayn al-Kabir, in southern rural Idlib, which Government forces retook in 2019, he said. A United Nations inter-agency mission on 28 July found that fewer than 300 families had returned to those areas and that civilian infrastructure had incurred severe damage. Meanwhile, there remains no humanitarian access to the Rukban camp in south-east Syria, near the border with Jordan, which houses 12,000 people. “Crucially, humanitarian actors must be granted access to the camp to deliver life-saving assistance for civilians in need,” he said, adding that only a few local truck drivers have managed to sporadically deliver basic goods through informal routes. There has been no access to Rukban for aid workers since September 2019.
In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Germany, speaking also on behalf of Belgium, emphasized how long it took for the first convoy of seven trucks to reach northern Aleppo from Bab al-Hawa after the adoption of resolution 2533 (2020), without even encountering fighting or harsh winter conditions on poor roads. The number of trucks will have to increase significantly, and the challenges and risks will grow, as more and more Syrians require humanitarian assistance. “Years of war, mismanagement, oppression, now exacerbated by the economic crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, have aggravated the economic crisis in Syria,” he said, warning that the number of people becoming food insecure could soon exceed 11 million. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in Syria, and with testing capacities very low, official numbers may represent only the tip of the iceberg. “All this indicates that not less, but more humanitarian access is needed, today and tomorrow,” he said, adding that those States which lobbied against cross-border access must now engage actively to ensure that deliveries are consistent, safe and unimpeded. Help should go to those people and health-care facilities that require it, not just to those whom the regime deems worthy.
The closing of the Al Yarubiyah crossing point in January, followed by Bab al-Salam in July, “contradict humanitarian logic”, he said. The burden of responsibility lies on those countries that have systematically limited humanitarian access through the cross-border modality and who hopefully listened carefully to the consequences as described by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Pointing to repeated and “inhumane” interruptions of water supplies from the Aluk water station in Hasakah Governorate in July, he requested all concerned parties to find a sustainable solution and to guarantee a constant supply of water. He went on to emphasize that protection issues sadly persist, not only for those in arbitrary detention or who remain missing, but also for victims of air or ground offensives. Their numbers have significantly increased in recent months, he said, calling upon all parties to maximize restraint and consider the humanitarian repercussions of military actions. He also condemned recent terrorist attacks, adding that any response should comply with international law, especially international humanitarian law.
Tunisia’s representative said the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases and expansion of deep poverty underscores the urgent need to address the drivers of instability. Ending hostilities and restoring calm throughout Syria is both an urgent prerequisite and a long-term goal to cope with the humanitarian crisis. Tensions have grown more tangible in the north and south, as violations to international humanitarian law and ceasefires have regrettably not abated. He reiterated the call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and protect civilians in all circumstances, as Syrians cannot withstand another round of widescale instability. Advocating a needs-based, whole-of-society approach to assistance, he said the challenges arising from the use of a single border crossing highlight the need for dialogue to maintain access into the north-west. Citing rising food insecurity, he also called for better safety nets and the rebuilding of shattered hospitals and schools as a “moral imperative”.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the cross-border aid mechanism must be strengthened and optimized so it can provide timely, safe and unimpeded access, in line with humanitarian principles. The scaling up of the cross-line modality must also be prioritized. Millions are now food insecure, with millions more on the brink, and COVID-19 cases are on the rise. She called for the lifting of all unilateral coercive measures, echoing the call for a nationwide ceasefire. She urged parties to respect the ceasefire in the north‑west, recalling that all military and counter-terrorism activities must comply with the fundamental principles of armed conflict. The Aluk water station continues to face repeated interruptions and a sustainable solution must be found. She encouraged the international community to contribute to Syria’s reconstruction, and engage constructively towards a political solution that places the country’s people at the forefront.
South Africa’s representative, noting that Syria ranks as the most insecure country for aid workers for the third consecutive year, said more must be done to ensure their safety. The effect of nearly a decade of conflict on critical health, education, water and sanitation infrastructure has eroded Syria’s ability to respond to COVID-19. Describing disruptions at the Aluk water station as “deeply troubling”, he called on all parties to ensure that services are fully restored and that a solution is found. All parties must respect their international humanitarian and human rights law obligations to protect schools, health centres and water facilities. As reductions in the cross-border aid programme have made humanitarian operations in the north-west more costly, riskier and less timely, he urged all actors, especially the Government, to cooperate with humanitarian agencies and improve all modalities, including cross-line assistance. He also requested the Secretary-General to include in his bimonthly reports an overview of how unilateral sanctions are impacting the situation, pressing all parties to do their utmost to implement resolution 2254 (2015).
Niger’s representative, pressing parties to facilitate the immediate passage of aid for all Syrians, expressed concern over the recent increase in hostilities, despite the Turkish and Russian ceasefire agreement. A nationwide ceasefire and an all-out effort to fight COVID-19 are needed. However, the need for such collective efforts should not distract from the fight against terrorism, as terrorist groups are attempting to exploit the situation. All belligerents must carry out large‑scale and unilateral releases of detainees and take more meaningful actions in relation to missing persons. Condemning the repeated disruptions at the Aluk water station, he also underscored the urgent need to guarantee access to food, medical supplies and assistance, in keeping with resolution 2533 (2020).
Estonia’s delegate demanded the release of all arbitrarily detained people, especially women and children, noting that COVID-19 has directly affected the political process, as Constitutional Committee talks were postponed after three cases were diagnosed in Geneva earlier this week. He requested all parties allow unimpeded humanitarian access to overcrowded camps, stressing that there is “absolutely no evidence” that European Union sanctions are hindering the humanitarian response, as they target only those who support Syria’s regime. The Secretary-General’s Board of Inquiry implied this earlier in 2020, as have other independent investigations that have taken place throughout the long and well‑documented war.
The representative of the United States said that the refusal by the Russian Federation and China to reauthorize the use of the Al Yarubiyah crossing in January is having a profound impact on the lives of Syrians in need. Council members must ask themselves could the deaths of eight innocent children at Al Hol earlier in August been avoided if the Council had kept Al Yarubiyah open? For the United States, the answer is yes, and the Council must do better. Expressing concern about reports of a massive coronavirus outbreak in the Damascus region and other regime‑held areas, he called upon the Syrian authorities to grant full and transparent access to the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations to determine the scale of the pandemic in Syria. The United States stands with Syria’s doctors and others, including the White Helmets, serving on the front line of the pandemic, he added. He encouraged the United Nations to provide technical assistance to assess the operations of the Aluk water station, emphasizing that his country has been very clear with all sides, including the Turkish authorities, that restricting access to water and other basic services is unacceptable. He went on to say that every Council member must commit to ensuring that the Bab al-Hawa border crossing remains open, and that the Bashar al-Assad regime release detainees being unjustly held in horrific conditions. He concluded by recalling that, on 21 August 2013, the Assad regime launched a sarin gas attack in the Ghouta district of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 Syrians, many of them children. The United States resolves to prevent the further use of such deadly weapons and to hold the Assad regime accountable for its heinous crimes, he said.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said Syria’s limited testing capacity and collapsed health-care system could be telling a very different story than what the COVID-19 case numbers reveal. Expressing gratitude that the Beirut port situation will not impact the World Food Programme’s (WFP) food delivery, he said assistance in the north-west has become more costly, riskier and less timely, due to the closure of Bab al-Salam crossing point. “This is both concerning and shameful,” he said, urging that the most effective means be likewise used for ensuring impartial assistance to people in the north-east. Political will is needed more than ever, he insisted, stressing that a political solution must be the “number one” priority for all stakeholders. “Humanitarian assistance should not replace our shared responsibility to this end,” he added, as he called for releasing detainees, abductees and missing persons and providing information to their families.
France’s representative said that, given the COVID-19 pandemic, an immediate cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian pause in Syria is more essential than ever. Underscoring the ever-growing humanitarian needs in Lebanon, as well as Syria, he said that the instrumentalization of humanitarian assistance must stop. All parties, in particular the Syrian regime, must ensure safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all those in need. He added that the consequences of the Council’s adoption of resolution 2533 (2020) cannot be ignored, as humanitarian operations in the north-west are now more costly, riskier and more time-consuming. He said that, without a credible political process, France and the European Union will not finance reconstruction in Syria, and that their positions vis-à-vis the lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations remain unchanged.
Viet Nam’s representative expressed sorrow that the Council has grown accustomed to listening to disturbing information about Syria and “can still do nothing”. Indeed, “there is no easy way to mention the number of civilians killed and injured,” he said, pointing to the 369 casualties during the reporting period. He expressed great concern that the health-care system and health workers continue to be attacked, and that COVID-19 has not only limited humanitarian access, but hindered efforts to resolve Syria’s crisis through dialogue. Expressing great concern over food insecurity and water shortages, he underlined the need for timely, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access and called on parties to fully respect international humanitarian law. Regarding resolution 2533 (2020), he welcomed steps by the United Nations to address logistical challenges in the north-west and called for enhancing Syria’s COVID-19 preparedness and response by providing technical assistance and medical supplies.
China’s representative said that Damascus has made commendable efforts to improve the livelihoods of Syria’s people, including through agricultural reform, helping small businesses, facilitating inter-governorate transportation and combating the COVID-19 pandemic. “The international community should support Syria’s endeavours with concrete actions and assistance,” he said, adding that the country’s oil fields belong to its people and cannot be subject to illegal foreign plundering. Unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States must be lifted immediately, he said, adding that the Secretariat and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs must do more research on the impact of sanctions and report their findings to the Council. He also called on the United Nations to further strengthen cooperation with the Government on cross-line humanitarian operations. Assistance from donor countries should come with no preconditions, nor should it be used to further a political agenda or to pressure the Government. On COVID-19, he said that the international community must back up the Government’s decisive actions and put more assistance into place. Noting a significant increase by attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) earlier in 2020, he said that the international community should continue to support Syria in fighting terrorism, in line with international law and Council resolutions. He concluded by saying that, if the United States truly cares about the humanitarian situation in Syria, it should stop blaming others, lift unilateral sanctions, cease politicizing the issue and match its words with deeds.
Indonesia’s representative, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity to stress the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access across Syria. Encouraging the Government and the United Nations to better coordinate in order to increase cross-line deliveries, he said people in Al‑Hasakeh Governorate and Al Hol camp are facing a water crisis and it is crucial to find a long-term solution. The United Nations must continue to advocate for a sustainable agreement on the facilitation of water access as a basic service. Urging all parties to immediately cease all forms of violence, he said Indonesia has “stressed this over and over again”. Indeed, “the fragile humanitarian situation in Syria should not be met with additional hostilities”, he said, welcoming that the third session of the Constitutional Committee is resuming.
Syria’s representative said that some Council members have, over the years, dealt with the humanitarian situation in his country with blatant selectivity aimed at protecting the remnants of terrorist organizations and preventing the Syrian Arab Army and its allies from liberating terrorist-controlled areas. Those same Governments also overlook the catastrophic humanitarian conditions experienced by the Syrians in areas occupied by United States and Turkish forces. In the north-east, for more than 20 days, more than 1 million Syrian civilians in Hasakah and surrounding areas have faced water deprivation as the Turkish regime uses water as a weapon of war. With the blessing of the United States Administration, the Turkish occupation forces and its proxies have cut off the pumping of water from the Aluk station more than 16 times, leaving the people of Hasakah to suffer from thirst in the midst of the pandemic. Syria has addressed several letters to the Council and the Secretary-General on this matter, but the organ has taken no steps to stop these atrocities, he said. “This crime requires urgent action from the United Nations,” he said, adding that no voices were raised when United States occupation forces inflicted severe damage to the Euphrates and Baath dams, among other civilian facilities.
Earlier this week, the “international coalition” in Syria acknowledged its responsibility for the deaths of 1,377 civilians, but that number will go unnoticed so long as Germany and Belgium are the Council’s penholders on the humanitarian situation in his country, he said, adding that “international law has become like the gentle lamb whose care is entrusted to a herd of wolves”. Today, the President of Turkey is committing crimes to implement a Western project aimed at destroying the structures and institutions of the Syrian State, he said, challenging Council members to prove otherwise and to hold those countries occupying parts of his nation accountable for their crimes against Syria and the region. Emphasizing efforts by the Government and Syrian humanitarian organizations to supply water to Hasakah, he demanded that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and European Union member States “wake up from their irresponsible slumber” and demonstrate respect for the moral and legal foundations upon which the United Nations is built.
He went on to say that, in line with the policies of some Governments hostile to his country, terrorist organizations on 24 August attacked a pipeline that supplies gas to electrical power plants, triggering a nationwide blackout. “This terrorist attack, perpetrated by the terrorist groups supported by the American troops in the Al-Tanf occupied area, is merely a link in the chain of economic terrorism that has become the dominant title of the current phase.” Such economic terrorism — which also includes the plunder of oil and gas reserves, antiquities, wheat and other crops, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure — aim to suffocate Syrian citizens, obstruct reconstruction, prevent the return of displaced populations and exert more pressure on the Government to make political concessions as the third round of Constitutional Committee talks open in Geneva. He drew attention to a recent study by the Center for a New American Security that calls on Washington, D.C., to weaponize wheat in order to pressure the Government and the Russian Federation to make concessions that serve United States interests in the region. “This twisted logic of using wheat as a weapon to punish civilians is consistent with [Turkey President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s use of water as a weapon to punish civilians,” he said.
Some Council members have, through their policies towards Syria, slaughtered international humanitarian law just as they have slaughtered international law, he said. Nothing remains before the Council except those provisions of the Charter of the United Nations which a number of Member States still uphold and defend. Responding to the representative of the United States, he emphasized the responsibility of that country, its terrorist militias, and some European Union Governments for the situation in the Al Hol camp, in light of the United States occupation of the area and the refusal of some European Governments to repatriate “semi-human trash” who were sent to Syria as “terrorists without borders” with their families. Syrian Democratic Forces separatist militias are the proxies of the United States Administration who are trying to take advantage of the inhabitants of the Al Hol camp to feign some sort of recognition and conclude suspicious cheap deals.
Turkey’s representative said that, since the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing point, his country has been working to increase capacity at Bab al-Hawa, but access will be limited and the United Nations will need to deal with additional costs and challenges related to longer travel distances. He emphasized that cross-line access to the north-west is no substitute for cross-border aid. Discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, he said that efforts within Syria to combat a possible outbreak are insufficient. So far, at least 60 doctors in Syria have died due to the virus, he said, adding that the severity of the situation in regime-controlled areas will never be known due to the lack of reliable information. North-west Syria is best prepared to mitigate the effects of an outbreak due to medical assistance from Turkey. Responding to the lies of the Syrian regime’s representatives, he said that electricity to the Aluk water station has been regularly and deliberately cut by PKK/YPG since November 2019. Thanks to Turkey’s repeated demarches to those who have influence on those groups, the flow of electricity to Aluk has been resumed and water pumping restored. Turkey is ready to work with the United Nations on a durable solution. “We should not let terrorist organizations and the Assad regime use water resources as a weapon to further weaken the Syrian people for their separatist and malicious agendas,” he said, calling also for vigilance against attempts by the Syrian regime and PKK/YPG to gain legitimacy by exploiting the pandemic as a pretext.
He went on to say that Turkey will continue its efforts to preserve the ceasefire in Idlib, the last refuge for Syrians fleeing Assad, despite violations by the regime. As always, Turkey reserves the right to use force to respond to any attack by the regime or radical groups, he said, adding that the ceasefire is essential for improving the humanitarian situation, facilitating the return of internally displaced persons to their homes and reviving the political process. He added that Turkey expects the international community to support the viable functioning of the Constitutional Committee “and not allow the regime to backtrack”. Recalling the seventh anniversary of the Ghouta chemical attack, he said that Turkey believes that members of the Assad regime will be held accountable for their heinous crimes.
Also participating were the representatives of the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.