Humanitarian Needs in Syria Greater Than Ever, Relief Chief Warns Security Council, as Speakers Welcome Breakthrough Cross-Line Delivery of Food Rations to North-West
Humanitarian needs in Syria are greater than ever, with an estimated 13.4 million requiring assistance, the highest number since 2017, the United Nations humanitarian chief told the Security Council today, as speakers welcomed a breakthrough cross-line delivery of food rations to the north-western city of Idlib by the World Food Programme (WFP).
Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, reporting on his first visit to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey since taking up his position, said that the lived reality in Syria “is more dire than figures can describe”.
At $4.2 billion, the Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan is the biggest in the world, but it is only 27 per cent funded, he said, and even if funding increases in the coming months, it is not keeping pace with growing needs. Communities are determined to restart their lives, but they need support to do so, and greater investment in resilience activities is an important way to accomplish that.
“Syria is caught in a downward spiral,” he continued, emphasizing that in the near term, at least, the country will remain a place of tragedy, need and suffering. It is therefore incumbent upon the international community to identify, develop and invest in sustainable and effective ways to help.
The Under-Secretary-General added that, during his visit to Aleppo, the WFP completed the first cross-line delivery of humanitarian assistance into north-west Syria since 2017, transporting food rations for 50,000 people in need in Idlib. Much more must be done, however, and the Organization is aiming to build on the WFP effort by planning an inter-agency cross-line operation that would deliver more varied assistance to the north-west.
Amany Qaddour, Regional Director of Syria Relief and Development, also briefed the Council, saying that with many Syrians living in crowded camps and other temporary settlements, security risks — including rape and other acts of violence — have grown exponentially. She spotlighted the recruitment of children as young as 10 into hard labour, as well as an increase in suicides amid an atmosphere that is “palpable with hopelessness and despair”.
Accessing school has been made harder by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the crippled education system unable to maintain classes or facilitate remote learning, she added. The number of coronavirus cases in the north-west is rising exponentially and hospital beds are full, forcing humanitarian actors to make tough decisions. “Access capability is not what should decide which communities are able to reach services,” she stressed.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members welcomed the WFP cross-line delivery, but pressed for an immediate end to hostilities. Several speakers drew attention to the situation in the south-western city of Dara’a al-Balad, scene of heavy fighting before a ceasefire — brokered by the Russian Federation — went into place earlier this month.
Norway’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Ireland, said that increased humanitarian needs in Syria have been magnified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She called for a broader humanitarian response, including water, sanitation, health, education and shelter early recovery projects, geared towards providing for the immediate needs of Syrians.
Tunisia’s representative said that no viable solution exists to the conflict in Syria other than a political agreement in line with Council resolution 2254 (2016). Welcoming signs of calm in some areas, he commended the prioritization of dialogue and negotiation, but also called for more concerted international efforts to stop Syria from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.
France’s representative agreed that an immediate cessation of hostilities, as well as a humanitarian pause, are the immediate priorities in Syria. He welcomed the WFP’s cross-line convoy but added that the cross-border delivery mechanism should also be renewed. He added that France’s position, and that of its partners, on reconstruction and sanctions will remain intact until conditions change.
The Russian Federation’s representative, disputing claims by Western members of the Council that targeted sanctions are having no impact on ordinary citizens, quoted a report by the United States Agency for International Development, which stated that United States sanctions have contributed to the devaluation of the Syrian pound. He urged the United Nations and Council members to help normalize the humanitarian situation in ways that strengthen Syria’s territorial integrity.
The United States’ representative said that after more than 10 years of conflict, the situation in Syria is getting even worse. Basic service delivery is limited and COVID-19 is rampant. However, cross-line aid is not a replacement for cross-border deliveries, he said, calling for the Council to reauthorize use of the Bab al-Salaam and Al Yarubiyah crossings.
Syria’s representative, taking the floor towards the end of the meeting, said that aid deliveries throughout the country would not have been possible without the Government’s support. Improving the humanitarian situation will require, among other things, full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity; ending the illegal presence of Turkish and United States occupation forces; and the immediate lifting of the immoral blockade imposed by the European Union and the United States, he added.
Also speaking today were representatives of Mexico, United Kingdom, India, China, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Niger, Estonia, Viet Nam, Kenya, Turkey and Iran.
The meeting began at 3:10 p.m. and ended at 5:12 p.m.
MARTIN GRIFFITHS, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaking via video-teleconference, said that his primary conclusion from his recent visit to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey is that humanitarian needs in Syria are greater than they have ever been. An estimated 13.4 million people require humanitarian assistance, an increase of 21 per cent from 2020 and the highest since 2017. “The lived reality in Syria is even more dire than figures can describe,” he added, saying that in Aleppo, he spoke with men, women and children about the profound effects of a decade of conflict. He also learned first-hand about the protracted water crisis that affects many parts of the country. “People simply do not have enough clean water,” he said, emphasizing that the concerned parties must work together to agree on a solution to this untenable situation.
At $4.2 billion, the Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan is the biggest in the world, but it is only 27 per cent funded, he said. Even if funding increases in the coming months, it is not keeping pace with growing needs. Communities are determined to restart their lives, but need early recovery support to do so, and greater investment in resilience activities is an important way to do just that. “Put another way, failure to invest in resilience activities will likely lead to greater humanitarian need and increased tensions,” he said. More must be done to put Syrians on the path towards recovery and self-reliance is the best way to help them regain a sense of a future in their country.
He added that during his visit to Aleppo, the World Food Programme (WFP) completed the first cross-line delivery of humanitarian assistance into north-west Syria since 2017. It transported food rations for 50,000 people in need in Idlib, but the operation required considerable effort, trust and negotiation. It also cost the life of a Syrian soldier killed by a landmine. This cross-line operation demonstrated the resolve of the United Nations and its partners to help people in need in all possible ways, but much more is needed, and the Organization is aiming to build on the WFP effort by planning an inter-agency cross-line operation to deliver more varied assistance to the north-west.
He went on to say that his visit to Damascus coincided with ongoing tensions in southern Syria, particularly around Dara’a al-Balad. He raised his concerns with Syrian authorities about the protection of civilians, humanitarian access and the well-being of 36,000 displaced persons. The recent ceasefire agreement is welcome, and the initial calm is encouraging, but terms of that cessation of hostilities must be implemented with full respect for human rights. Further assessments are planned in the coming days to assess outstanding humanitarian needs.
“Syria is caught in a downward spiral,” he continued, emphasizing that in the near term, at least, the country will remain a place of tragedy, need and suffering. It is therefore incumbent to identify, develop and invest in sustainable and effective ways to help. That is not an easy task, but it is an essential one, he added.
AMANY QADDOUR, Regional Director of Syria Relief and Development, said her organization has provided vital health, protection and other life-saving services to Syrians for the last 10 years. In the past year, escalations of hostilities have impacted civilians and aid workers in such towns as Jubal Al Zawyeh, in the country’s north-west, displacing thousands. “With many residing in crowded camps and other temporary settlements, the security risks have become exponential,” she said, drawing attention to increased violence and instances of rape. As a result, key areas of need include psychological assistance, safe housing and legal support to hold perpetrators accountable in that volatile context.
Also spotlighting the ongoing exploitation of children and their recruitment into hard labour at ages as young as 10, she said many young people in Syria have been stripped of their ability to maintain a normal and safe childhood or to exercise their right to healthy human development. There has been an increase in suicides even among young people, amid an atmosphere that is “palpable with hopelessness and despair”. For other children, accessing school has been made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the crippled education system simply does not have the capacity to maintain classes or facilitate remote learning. Emphasizing that less than 2 per cent of the population in Syria has been vaccinated against the virus, she said in the north-west cases are rising exponentially and hospital beds are full.
Through the pandemic, she said, some segments of the population — including elderly people and those with disabilities — have been severely isolated and are often unable to access vital services. Noting that COVID-19 is just one among many pressing health concerns in Syria, she said women in particular face challenges accessing maternal and child health services, due in part to diminished funding. Difficult decisions are made every day by humanitarian actors regarding how to reach various populations. “Access capability is not what should decide which communities are able to reach services,” she stressed.
Turning to the risks faced by aid groups and their personnel working on the frontlines, she pressed the international community to explore strategies for better risk-burden sharing between those humanitarian agencies who are working on the ground and those who are not. Meanwhile, navigating bureaucratic waters — including access and funding matters — should be approached in a more nuanced way that ensures the safety of populations as the top priority, she said.
TRINE SKARBOEVIK HEIMERBACK (Norway), also speaking on behalf of Ireland, commended cross-line aid deliveries, encouraging the United Nations to continue to pursue them, and urged all actors to facilitate rapid, safe and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance. Seriously concerned about the fragile situation in Dara’a, she called on all parties to protect civilians and aid workers. With the school year starting now in September, she reiterated the Council’s condemnation of attacks against schools in contravention of international humanitarian law and urged all parties to the armed conflict to refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education.
Attacks on health facilities, the destruction of schools, increased displacement and civilian deaths, compounded by widespread food insecurity and economic decline, have led to increased humanitarian needs in Syria, magnified by the ongoing threat of COVID-19, she said, alarmed by the recent rapid increase in cases, particularly in the north-west. The water crisis demonstrates the complexity of humanitarian responses, as the closure of stations not only disrupts its supply but reduces the provision of electricity, with a consequent negative impact on the operation of hospitals and schools. All of this underlines the need for a broader humanitarian response, including water, sanitation, health, education and shelter early recovery projects, geared towards providing for the immediate needs of Syrians, she said, expressing full support for the United Nations and all aid actors in their efforts to deliver lifesaving aid to those in need.
TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) reiterated his country’s longstanding position that no viable solution exists to the conflict in Syria, other than a political agreement in line with Council resolution 2254 (2016). Welcoming recent positive signs of calm in some areas as the Government and local parties agree to end their escalation, he commended the prioritization of dialogue and negotiation. Reductions of violence in the north-west in recent days should also lead to a broader and more lasting calm, as well as the start of a recovery process. Noting the deployment of the first cross-line food convoy by WFP in line with resolution 2585 (2021), he underscored the need for all parties to continue to engage positively and support the delivery of food and medical assistance in line with their obligations under international law. He also noted, with concern, trends including displacement and terrorism, and called for more concerted international efforts to prevent Syria from being turned into a safe haven for terrorist groups.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said an immediate cessation of hostilities, as well as a humanitarian pause, are the immediate priorities in Syria, and civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected. Attacks against humanitarian actors will not go unpunished, he stressed, adding that all parties must live up to their international obligations, as needs continue to rise in a context marked by food insecurity and the spread of COVID-19. Welcoming the delivery of the first cross-line aid convoy, in accordance with resolution 2585 (2021), he said the cross-border delivery mechanism should also be renewed and humanitarian aid pre-positioned prior to the difficult winter season. Only a political solution will end the conflict, as the regime — supported by allies — continues to scorn the aspirations of the Syrian people. France’s position and that of its partners, on the normalization of relations, reconstruction and sanctions, will remain unchanged until those conditions change, he stressed.
JUAN RAMÓN DE LA FUENTE RAMIREZ (Mexico) said that the first cross-line mission in the north-west is an encouraging development that hopefully will be repeated and bolstered in the future. However, the 14 trucks which made up the convoy contrast significantly with the average of 1,000 trucks crossing the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab Al-Hawa. Both crossings are necessary, he said, emphasizing that more COVID-19 vaccines must reach the population. He also expressed concern about recent hostilities in north-west and south-west Syria, saying that the situation in Dara’a Al-Balad remains fragile, while innocent civilians are still dying in Idlib, stressing: “Violence in Syria must stop.” Without a nationwide ceasefire in line with resolution 2554 (2020), humanitarian needs will grow, he said, adding that those responsible for violence must be held accountable for their actions.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom), reiterating serious concerns about the continuing escalation of violence in the north-west, urged all parties to respect the ceasefire and protect civilians and humanitarian workers. While welcoming the recent ceasefire agreement in Dara’a, she remained concerned about displacement of civilians, food insecurity and infrastructure damage. Noting with concern the water crisis in the north-east, she welcomed the United Nations consolidated whole-of-Syria response plan to this and looked forward to updates. She commended ongoing efforts of the United Nations and its partners to scale up cross-border aid shipments into north-west Syria and welcomed the recent cross-line WFP delivery to Sarmada. Expressing condolences for the Turkish soldiers killed in the recent attack in north-west Syria, she welcomed Turkey’s efforts to uphold the ceasefire agreement and protect civilians from a further regime offensive.
RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India) said the presence of foreign forces and external support to armed groups is only worsening the current situation, as reports show that United Nations-proscribed terrorist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Dae’sh), are attacking civilians in rural Idlib, Hama and the north-east. Calling for enhanced, effective humanitarian assistance, he said the international community must engage purposefully to address the situation and alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering. The worsening situation in camps such as Al-Hol also needs attention. Access for humanitarian aid deliveries is pivotal, and concrete steps must be taken to address hurdles obstructing cross-border and cross-line operations. Welcoming ongoing cross-line deliveries, he called for an effective monitoring mechanism, involving the Syrian authorities, to enable and expand smooth and efficient aid operations. Reconstruction efforts and funding concerns related to the United Nations humanitarian response plan must be examined as a priority by the international community, he said, adding that India has extended assistance and human resource development support to Syria through grants and lines of credits for projects, medicine and food supplies, artificial limb fitting camps and capacity-building training programmes.
GENG SHUANG (China), noting that over 30 million people in Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, stressed the importance of carrying out early recovery projects in water resources, education, health care and shelter, while helping the country to fight against COVID-19. Acknowledging steps taken by the Government, such as to promote vaccines and boost agriculture, he called for lifting unilateral sanctions which hinder its economic development. He went on to call on the parties to strengthen monitoring of the cross-border mechanism, while ensuring the cross-line mechanism is the main channel of humanitarian assistance. Expressing support for humanitarian agencies’ cross-line operations and the Syrian Government’s efforts to stabilize the security situation, especially in line with the ceasefire agreement reached in Dara’a, he reiterated the importance of counter-terrorism in Syria, as it is a prerequisite for restoring peace and order.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said that Syrians must continue to be supported through humanitarian aid. The cross-border mechanism is of critical importance, but it is not enough on its own. Other indispensable modalities are necessary to complement the mechanism, he said, welcoming the first cross-line operation to the north-west at the end of August. Beyond humanitarian aid, further practical steps must be taken to assist Syrians in need, and all unilateral coercive measures imposed on the country — which are incompatible with international law — must be lifted. Reconstruction is a costly undertaking that requires support from the international community and a necessary condition for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their places of origin.
AOUGUI NIANDOU (Niger) said that the humanitarian situation in Syria is far from improving. He deplored persistent violence and sporadic clashes in the north-west and hoped that the ceasefire agreement in Dara’a Al-Balad will improve the provision of basic services. He also encouraged the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Government to step up their partnership to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. He welcomed the first cross-line humanitarian operation on 30 and 31 August and hoped to see similar cooperation going forward. He went on to call on the warring parties to keep working with the United Nations and its partners to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid across conflict lines and for the lifting of unilateral sanctions which are weighing heavily on Syria’s ability to address the pandemic and its economic crisis.
ANDRE LIPAND (Estonia), condemning the shelling of urban areas in Idlib as well as the situation in Dara’a, said that civilians must always be protected. Attacks on civilian infrastructure must also stop. Besides the dire humanitarian situation, Estonia is worried about the growing number of COVID-19 infections, especially in north-west Syria, as well as the water crisis in the north-east. “We call upon all parties to ensure safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to all Syrian people in need,” he said. The first cross-line delivery of aid into north-west Syria is a step in the right direction, but it cannot replace cross-border efforts. More attention also needs to be given to the conflict’s impact on women, children and persons with disabilities. He went on to demand the release of arbitrarily detained people and political prisoners, as well as accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
HAI ANH PHAM (Viet Nam) remarked that apart from the severe economic meltdown and the food crisis, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing water crisis are exacerbating the hardship and vulnerability of the population. The current situation overridingly necessitates safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to provide assistance for all people in need, he said, stressing the importance of the unanimous adoption of resolution 2585 (2021) to continue cross-border humanitarian assistance delivery in the north-west. It is encouraging to see cross-line deliveries finally reach that region on 30 and 31 August after months of negotiations, he stated, expressing support for the Secretary-General’s appeal for waiving sanctions that hinder humanitarian response to the pandemic.
MICHAEL KAPKIAI KIBOINO (Kenya) expressed grave concern about the deteriorating security situation in parts of Syria and persistent insecurity within the Al-Hol camp. He called on countries to repatriate their citizens to ease tensions within the camp; protect civilians, humanitarian workers and infrastructure; and for all parties to honour the ceasefire and to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for violations. Against the backdrop of a water crisis at a time when 60 per cent of the population is food insecure, it is crucial to ensure access to humanitarian assistance. Commending ongoing aid deliveries and the Government of Syria’s related efforts, he encouraged the consideration of an intersectoral delivery to ensure medical supplies are included in future shipments. He called for lifting unilateral coercive measures, which have contributed significantly to the economic situation and Syria’s ability to provide for vulnerable populations, especially when humanitarian operations are affected. The multilateral system, and in particular the Council, should continue to speak with one voice, as it did two months ago with the adoption of resolution 2585 (2021), to facilitate consensus and collaborative approaches towards peace and reconciliation through a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process.
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS (United States) said that, after more than 10 years of conflict, the situation in Syria is getting even worse. Basic service delivery is limited, and COVID-19 is rampant. Calling on international actors to do everything in their power to support the delivery of humanitarian aid to all those in need, he condemned the Assad regime’s ruthless assault on Dara’a as well as reports that it is using the threat of forced displacement as a bargaining tactic. All parties must respect the ceasefire, he stressed, while welcoming the resumption of aid deliveries and calling on all sides to comply with their obligation to protect civilians and medical facilities. Welcoming the first cross-line convoy delivery, which will help meet the vast needs in the north-west, he voiced his delegation’s support for any and all modalities that bring aid to Syrians in need. However, cross-line aid is not a replacement for cross-border deliveries — which must stop being politicized — and a single cross-border point is not sufficient to address Syria’s suffering. In that vein, he also called for the urgent reauthorization of the Bab al-Salaam and Al Yarubiyah crossings.
DMITRY S. CHUMAKOV (Russian Federation) welcomed the first WFP cross-line humanitarian delivery, but added that the food has yet to be distributed, as it remains in a warehouse supervised by unidentified partners. He wondered whether the food might be stolen or sold to those in need. He reiterated the need for a reliable cross-line mechanism in the north-west, but added that Western members of the Council seem to be in no hurry to put pressure on terrorist groups in Idlib operating under their auspices. Turning to the normalization of the situation in Dara’a, he said it is the product of efforts made by the Government of Syria and mediation by the Russian military. Civilians are returning to their homes and there is no need to expand on this topic, as Syria has more pressing problems.
He disputed claims that targeted sanctions have no impact on ordinary citizens, quoting a report by the United States Agency for International Development, published in August, which said that United States sanctions contributed to devalue the Syrian pound, limit trade and help to raise food prices. He concluded by calling on the United Nations and Council members to work towards establishing cross-line deliveries and to help normalize the humanitarian situation in Syria in ways that strengthen the country’s territorial integrity.
Mr. GRIFFITHS, taking the floor a second time, said his overriding position is that the international community is not meeting its obligations. He called on all Council members to come together to better fulfil those obligations. Responding to the Russian Federation’s delegate, he said that the WFP is responsible for distributing the food aid. To be clear, however, the Syrian people are in a situation in which basic services are fraying before their eyes, with no end to the conflict in sight.
BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) said that the Under-Secretary-General’s recent visit to Syria will hopefully improve relations between Damascus and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Syrian authorities took all measures necessary to ensure the safe passage of the cross-line convoy, he said, adding that the Syrian soldier killed during that operation was the victim of a landmine planted by Turkey’s terrorist proxies. Citing figures in the Secretary-General’s latest report, he said that aid has been delivered to millions of Syrians in all of the country’s 14 governorates. That would not have been possible without the Government’s support and cooperation. Syria remains committed to delivering aid from within Syria, even if some hostile Western countries continue to obscure the achievements which have been made and to promote the so-called cross-border mechanism.
The inhumane impact of coercive measures imposed by Western countries must be urgently addressed, he said, emphasizing the effect of COVID-19 on Syria’s over-stretched health system. Coercive measures are preventing Syria from getting the supplies it needs. Citing an example, he said that the United Kingdom, which claims to be committed to humanitarian action, is preventing specialized laboratories from getting the supplies they need to carry out testing. He went on to say that improving the humanitarian situation requires full respect for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria; ending the illegal presence of Turkish and United States occupation forces; the immediate lifting of the immoral blockade imposed by the European Union and the United States; honouring pledges to fund the Humanitarian Response Plan; supporting early recovery projects; and allowing the United Nations to agree a strategic framework with the Government on sustainable development.
FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) pointed out that his Government continues to facilitate the United Nations response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. As the host of the largest Syrian refugee population amid the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the north-west, which has overwhelmed health facilities and escalated violence, causing increased civilian casualties and displacement, he stressed that “the United Nations cross-border mechanism remains the only tool to keep 4 million people alive and instil hope for the future.” Turkey aims to increase delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks, following the largest shipment of 350,000 doses at the beginning of this month.
Applauding resolution 2585 (2021), adopted in July, which extended the cross-border aid for another year and the first cross-line operation by the WFP in the north-west, he raised concern about the safety of such operations and called for further cross-line deliveries in the north-east, including in Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, where needs are severe but no aid has yet been delivered. Equal attention must be paid to the most vulnerable in north-west, north-east and south-west in Dara’a. He went on to cite the latest report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which documents torture and sexual violence in detention, custodial deaths and enforced disappearances, and called for expediting efforts to ensure accountability.
ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran) expressed regret that people in Syria are suffering now more than ever before. Underlining the international community’s responsibility to assist, she welcomed positive discussions between the Special Envoy and actors on the ground, as well as the first successful delivery of cross-line aid and the transfer of assistance to Dara’a with help from the Syrian Government. Spotlighting the urgent need for early recovery assistance and to adhere to the provisions of resolution 2585 (2021), she expressed concern that funds keep shrinking, even as needs keep growing. Unilateral sanctions which exacerbate humanitarian challenges must be fully and immediately removed, the looting of Syrian oil and wealth must stop, water must not be weaponized, and efforts are needed to make sure Syrians no longer need to rely on humanitarian assistance. She also called for efforts to respect and fully ensure Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence.