Time to Press for Lasting Political Solution in Syria, Easing Its People’s Suffering amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Special Envoy Tells Security Council
Permanent Representative Rejects ‘Selective Approach’, Demands Resolution Obliging Member States to Repatriate Foreign Terrorist Fighters
With relative calm prevailing in Syria and the need to alleviate the suffering of its people all the more urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to press ahead towards a lasting political settlement, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy told the Security Council during an 18 September videoconference meeting.
Briefing the 15-member Council, Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, outlined the results of the recently convened third session of the Small Body of the country’s Constitutional Committee — tasked with paving the political path forward — and emphasized the broader need to adhere to resolution 2254 (2015). He said members of the Small Body put forward practical suggestions to identify common ground and determine how discussions can move forward. However, there remain very real substantive differences, “even at the quite general level”, he cautioned, noting that the Co-Chairs — representing the Government and the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission — failed to agree an agenda for the next session.
“Given the realities of organizing meetings, we need to finalize the agenda without further delay if we are to meet in early October as we had hoped,” he said, adding that he is working with the Co-Chairs to help them reach agreement. He went on to note that members of the Women’s Advisory Board provided useful ideas during the session, demonstrating the possibility of commonalities to safeguard the rights of Syrian women.
Echoing concerns raised about COVID-19 in Syria — as expressed by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on 16 September (see Press Release SC/14306), he appealed again for Council members’ support in securing both the necessary resources and humanitarian access to reach all those in need. Sanctions that can undermine Syria’s capacity to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and coronavirus medical support must be waived, he emphasized. He reiterated his call for the large-scale and unilateral release of detainees and abductees — especially women, children, the elderly and the sick — and for more meaningful action on missing persons.
Noting that Syria remains a highly internationalized environment, with five foreign armies active in the theatre and Syria’s sovereignty compromised, he said existing military arrangements are currently sustaining a broad calm relative to the intense violence of recent years. Front lines have barely shifted in the past six months and a “basic military status quo” seems to be emerging. However, worrying incidents could destabilize that calm, he warned, pointing to, among other cases, a vehicle altercation between forces of the Russian Federation and the United States, air strikes on a Syrian military position, an escalation of ground and air strikes in the north-west and an attack on a Russian-Turkish joint patrol. Meanwhile, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) remains active in the desert, he reported, citing an attack on a pipeline that triggered a nationwide electricity outage in August.
“As we seek to consolidate calm, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to build a more meaningful political process,” he said, stressing that only by focusing on a political settlement can the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people be met and the country’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity restored. No one actor or group of actors — Syrian or international — can determine the outcome of the conflict, and there is a growing understanding among many key actors that the only way forward is negotiation and a political settlement, however difficult that may be, he said. “There is a common desire from all sides to get beyond a complete stalemate and see some movement,” he added, pointing also to a readiness for “steps to beget steps” and for “goodwill to beget goodwill” in moving towards a political settlement.
As Council members welcomed the convening of the Constitutional Committee amid a “constructive atmosphere”, several expressed scepticism about the body’s progress, or lack thereof, and called for more tangible outcomes from future meetings. Several speakers also warned against viewing the Committee’s work as the only element in the political process, underlining the need to accelerate progress on the release of prisoners, confidence-building measures and other critical issues. Meanwhile, delegations continued to differ over the impact of targeted economic sanctions that some nations still maintain on Syria.
France’s representative noted that the Constitutional Committee’s record is “nil” nearly a year after its formation. “The regime's procrastinating tactics deceive no one — they are aimed at buying time, with the prospect of the 2021 presidential election in mind,” she said, emphasizing that France will not accept use of the political process as a façade designed to re-legitimize the regime. The political process cannot be reduced to the Constitutional Committee alone, she said, adding that there must also be a nationwide cessation of hostilities. It is high time to make progress on the issue of detainees — particularly in the context of COVID-19. The regime must put an end to humanitarian obstacles, she added, declaring: “We are not fooled by attempts to attribute the humanitarian tragedy in Syria to sanctions.”
Tunisia’s representative said a political solution based on Council resolution 2254 (2015) is the only way to restore peace and stability in Syria after nine years of the protracted conflict, which is exacerbating and fanning regional instability. The sad reality is that security threats, insurgents and terrorists as well as military confrontations are jeopardizing peace, he noted. It is crucial to keep momentum going, he said, adding that all parties must agree on a full nationwide ceasefire. Regrettably, the prevailing calm remains precarious, he noted, calling for all parties to exercise self-restraint and uphold international law.
Indonesia’s representative reaffirmed his country’s commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, while underlining the importance of substantive engagement in the Constitutional Committee. A serious political path, with strong commitment from all relevant parties, is needed to achieve a sustainable and lasting solution to the crisis, he said, emphasizing that divergent views must be addressed through diplomacy and dialogue. He called for intensified efforts to move the constitutional process forward under United Nations facilitation.
The Russian Federation’s representative described the Syrian delegation’s constructive approach as the most important achievement of the recent meeting. “Syrians showed their readiness to continue working together to find common denominators and establish principles for discussing the future of their country,” he said, adding that, with the Special Envoy’s help, the Syrians should agree on an agenda and dates for subsequent meetings. They must lead the process on their own, without external interference, and the Committee’s work should have no artificial time restrictions nor be linked to outside events, including elections. He recalled that the guarantors of the Astana format — the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran — met on the sidelines of the Geneva meeting and reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, as well as their determination to confront terrorist threats, rejection of the illegal seizure of oil fields and condemnation of unilateral sanctions.
Describing the situation on the ground as generally calm, he emphasized that all attacks by militants will be resolutely suppressed. Lasting calm in Idlib and other parts of Syria will only be possible if the terrorists of ISIL/Da’esh, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and their affiliates are neutralized and their support from abroad is stopped. He went on to state that the illegal occupation of a part of Syria by the United States and efforts to isolate Kurdish regions from the rest of the country are factors in delaying a political settlement, as are the plundering of oil resources and illegal unilateral sanctions. Referring to plans to assassinate President Assad, he asked: “What is this if not a policy of regime change?” Returning to the issue of sanctions, he said humanitarian exemptions do not work, according to non-governmental organizations. As such, the Russian Federation is disappointed that the Council has still heard no assessment of the negative impact of sanctions, nor of the environmental threat posed by barbaric oil-extraction methods in north-eastern Syria.
The representative of the United States described the latest round of talks as a missed opportunity to advance the political process. Now is not the time for inaction or loss of hope, but rather to redouble efforts to support the Special Envoy and ensure progress at the next round, she emphasized. Moving forward in the immediate term will forge the basis for a post-war Syria characterized by a ceasefire, a new constitution and United Nations-monitored elections. The United States policy is not dependent on President Bashar al-Assad as a person, she said, noting that the regime is a vast network of security services, military personnel and corrupt businessmen who contribute to the suffering of the Syrian people. She went on to emphasize the need to change the regime’s relationship with Iran, warning that with fewer United Nations arms restrictions, Tehran will be emboldened to transfer even more weapons to Syria, putting more civilians, as well as the Syrian political process, at risk.
The United Kingdom’s representative emphasized that after a year of little substantive progress, all parties, including the regime, should be ready to make concessions. Stressing the need for a nationwide ceasefire as well as free and fair elections, he asked for clarification as to how elections will be conducted in 2021 and how they will meet Council standards. He went on to point out that resolution 2254 (2015) is clear that a new constitution should be in place before elections are held. As such, recent statements by the Russian Federation suggesting that elections and the Committee’s work could be decoupled are damaging to the political process and to the Council’s unanimous opinion. On the release of political prisoners and vulnerable persons, he said the least the regime can do is to grant independent organizations access to detention facilities and to provide loved ones with information on the fate or whereabouts of their family members.
Viet Nam’s representative called for a further exchange of views, including on the agenda, while underscoring the primacy of a Syrian-owned, Syrian-led political process and urging States not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. While a chance to make progress on the political track exists, Viet Nam is concerned about the resurgence of terrorists in some parts of Syria, he said, emphasizing that diplomatic efforts are the only way forward.
Germany’s representative welcomed the third round of the Constitutional Committee, while noting: “But that’s the only positive news.” Regrettably, no substantive progress was made, he said, adding that this is disappointing but not surprising, because the Syrian regime is not serious about the Committee. On the issue of accountability, he said that a report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded that the regime committed crimes against humanity. Calling for further follow-up, he stressed: “We must not tolerate impunity in Syria,” adding that the evidence of crimes is overwhelming.
Belgium’s representative expressed relief at the relative calm in Syria, as well as concern over continued attacks and the long winter ahead. The United Nations should play a central role in bringing about a nationwide ceasefire, he said, describing the convening of the Constitutional Committee as a “door opener” for the wider political process. Noting that only three rounds of talks have taken place to date, with difficult issues yet to be discussed, he said the next round should he held in early October. Tangible progress is needed on the issue of detainees and political prisoners, he added. Turning to sanctions imposed by the European Union, he said the measures target human rights violators and seek to avoid unintended humanitarian consequences.
Estonia’s representative emphasized the need to consider the legitimate claims of the opposition and to ensure that future Constitutional Committee meetings are held regularly. “Delaying tactics of any sort cannot be accepted,” he emphasized, while cautioning that a new constitution alone will not solve Syria’s problems. He called for the release of arbitrarily detained persons and respect for human rights, stressing that free and fair elections are the cornerstones of national reconciliation.
China’s representative welcomed the areas of commonality agreed by the two sides during the recent Small Body meeting, as well as the political will demonstrated in the agreement to participate in a subsequent session. The work of the Constitutional Committee must remain independent and free from foreign interference, and the political process must adhere to the principle of Syrian leadership and ownership, he emphasized. Noting the important role played by the Astana Process in establishing ceasefire arrangements, he said the main threats to Syria’s security lie in foreign occupation — which violates international law and stokes instability and unrest — and terrorist activities, towards which the global community should adopt uniform standards in accordance with international law. In addition, all unilateral sanctions should be immediately lifted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he stressed.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reminded the parties of the importance of women’s participation in the work of the Constitutional Committee to ensure fair and balanced outcomes for all Syrians. “The success of the wider political process is dependent on the cultivation of trust and confidence,” she said, echoing other speakers’ calls to meaningfully address the issues of detainees, abductees and missing persons. She went on to call for maximum restraint, preservation of the ceasefire in the north-west and an immediate nationwide cessation of hostilities. She also appealed for the lifting of all unilateral coercive measures to help Syria’s rehabilitation, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Africa’s representative called on the parties to capitalize on the momentum generated by the Constitutional Committee meeting. Acknowledging the challenges of a constitutional drafting process from the vantage of his own country’s experience, he declared: “Ultimately, trust between the parties must be developed and the external interference of outside parties must be mitigated.” The continued presence of external armed forces in Syria and their undue influence and disregard for the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence makes the prospect of a sustainable peace more elusive, he noted. Meanwhile, unilateral coercive economic measures imposed on the Syrian Government must be lifted, given that country’s unique circumstances — including the effects of the nine-year-long conflict on health and social services, the economy as well as its ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19.
The representative of Niger, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity, expressing hope that all members of the Constitutional Committee will commit themselves to negotiating in good faith and making necessary compromises, with the United Nations providing support. Echoing calls for a ceasefire, he said that Syria, like any other State, must fight relentlessly against terrorism, especially as criminal groups attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to reconstitute themselves and regain lost ground. He went on to underline the need for the parties to share information on the fate of detainees, echoing the Special Envoy’s appeal for their release. He joined other speakers in calling for the suspension of sanctions, noting that the measures are more damaging to innocent Syrians than to the authorities.
Syria’s representative reiterated his country’s categorical rejection of the selective approach adopted by some Member States regarding the terrorist threat to international peace and security. Those same Governments consider terrorism a legitimate tool — so long as their countries are not targeted — and have been flooding poor and developing countries not only with environmental waste, but also the human waste of terrorists, extremists, mercenaries and murderers, he said. For a political solution to be successful, and for the humanitarian situation to improve, concerned Governments must repatriate their cannibalistic nationals from Idlib and their monsters from the Al Hol camp. He went on to demand that the Council adopt a draft resolution, under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, obliging Member States to cooperate in eliminating the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters and ensure that concerned Governments repatriate their nationals and hold them accountable for their crimes.
Emphasizing the Government’s commitment to a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political solution, facilitated by the United Nations and without foreign interference, he also stressed the need to adhere fully to the Constitutional Committee’s terms of reference with no artificial timelines. He went on to recall that just days ago, President Donald J. Trump of the United States discussed his plans to assassinate the President of Syria. “This confirms the level to which this Administration's reckless political thinking and behaviour has descended,” he said.
Also participating were the representatives of China, the Dominican Republic and Turkey.