Middle East (Syria - Political and Humanitarian Briefing) - Security Council VTC

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28-Apr-2021 02:40:49
With violence flaring across Syria, chief United Nations mediator calls for ‘new means’ of international discussion, as Security Council explores options.

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Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns that Halting Cross-Border Deliveries in North-West Will Sever ‘Lifeline to Millions’

A flare up of violence in Syria could trigger a rapid deterioration of the situation amid efforts to overcome a stalemate in constitutional talks ahead of general elections in May, the senior United Nations mediator warned the Security Council today during a videoconference meeting.

Geir O. Pedersen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, sounded a warning to all parties to prioritize the search for a settlement to the decade-long conflict. Providing an overview of the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2021/390), he raised concerns about a significant escalation in the north-west. From a recent air strike on Syria by Israel to fresh attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Daesh), a steady rise in hostilities, kidnappings and troop movements bring the spectre of imminent escalation.

He said a nationwide ceasefire outlined in resolution 2254 (2015) is essential, as is a cooperative approach to eradicating listed terrorist groups. Recent developments include a meeting in Geneva of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, where members voiced fears over Syria’s permanent division, alongside hope for a renewal of the political process. Persistent challenges include the destitution facing the Syrian people after a decade of conflict, corruption and mismanagement, war economies, Lebanon’s financial collapse, the pandemic, sanctions and fuel shortages. He appealed for continued donor support to the response plan and shared calls by the United Nations Civil Society Support Room for humanitarian and livelihoods programmes, and the application of all humanitarian exceptions to sanctions regimes.

Stressing the importance of unblocking progress on detainees, abductees and missing persons, he said that as long as this file remains largely frozen, many Syrians will be unable to even begin to think about moving on, and the country’s social fabric cannot be restored. He called on the Government — and all other Syrian parties — to carry out unilateral releases of detainees and abductees and undertake meaningful actions on missing persons.

“If this highly internationalized conflict is to move towards resolution, we need a more constructive and comprehensive international diplomacy on Syria to try to unlock progress step for step,” he insisted. A new means of international discussion or a new format could bring stakeholders with something to add to the table. Exploratory consultations could help test the possibilities and bridge the mistrust hindering progress. “We must begin to lay the groundwork for such an effort,” he said.

Stressing that the United Nations is not involved in the 26 May presidential election, he said it was called under the auspices of the current Constitution and is not part of the political process established by resolution 2254 (2015), which mandates the Organization to facilitate a political process that culminates in the holding of free and fair elections, in accordance with a new constitution and the highest international standards of transparency and accountability.

He then drew attention to the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned Constitutional Committee, established by an agreement between the Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and facilitated by the United Nations. Appealing to the Co-Chairs and members to respect the Terms of Reference and adhere to the Code of Conduct in public statements, he said a newly discussed proposal, if implemented, would help the Committee to gradually advance its work. “We cannot get there all in one go, but there are steps that could be taken to generate some movement, and it requires constructive international diplomacy to identify and implement them,” he said. “I am open to any suggestions or advice, but I see no other path than this to help the Syrian people to navigate out of their terrible crisis and towards a better future that meets their legitimate aspirations and restores Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity.”

Turning to the pandemic, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said COVID-19 testing across Syria is so limited that it only shows “the very tip of the iceberg”, but all signs point to the virus accelerating rapidly. The number of new cases recorded by the Ministry of Health in March was double the figure for February, and hospitals in Damascus are full. While the United Nations is providing personal protection equipment and training for medical workers and supporting the rollout of vaccination campaigns, he noted that doses supplied through the COVID‑19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility will cover 20 percent of the population. Although not nearly enough, it is a vital first step in protecting medical workers and those most vulnerable.

On the economic crisis, he cited volatility in the exchange rate in April, though it strengthened to around 3,400 Syrian pounds to the United States dollar on the informal market, from its lowest point of 4,700 to the dollar in March. Food prices overall remain at historic levels, with subsidized bread prices doubled this month in Al Hassakeh. More than half of Syrian households are reporting insufficient or insufficiently nutritious food. “That’s an increase of over 70 per cent compared to last year,” he said, while fuel shortages forced the cancellation of several humanitarian field missions.

Addressing violence across the country, he condemned the killing of two more aid workers — volunteers for national non-Governmental organization Al Bir and Al Ehsan Ras Al Ain, who died in a 17 April attack near Deir ez-Zor. “Humanitarian workers in Syria deliver life-saving aid under the most challenging circumstances and at great personal risk,” he stressed. “They must be protected.” The organization is also monitoring tensions in and around Qamishli and Al Hassakeh cities, where clashes killed three civilians and displaced 15,000 people. Along with insecurity at al Hol camp, “we are seeing a collective failure to protect women and children”, he said, with tens of thousands of children growing up in desperate conditions there and elsewhere. He urged relevant Member States to rapidly and safely allow for the voluntary repatriation of their nationals in line with international law and standards.

He went on to stress that the Alouk water station has again been interrupted for the past two weeks, impacting nearly half a million people in Al Hassakeh. Across the north-west, millions of people live along the border in an active war zone, dependent on aid delivered from Turkey. As the operation reaches 2.4 million people every month, “a failure to extend the cross-border authorization would sever this lifeline,” he assured. In the north-east, 25 trucks containing food rations have been stuck outside Qamishli since 23 April due to violence. And while the United Nations has scaled up cross-line deliveries, “needs continue to outstrip our ability to respond”, particularly since the removal of Al Yarubiyah as an authorized border crossing in January 2020. Conditions at Rukban refugee camp meanwhile remain dire, with no cross-line assistance delivered to its 12,000 people since September 2019.

Although the United States and European Union have assured that their sanctions do not ban the flow of humanitarian supplies to Syria, he pointed out that more than half of the international Damascus-based non-governmental organizations have reported serious banking issues in 2021. And despite the $4.4 billion pledged at the fifth Brussels Conference in March, much more is needed in order for humanitarian organizations to meet the needs of 12.3 million Syrians this year.

In the ensuing debate, some delegates welcomed the forthcoming presidential election, while others objected to its planned conduct in May under the current Constitution, arguing that the decision defies the political process by preventing millions of Syrians displaced or living as refugees from voting or running as candidates. Speakers roundly welcomed the COVAX vaccine deliveries and called for all steps to be taken to advance a political solution to end the conflict.

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