9559th Meeting* (AM)

As Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis Worsens, Delegates in Security Council Stress Need for Damascus to Re-engage with Constitutional Committee

The Syrian humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, with mounting violence and the threat of regional spillover afflicting a desperately vulnerable population, briefers warned the Security Council today, as members stressed the need for Damascus to re-engage with the Constitutional Committee towards a resolution. 

Geir Pedersen, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, expressed deep concern about the situation on the ground in the country and the devastating impact it is having on civilians.  February has witnessed further spillover effects from regional conflict, with multiple air strikes attributed to Israel reportedly resulting in both civilian and military casualties, including advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  He noted that Israel confirmed it carried out strikes in response to ongoing rocket attacks from southern Syria towards the Occupied Syrian Golan, while the United States carried out retaliatory strikes for a drone attack on a post in Jordan that resulted in military casualties.  The United States claimed that Iranian-backed groups were behind this and other attacks on its bases — a claim Iran denies. 

Meanwhile, he noted, all other vectors of the Syrian conflict continue.  The entire north of the country, containing millions of civilians, has seen multiple front-line skirmishes in February, including pro-Government, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkish drone strikes.  Da’esh attacks continue to rise in the central and north-eastern regions, while southern Syria remains violent and unstable.  “Plainly, the tensions in the region need to be urgently de-escalated, starting with the immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza,” he stressed, also calling for urgent de-escalation inside Syria towards a nationwide ceasefire in line with Council resolution 2254 (2015).  While Syria’s humanitarian crisis has only deepened one year after the devastating earthquakes, he noted good news — the Syrian Government’s recent extension of authorization for the UN to use the Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salam and Al-Ra’ee border crossings.  However, the broader humanitarian trends are bleaker than ever. 

Meanwhile, he noted that he sees no concrete results in addressing the situation of an estimated 100,000 arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and missing persons — recalling his meeting with families who continue to live both in agony and hope of seeing their detained loved ones released or at least knowing their whereabouts and fate.  Recalling that over 18 months ago he issued invitations for the ninth session of the Constitutional Committee to take place in Geneva, he noted that it did not take place because the Russian Federation no longer considers Switzerland a neutral venue, and the Syrian Government did not accept Geneva as a result.  Citing the various issues involved, he recalled his recent proposal of a further option:  the ninth session could be convened in the UN Office at Nairobi, while relaying a further suggestion from one Syrian party to the other on an alternative regional venue. 

With no consensus among the Syrian parties, he issued formal invitations for a ninth round in Geneva in late April, appealing to them to respond positively — and to all key international stakeholders to support the UN as a facilitator and refrain from interfering regarding a venue the Syrian parties themselves had formally agreed.  “An indefinite hiatus can only undermine the Constitutional Committee’s credibility and work,” he stressed — although that Committee cannot, alone, solve this conflict.  Towards fully implementing Council resolution 2254 (2015), he cited the insights and advice of a broad spectrum of Syrians, including the Women’s Advisory Board and Civil Society Support Room who convened in Geneva in February and met with each other as well.  “It was heartening to see a wide spectrum of Syrian women and men discuss common ground and practical ways forwards — despite significant differences among them,” he stated. 

He outlined elements for immediate action:  getting the Constitutional Committee back on track, traction on step-for-step confidence-building measures and immediate de-escalation.  Ultimately, however, a broader approach — with all the concerns of Syrian and international stakeholders on the table, involving compromise from all players — is how to ensure the protection of Syrian civilians and restore Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.  With international attention focused on multiple other crises, he noted that some parties may think the conflict is easier to just manage and too difficult to solve.  “Such thinking is mistaken,” he stressed — as regional spillover is the latest accelerant to a conflict that is worsening on almost all indicators, with the status quo being unsustainable and unmanageable.  “We have to prepare the ground and work for a broader approach to resolving this conflict, in line with resolution 2254 (2015),” he stated. 

Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said this month marks one year since the catastrophic earthquakes that struck Türkiye and Syria in February 2023.  The earthquakes — among the most severe in a century — wrought untold devastation, claimed thousands of lives and left millions of people in both countries injured, traumatized and homeless.  With the remarkable support of the international community, crucial emergency relief was provided, including first aid, food and protection assistance and shelter support.  But in Syria, where the conflict is about to hit the 13-year mark, “much more is still needed to address the long-term humanitarian impact of the earthquakes”.  This includes ensuring the full restoration of basic services, and the provision of adequate and appropriate shelters, particularly for displaced pregnant women and girls.  The humanitarian crisis in Syria — already one of the most severe crises in the world a year ago — has only deteriorated over the last 12 months. 

In 2024, Syria’s humanitarian outlook remains bleak, with a staggering 16.7 million people now requiring humanitarian assistance — nearly three quarters of the population and the highest number of people in need since the start of the crisis, he stressed.  Expanding hostilities in the north of Syria and recent attacks in Damascus, rural Damascus and Homs Governorates continue to cause civilian casualties, displacement and extensive damage to critical infrastructure.  In north-east Syria, recent strikes from mid-January have caused the partial or complete shutdown of hundreds of essential facilities, including water stations, health centres and schools.  More than 1 million people have reportedly been left without electricity.  The reduction in access to electricity, water and cooking fuel has exacerbated food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable members of society such as children and pregnant and lactating women. 

Likewise, across Syria, the ongoing hostilities, the decline in essential services, prolonged water shortages and a dire economic situation all increase people’s reliance on humanitarian aid, he observed.  “Yet access challenges are constraining humanitarian workers’ ability to safely deliver essential assistance and to directly engage with affected populations,” he said.  Calling on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, he underscored the need to spare civilian populations and infrastructure and facilitate the unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief.  He welcomed the decision by the Government of Syria earlier in February to renew its permission for the UN to use the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee crossings to deliver humanitarian assistance for an additional three months, until 13 May 2024.  This extension follows an earlier decision by Syria in January to extend its permission for the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to deliver assistance into north-west Syria for an additional six months, until 13 July 2024. 

He highlighted that the UN and its humanitarian partners moved more than 5,000 trucks carrying essential aid through these crossings in 2023.  In 2024, they have carried out more than 40 cross-border missions, providing essential assistance to 2.5 million people monthly and administering over 1 million medical procedures.  Cross-border aid will continue to be crucial for people in the north-west for the foreseeable future, he said, citing the expansion of crossline deliveries throughout Syria — including to the north-west — as “a humanitarian imperative”.  The humanitarian community remains committed to providing the assistance people need across Syria.  However, it cannot do so without the required funding.  The 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan received less than 40 per cent of the required funding — “the worst-funded response plan since the start of the conflict”.  “The international attention, generous mobilization of resources, and solidarity behind the February 2023 earthquake response unfortunately proved momentary,” he said.  “One year on, the people of Syria are facing a worse humanitarian situation than ever before,” and their suffering is intensifying, he cautioned, calling for “a renewed and genuine commitment to a political solution to end the conflict”. 

The representative of Switzerland called for the implementation of a nationwide ceasefire in accordance with Council resolution 2254 (2015).  Highlighting the recent meeting of the Civil Society Support Platform and the Women’s Consultative Council in Geneva, he noted that that his delegation is the humanitarian penholder for Syria, where 16.7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.  “A generation is growing up with no memory of a time without conflict,” he said.  Noting that a third of schools have been destroyed in the fighting, damaged by earthquakes or used as shelters for displaced people, he said early recovery projects are essential.  While the authorization for the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee crossing points has been extended beyond 13 February, humanitarian actors need greater predictability to plan their activities.  Allowing and facilitating the passage of humanitarian aid is an obligation under international humanitarian law, he underscored. 

The representative of the United States noted that in the wake of the devastating earthquakes of 2023, 4.2 million people depend on humanitarian assistance in the non-regime-controlled north-west of Syria — thereby welcoming the three-month extension of the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee crossings.  However, he clarified that reauthorizing the crossings in 90-day increments is not a sustainable approach to addressing the scale of need.  “There is no reason why the regime and all parties in Syria should not guarantee humanitarian access for as long as needs persist,” he stressed.  He further emphasized that, as a result of the conflict and the Assad regime’s failure to reform, illicit drug smuggling from the country is on the rise — making Syria the world’s largest exporter of Captagon.  Noting United States efforts to address the threat, he further called on the Syrian regime to implement a nationwide ceasefire rather than hiding behind the Russian Federation and refusing direct negotiations. 

The representative of the Russian Federation highlighted the implications of the unprecedented violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict zone for Syria and the entire region.  He voiced particular concern over the so-called retaliatory air strikes in the region by the United States as well as Israel’s ongoing air strikes on its Arab neighbours, including from the occupied Golan Heights and the Blue Line.  Over the past month alone, the Israeli Air Force has repeatedly attacked international airports in Damascus and Aleppo, which serve as the main entry of UN aid into Syria.  The United States targeted the Syrian Armed Forces’ facilities in the east of the country, where the Syrian military wages its persistent fight against the remaining Da’esh fighters to whom Washington, D.C. — contrary to its statements — is providing protection.  “No matter how Washington, D.C., might justify (its recent attacks on facilities in Iraq and Yemen),” they constitute a direct thread to international peace and security, he asserted.  He further stressed that Damascus has every right to receive comprehensive reports on the movement of humanitarian workers. 

The representative of Slovenia said the escalating violence across the region adds to the complexity of the crisis in Syria.  Accountability for gross human rights violations and justice for survivors are vital to a comprehensive and inclusive political solution, he said, expressing support for efforts to gather and preserve evidence for future legal action. Welcoming the extension of the use of the three border crossings, he stressed the importance of sustainable, predictable and efficient aid flows across the country and condemned human rights violations against returnees as unacceptable. 

The representative of Algeria, also speaking for Guyana, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, expressed deep concern that after more than 13 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, its people are still suffering — with millions forcibly displaced, rising violence and deteriorating humanitarian conditions.  He advocated for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, emphasizing the unity, independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria, including the Golan Heights.  Emphasizing the escalating violence, particularly in northern Syria, he called for a nationwide ceasefire and coordination among regional countries, especially given the recent rise in attacks by Da’esh.  Moreover, the risk of a regional spillover from the situation in Gaza threatens Syria’s stability.  

He warned that a year after the earthquake, the humanitarian situation remains dire, with an estimated 16.7 million people — 75 per cent of them women and children — requiring assistance.  Calling on the international community to address the funding shortfall of the response plan, he emphasized that respecting the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence is crucial for humanitarian action.  He further welcomed the Syrian Government’s decision to extend authorization for the UN and its specialized agencies to operate through the Bab Al-Hawa, Bab Al-Salam, and Al-Ra’ee border crossings, providing more predictability for their operations.  Urging the international community to support Syrian and UN efforts to rehabilitate infrastructure and restore basic services — facilitating the voluntary, dignified, and safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons — he stressed:  “While the world focuses on the situation in Gaza, let us not forget Syria.” 

The representative of France said that, for 14 years, “the Damascus regime has remained deaf to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”.  Without tangible progress on the political front, France will not finance reconstruction or lift the sanctions.  However, these sanctions are reversible, he said, adding:  “It is up to Bashar al-Assad.”  There will be no peace in Syria until the deep roots of the conflict are addressed, he said, urging regional actors to demonstrate restraint and the international community to remain mobilized to meet the needs of more than 15 million Syrians who depend on humanitarian assistance. 

The representative of the Republic of Korea, noting the danger of spillover from the Gaza situation, called on all parties to exercise maximum restraint.  The international community’s counter-terrorism approach must avert any possibility of re-emergence of Da’esh in Syria, he said, also underscoring that all humanitarian access points must remain open.  The only sustainable solution is a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process, under the auspices of the United Nations, with the meaningful participation of women.  Welcoming the step-by-step confidence-building measures initiated by the Special Envoy, he said all parties must answer his call to return to the political process. 

The representative of Ecuador expressed alarm over the worsening humanitarian and economic situations of Syrians, citing the collapse of basic services, mounting cases of cholera, and deepening food insecurity.  He urged the Government to heed the demands of the families of missing and arbitrarily detained persons and provide reliable information on their whereabouts.  Recognizing the Government’s decision to keep the Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salem and Al-Ra’ee crossings open to bring in humanitarian aid, he emphasized the urgency of finding a political solution to the crisis. 

The representative of Japan said that “Syria remains the largest displacement crisis in the world”.  The necessary conditions for safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees still do not exist, while cities destroyed by the war remain in ruins.  The number of Syrians needing assistance in 2024 is predicted to reach a record 16.7 million, he said, welcoming Damascus’ decision to extend its authorization for the use of Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee crossings.  Humanitarian assistance through all modalities remains “a lifeline” for over 4 million people in the country’s north-west.  Citing the lack of political progress, he underscored that Syria deserves more attention from the international community.  

The representative of Malta noted that regional tensions, the large numbers of civilian deaths and the multitude of State and non-State actors are leading Syria into “chronic destabilization”.  Humanitarian operations must be free from political considerations and all crossings must remain open, she stressed.  Underscoring the need for funding for early recovery and resilience projects, she stressed that there is no military solution to this situation.  Damascus must engage constructively with the Special Envoy, she said, calling on Syrian parties to return to the negotiating table. 

The representative of the United Kingdom urged the Syrian regime to stop its destabilizing activity, including generating vast profits from producing and selling Captagon with the support of Iranian-affiliated groups.  Emphasizing that 72 per cent of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, with more than 1 million people in the north-east cut off from electricity, she called for sustained, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to people in need across the country — noting that the United Kingdom in 2023 dedicated 40 per cent of its aid budget to early recovery projects.  Welcoming the Special Envoy’s efforts to organize a meeting of the Constitutional Committee, she called on the Assad regime to engage in the process. 

The representative of China, underscoring the need to contain the spillover effect of the escalation of the Gaza conflict on Syria, voiced deep concern over Israel’s continued launch of air strikes on various locations in Syria over the past four months.  He urged support for the Syrian Government in taking necessary measures to combat terrorism and eliminate the long-term threats to the political process.  As well, the international community should increase its input in humanitarian assistance to Syria.  Unilateral sanctions and the plundering of resources have long impeded Syria’s economic recovery, exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in the country, he observed, urging countries to immediately end their unlawful acts and foreign forces to end their illegal military presence there. 

The representative of Syria said his Government will continue its cooperation with the Special Envoy and stressed that the political process must continue without any foreign interference.  Highlighting the negative impact of the unilateral measures imposed by the United States, he said the Astana process emphasizes Syrian independence and territorial integrity.  Highlighting his country’s efforts to counter terrorism and create conditions conducive to the return of refugees, he said it is crucial to prevent the illicit transfer of Syrian oil.  Türkiye must fulfil its commitments under the Astana process and withdraw its troops, he added.  In order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid in north-west Syria, which remains under the control of terrorist groups, his Government has extended the authorization of three border crossings.  The United Nations must ensure that aid reaches civilians in need and not terrorists, he said, condemning the United States military presence in his country, its looting of Syrian economic resources and its support to terrorist groups in the region. 

The representative of Iran condemned the Israeli regime’s ongoing aggressions against Syria in flagrant violation of international law.  He stressed that all foreign forces present in Syria illegally must be forced to leave without any preconditions or delays and terrorist groups must not be allowed to continue using millions of civilians as human shields to carry out their heinous activities.  Recalling that 15.3 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance in 2024, he warned that the continuing impact of illegal unilateral sanctions as well as the politicization of humanitarian aid places a disproportionate burden on the Syrian people, including women and children.  Welcoming the Syrian Government’s decision to renew the permission granted to the United Nations to use the Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salam and Al-Ra’ee crossings for another six and three months, respectively, he emphasized that a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, facilitated by the United Nations, is the only viable approach to ending the crisis. 

The representative of Türkiye said “it is high time for all relevant actors to do a realistic fact check of the situation”.  The Syrian conflict is not over.  On the contrary, it is in dire need of a political solution, in line with the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.  The plethora of challenges facing Syria are interconnected, growing exponentially as the conflict lingers.  The developments in Gaza and the wider region run the risk of dragging Syria into a dangerous course, she cautioned, stressing the need to keep the situation there under control.  Syria’s territorial integrity is under an unprecedented threat due to the separatist agenda of terrorist organizations, she observed, noting that the presence of the PKK [Kurdish Workers’ Party] and YPG [People’s Protection Units] in Syria constitutes a vital threat to Türkiye’s security. 

The representative of the United States, responding to Syria’s delegate’s statement about how his country’s resources are being looted by the United States, said that is nonsense.  This tactic comes from “the Russian playbook”, he said, adding that his country’s forces are in the region to fight Da’esh.  But if its forces are attacked, the United States Government will take steps as needed, he said. 

* The 9558th Meeting was closed.

For information media. Not an official record.