Statement by Ambassador Vassily A. Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, at the Security Council meeting on the implementaion of the UNSC resolutiom 2401 on the humanitarian situation in Syria
We would like to thank the Secretary-General for his briefing and his detailed information on what we asked for. We particularly appreciated his words when he said that there should be only one agenda for all of us — ending this crisis. Russia supported the Security Council’s adoption of resolution 2401 (2018), guided by the priority of improving the humanitarian situation in various parts of Syria.
We not only believe that its effective implementation is extremely important, we have also proposed concrete ways of achieving that, something that was discussed in today’s briefing. And that is unlike various capitals whose representatives have settled comfortably for doing nothing while vilifying the Syrian regime, as they call it, and making endless accusations about Russia.
In out last meeting on the subject (see S/PV.8188), I promised to count the number of times that Ambassador Haley mentioned Russia in the next meeting. The answer is 22. France came second, with 16 mentions, and the United Kingdom was third, with 12. This matters not just for the record but for the context in which it occurs. What is going on is a political policy, and it does not have to do merely — indeed, not much at all — with concern for Syrians’ humanitarian needs. It is important that everyone understands that resolution 2401 (2018) is not about an immediate ceasefire, which is a utopian notion, but a preliminary agreement between the parties as a condition for achieving sustainable de-escalation in all the contested areas of Syria, not just eastern Ghouta. That is the only realistic way. The resolution contains an unequivocal demand in that regard, and we are trying to make that happen.
The Council has heard about that today and will hear more. The authorities in Damascus have expressed their satisfaction with the resolution and their willingness to implement its provisions. However, they have also rightly demanded an immediate cessation of attacks on the capital and of all infringements on Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The counterterrorist operation that the Syrian armed forces are conducting does not contradict resolution 2401 (2018). The Government of Syria has every right to work to end threats to its citizens’ security.
The Damascus suburbs cannot continue to be a breeding ground for terrorists. It is the terrorists’ persistent attempts to disrupt the ceasefire that serve to maintain the tensions in Syria, and of course the most problematic area is in eastern Ghouta. The July 2017 Cairo agreements on the eastern Ghouta de-escalation zone gave the militants a chance to be included in the political settlement. They did not take advantage of it and have still not dissociated themselves from the terrorists. Even now the groups’ activities are coordinated from the joint headquarters run by Jabhat Al-Nusra. We have reliable information that they are in active radio contact, discussing plans for shelling the humanitarian corridors, among other things.
Why are they only now talking about being willing to drive Al-Nusra’s members out of eastern Ghouta? And why are we the only ones asking that question? We have answered it a number of times ourselves when we have spoken about suspicions that Al-Nusra is being preserved for particular political purposes, in this case to maintain a dangerous hotbed of armed resistance in the immediate vicinity of Syria’s capital. Even now they continue to lull us with fairy stories about how few terrorists there are in eastern Ghouta. And who is going to monitor the armed groups’ implementation of the resolution? Who will be responsible for that? Just please do not keep saying the so-called regime, and Russia, and Iran. Such ideological attitudes are simply not serious in the context of the professional discussions that we conduct in the Security Council. What responsibility will the members of the Council take for the implementation of the resolution? How will they implement it? How will they influence the militias they support?
Following the adoption of resolution 2401 (2018), with Russia’s participation, daily five-hour humanitarian pauses were established and the Muhayam-Al-Wafedin checkpoint was opened for use by both civilians and militants with families. They were guaranteed security, transportation and protection along the entire route. The Syrian authorities then opened another checkpoint, Jisreen-Mleha, in the southern area of eastern Ghouta. Medical posts have been set up, distribution points organized for hot meals, buses are standing by. However, the insurgents continued to subject the central areas of Damascus and its outskirts to massive shelling.
Dozens of mines have been laid for days, resulting in deaths and injuries as well as major damage. Since the day the resolution was adopted more than 100 people have died, and many more been injured, as a result of the shelling in the capital. The Tishrin and Al-Biruni hospitals and a medical centre in Al-Rihan have been hit more than once. These are real hospitals, not the militants’ field offices that are frequently disguised as hospitals. They are making active use of snipers. We know this for a fact. It is a tragedy when any civilians die during an armed conflict. But my delegation has always been interested in the origin of the statistical information being used in the United Nations. In a highly politicized situation this subject is extremely important. Frequent assessments are pronounced about civilian losses in eastern Ghouta.
We hope that future reports will be required to indicate where their data is from, how reliable it is and who exactly is meant by “reliable sources on the ground”. Every day that has passed, the extremists have forbidden civilians to leave the areas they have blocked and have severely suppressed attempts to resist arbitrary action, including through exemplary executions. We have reliable information about that too. Strikes on corridors and exit checkpoints are constant, including during the humanitarian pauses. On 9 March a convoy of refugees was shelled, once again disrupting an evacuation. Tunnels are being used for attacks on the Syrian army, and the exits from underground installations are located in neighbourhoods where there are public institutions, mainly mosques, hospitals and markets. They have inflated food prices and at the same time have been taking away the people’s food, water, medicines and mobile phones. They are setting up firing positions in residential buildings and using people as human shields. They are laying mines in neighbourhoods that are adjacent to the line of contact. They are conducting searches and confiscating permit papers distributed by Government forces. The residents are trying to resist this repression, organizing spontaneous rallies and clashing with the militias.
On 1 March, in north-eastern Douma, Al-Nusra terrorists shot four people who participated in such a demonstration. Today there was a major protest in Kafr Batna. The first major exodus of civilians took place on the night of 11 March, when 52 people, 26 of them children, left the village of Misraba with the assistance of the Russian Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides and the Syrian army. There are also militants who want to leave eastern Ghouta, but their field commanders threaten potential defectors with reprisals. For the first time, on 9 March, after long and tense negotiations, with the participation of officers from the Russian Centre for Reconciliation, 13 militants were evacuated from the enclave through the humanitarian corridor at their own request. Talks have been held with Jaysh Al-Islam on reaching an agreement on the withdrawal of a second group of fighters. A meeting was also held with the leaders of Faylaq Al-Rahman, at which it was demanded that they dissociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra immediately.
However, according to information received, the militants of the group decided to continue their armed resistance, forcibly recruiting ordinary citizens into their ranks. To turn to the subject of the humanitarian convoy entering Douma on 5 March, the convoy received comprehensive support from the Syrian Government and the Russian military. A humanitarian corridor was established, security ensured for its passage and the situation was monitored. However, there was a great deal of evidence of disorganized activity on the part of the humanitarian actors.
According to our information, United Nations staff needlessly delayed the convoy operations, creating real security risks. While the convoy was being put together, they attempted to load it with undeclared medical supplies — and the fact that not all of them were declared was mentioned today — and wasted around two hours in a meeting with the leaders of the so-called local councils. They spread unreliable information about aerial strikes in the trucks’ unloading area, and today some delegations seized on that joyfully, although what actually occurred was one instance of mortar fire from the armed groups’ positions. They did not respond to local residents’ request to help them leave the enclave.
Nonetheless, 13 people, five of them children, were evacuated. Afterwards, it was curious to read a report that one of Ahrar Al-Sham’s field commanders had, in a tone of irony, expressed his appreciation for the humanitarian pause on 5 March, which enabled the militias to regroup, recover their strength and a number of lost positions and prepare ambushes for the Syrian military. A 9 March action was successfully carried out with the Russian military providing a truck convoy with safe conduct. However, the scope of resolution 2401 (2018) is not limited to eastern Ghouta.
We should note that in the past two weeks, the terrorists of Al-Nusra and associated militia groups have repeatedly shelled villages in Hamah province. As a result of new strikes there are been deaths and injuries in blockaded Fo’ah and Kafraya in Idlib. Armed clashes between illegal groups in that province have led to threats of a number of medical facilities being closed. Al-Nusra has become more active in the southern de-escalation zone, which could be related to the fact that they continue to be supplied with weapons from outside. The situation in Afrin remains very difficult. The Syrian authorities have given permission for humanitarian aid to be delivered to the residents of Rukban camp, in the area illegally held by the Americans around the Al-Tanf military base. We would like to know what the United Nations is doing about that.
Needless to say, we assume that the distribution of humanitarian assistance will be undertaken by a trustworthy entity such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. We are also awaiting the speedy dispatch of a United Nations humanitarian needs assessment mission to Raqqa, which was bombed out by the coalition. There should be no pointless delays with this, so I would like to ask the United Nations when that mission will take place. We understand very well the unspoken motives for the current disinformation campaign, whose aim is to create a public perception that the Syrian authorities use toxic substances.
In fact, both we and the Syrians have well-founded fears that provocations are being planned with the aim of accusing the Syrian authorities of carrying out chemical attacks. According to information received, Al-Nusra used a chlorine-based substance in eastern Ghouta on 5 March, affecting more than 30 local residents. This is all being done in order to prepare the ground for unilateral acts of force against sovereign Syria. We heard hints of that in the statements made by some delegations today. Essentially, steps are being considered that could deliver yet another heavy blow to regional stability.
Meanwhile, on territory formerly controlled by illegal armed groups, there have been more new discoveries of stores of chemicals, but the relevant bodies of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been very slow to react to the appeals of the Syrian authorities. Russia will continue its efforts to implement resolution 2401 (2018), but we demand that some of our colleagues do their part and exert genuine pressure on the groups that they support or sponsor, instead of constantly calling on Russia and creating the false impression that the resolution applies only to us.
In conclusion, I would like to say that this afternoon four Security Council will be holding an unofficial Arria Formula meeting with the declared intention of making opposition voices heard on the humanitarian issue in Syria. This is going to be widely covered in the media. First and foremost, we want to point out the fact that is unacceptable to use United Nations resources for politicized purposes, and that is certainly not what Arria Formula meetings were conceived for. This event conceals the desire of its organizers to exert informational pressure on the Syrian Government and those who are helping it fight terrorism. In our view, to get the full picture, it would not be a bad idea to listen to the residents of Raqqa and Rukban camp, not to mention eastern Ghouta, where there are quite a few people who would be glad of the opportunity to appeal for their deliverance from the presence of extremists.