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28 February 2018, Security Council Briefing on the Situation in Syria, Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman

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Mr. President, members of the Security Council, Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Security Council after the comprehensive report from the ERC, Mark Lowcock. In two weeks, we will mark the beginning of the eighth year of the Syrian conflict. There are no words to express our frustration over the collective failure of the international community to end this war. But that frustration is nothing compared to the suffering and destruction visited ceaselessly upon the Syrian people. We are here again today because the brief respite you unanimously demanded only days ago in resolution 2401 has not materialized. The airstrikes, shelling, and ground offensives continue. There are even reports of yet another chlorine gas attack. What we need is implementation of 2401, and that is not happening.

Nearly seven years since the peaceful protests in Deraa and the reaction that set in motion what would eventually become all-out war, we are still grasping for a political solution, which is the only way to end the bloodletting. The Secretary-General has called Eastern Ghouta a “hell on earth”. The UN will continue to work with Syrians and the international community to help bring about a durable political solution. We will also continue to demand that all the parties involved in the conflict respect international humanitarian law – the rules of war – and protect civilians. We will continue to demand the release of those who have been arbitrarily detained and the end of enforced disappearances. And we will continue to call forcefully for justice and accountability. Those responsible for the catalogue of horrors that mark daily life in Syria –chemical and terrorist attacks; torture and sexual violence; sieges; and attacks on hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure – must be held accountable. These outrages continue in large part because the perpetrators have so far enjoyed impunity.

Mr. President,

As the Secretary-General said earlier this week, “Security Council resolutions are only meaningful if they are effectively implemented.” The UN acknowledges Russia’s announcement of a daily five-hour pause for Eastern Ghouta. And in addition to Mark Lowcock said quoting the ICRC, we respectfully remind all parties that resolution 2401 demands “sustained delivery of humanitarian aid” for a minimum of 30 consecutive days. The UN Secretariat and agencies are united, pulling in one direction, towards immediate and continuous cessation of hostilities that can be sustained beyond 30 days for unimpeded aid delivery.

We also urgently need to get humanitarian aid and services in and the sick and critically wounded evacuated from besieged Eastern Ghouta and other locations. We are ready to deliver.

The Secretary-General has repeatedly reminded parties of their absolute obligation under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. Earlier this month, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told this Council in no uncertain terms that this is an obligation, not a favor. The ERC has updated you on the humanitarian situation and, provided an update on the UN’s readiness to deliver aid and services, and the tireless efforts of humanitarians to reach all in need, wherever they are. But right now, we must address the particular need of those in besieged Eastern Ghouta.

Mr. President, members of the Security Council,

Resolution 2401 affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against ISIL, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra Front “and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council.” This rightly maintains the parameters set out in resolution 2254.

But there must be a frank assessment of what this means in relation to the humanitarian tragedy we are witnessing in Eastern Ghouta.

First, we condemn all violations of international law by all parties, including shelling from Eastern Ghouta that has injured or killed civilians in Damascus. The scale of the government’s indiscriminate military attacks against Eastern Ghouta, an area with a civilian population of 400,000, cannot be justified on the basis of targeting Jabhat al Nusra fighters. Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.

Second, the UN has not seen any confirmation by the Government of Syria of its commitment to implement resolution 2401, though at the resolution’s adoption Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN said, “We bear the responsibility as a state for our citizens, and we have a right to counter terrorism.”

Third, yesterday the head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission transmitted to the Secretary-General a letter on behalf of the three major non-state armed opposition groups—Jaish al Islam, Failaq al Rahman, and Ahrar al Sham—and civil groups in Eastern Ghouta regarding their full commitment to the implementation of resolution 2401. Specifically, they committed to ensuring the necessary environment for UN humanitarian access as well as “to expel all elements of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, Jabhat al Nusra, and Al Qaida and all who belong to these groups from Eastern Ghouta.”

Fourth, the UN has no independent verified reports that these three non-state armed opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta created a coordination center, as has been alleged, with Jabhat al Nusra. Nor has the UN seen any public announcement by these groups of such a center. Jaish al Islam has denied this claim. What the UN can verify is that non-state armed opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta, over the past 24 hours, have expressed their readiness in writing to evacuate Jabhat al Nusra fighters. Previous negotiations between these groups and key members of the ISSG humanitarian task force on this issue in Geneva and in Damascus have not resulted in success.

Mr. President,

Alleviating the tragic situation in Eastern Ghouta has this Council’s full attention. Yet, we cannot forget that resolution 2401 demands a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria. Violence continues in Afrin, Idlib, and in the east. You have heard about the humanitarian challenges and suffering of the people in these areas as well. I would just like to take this opportunity to emphasize that developments in these areas will undoubtedly render the situation in Syria even more complex. There will be no sustainable solution if the Council’s resolutions are not implemented. This will require that the parties step back from the brink and fulfill their obligations to end the fighting in Syria. And all our efforts will be in vain if there is no serious investment in a political solution.

Mr. President and members of the Security Council,

As you know, resolution 2401 calls upon all Member States to use their influence with the parties to ensure implementation of the cessation of hostilities. The UN calls for a renewed commitment by all concerned Member States to seriously work to implement this cessation of hostilities. The UN also cautions against drawing the UN into monitoring exercises. This has been tried in the past without success – not for lack of trying, but in the absence of political will among Member States to underpin UN efforts. Member States, especially those working within the Astana and Amman arrangements, should use their resources and clear influence over the parties to ensure implementation of a sustained cessation of hostilities throughout Syria.

Mr. President, members of the Security Council,

The conflict in Syria continues to threaten regional and international stability because the warring parties believe there is a military solution. There is not.

The UN remains convinced that a political solution is the only way forward. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is pressing forward on facilitating the establishment of a constitutional committee in Geneva, as part of the overall Intra-Syrian political process towards full implementation of resolution 2254, for which the UN requires the positive and constructive engagement of both negotiating delegations. Special Envoy de Mistura will need the full support of the Council and the international community as a whole if the UN’s efforts are to have a chance of reinvigorating a serious and meaningful political process. I trust that he will have that support.

Thank you.