Statement by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at the VTC of UNSC members on the political and humanitarian situation in Syria
Before I turn to the agenda item we are discussing today, I would like to pay tribute to Ambassador Kelly Craft who, as we know, is having her last meeting of the Security Council in her current capacity. I would like to thank her for her cooperation, for her friendship despite differences that we had in the Council, including on the agenda item we are discussing today. Still, I believe that Ambassador Kelly Craft made a mark in the Council, made a difference as well, we sincerely wish her all the best and all the good luck in all her future endeavors and plead with her and urge her not to forget us, her friends in the Council. And now I will go to the Russian story on Syria as Ambassador Kelly Craft said in her statement.
We thank Geir Pedersen and Mark Lowcock for the information on the situation in Syria.
We welcome that despite the coronavirus and related restrictions, the Editorial Commission of the Constitutional Committee has scheduled its fifth session to convene on 25 January in Geneva. It proves that the governmental delegation is committed to stabilization and settlement in the country – despite all allegations, economic, political, and military pressure of Western states. We intend to support G.Pedersen’s mediator efforts, and together with our colleagues in the Astana Format encourage both delegations – of Damascus and of the opposition – to act in a constructive manner. We consistently stand for zero-interference in Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process as directly stated in resolution 2254. It is all the more unacceptable to premeditate results of this process or impose artificial time frames. By the way, resolution 2254 neither dwells on nor refers to the pending elections.
Despite stabilization in Syria, risks of escalation persist. We note the high level of tension on the territories that are out of governmental control – in Idlib, Euphrates region and Al-Tanf. Terrorists from “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham” keep shelling at populated areas and positions of Syrian troops, persecuting and executing civilians, and profiteering. In the Euphrates region, ISIL cells boost activity, clashes between Kurdish units and tribes, as well as various Kurdish forces become more frequent. We condemn strikes of Israeli aviation against the Syrian territory. They pose risks to stability of the entire region.
Western states introduced sanctions against Foreign Minister of Syria F.Mekdad, which is extremely disappointing. This step shows that the West is not willing to look for diplomatic solutions to the Syrian crisis, which they largely provoked themselves.
As for the humanitarian dimension of the Syrian file, let us turn to its key aspects that ask for urgent solutions.
Time is counting down until cross-border mechanism (CBM) of humanitarian deliveries to Syria expires. We repeatedly stated that its work raises many questions, as the mechanism lacks transparency and accountability. Besides, the share of UN humanitarian deliveries through CBM is far too small as compared to the total volume of humanitarian supplies coming from Turkey. Against this backdrop, it is disconcerting that dispatch of a crossline humanitarian convoy to Idlib has been stalled for almost a year by now. Mark Lowcock said the sides could not agree on this convoy. I would correct him by saying that Damascus fully implemented its obligations with respect to this mission by issuing the relevant permit as early as in April 2020. The path to the enclave is open. So what prevents the so-called “other sides” from cooperating? We keep asking this question again and again, because we do not grasp the point of the “Declaration of Commitment on Compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Humanitarian Assistance” that was signed by the armed groups (in fact – by terrorists, defined as such by the UN Security Council) under the auspices of OCHA. We never heard OCHA comment on this document. We hope to receive some comments after all.
We would like to address the new penholders of Syrian humanitarian file – the delegations of Ireland and Norway. Please do not follow suit to your predecessors who focused solely on the CBM. Soon enough we again will have to consider whether it needs to be extended. The flywheel of fervor and emotion will gain momentum exponentially, but the process will be predictably lopsided. The majority will keep silent about the lack of progress of Damascus-to-Idlib deliveries.
Our position is rather clear: established in 2014 as a provisional tool, the CBM becomes obsolete and keeps undermining sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. The Syrian Arab Republic is no longer the terrorism-torn country it used to be when the CBM was first created. Syria is restoring, and the government supports humanitarian deliveries from within the country. Suffice it to mention humanitarian assistance to the north-east via WHO: over 90 % was distributed on the territories uncontrolled by Damascus.
Sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria must be restored. We call upon our Irish and Norwegian colleagues, as well as the other UNSC members to act impartially and look into the situation through the lens of this factor. Criticism of our position on CBM sounds profane in a situation when deliveries from Damascus to Idlib stall due to far-fetched and inexplicable pretexts.
I cannot fail to mention illegal unilateral restrictive measures, in a word – sanctions. At the UNSC meeting in December 2020, we pointed out the anti-sanctions guidance note for the period of COVID-19 pandemic that UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights A.Douhan had issued on 10 December. In fact, this is a summary of all problems that humanitarians in Syria have to deal with. It is dialogue with humanitarians that underpins this guideline.
Let me cite some most vivid examples of difficulties that ordinary Syrians have to face. The fact that Syria’s central bank has dropped from the international payment systems and the possibility of potential “dual use” of humanitarian goods prevent the Government of Syria from purchasing PCR test systems, personal protective equipment, syringes, and, absurd as it may sound, even toothpaste. Restrictions on the use of online platforms that cannot be accessed from the Syrian territory add extra trouble. A lack of medical personnel hampers remote medical consultations, which means it hampers telemedicine that the present-day world is so proud of. Schoolchildren are deprived of an opportunity to study from home via Internet.
In the same context, we think we should pay special attention to the right of Syrians to access COVID-19 vaccine. Sanctions pressure that is exerted on Syria limits the opportunities of inhabitants of government-controlled territories to get protected against the pandemic. The reasons are the same – “black lists” of violators of sanction regimes will scare away potential contractors.
This vicious circle must be disrupted. It is inadmissible to stigmatize the government and blame it for idleness while cutting the country off the rest of the world, business contacts and financial transactions. Syria has a legitimate right to self-sufficient sustainable development, and in the current complicated circumstances, Damascus is doing its best to keep the economy afloat.
May I remind to our colleagues that the occupied north-east of Syria is rich not only in hydrocarbons, the returns of which do not pay into Syrian treasury. At the same time, Syria suffers immense environmental damage, which no one wants to be responsible for, whereas the United Nations merely keeps silent about it. Responsibility for that rests with the occupying power. Syria’s north-east used to be a granary to provide for the country and the region, now it is also cut off from the national economy. While FAO reports manifold growth of crops in 2020 (by the average of 77 % as compared to the previous five years), the rate of starvation in Syria is increasing. Can claims against Damascus be considered legitimate in a situation when, having no access to national resources; it encounters problems with food security?
Some our colleagues like to see Russian or Syrian propaganda in sanctions-related topics, however this issue is increasingly often raised at the UN. In addition to the materials issued by the Special Rapporteur and calls of the Secretary-General, WHO Regional Director for the Mediterranean A.Mandhari at a briefing in December openly admitted that sanctions negatively affected all aspects of Syria’s life, including healthcare.
In this regard, we cannot help asking a question to M.Lowcock. At the UNSC VTC on Yemen on 14 January, you rather emotionally made a point that humanitarian exemptions would not solve the problem of humanitarian deliveries to this country, and even if they did allow for deliveries, those would come overpriced. You said it raised serious concerns in the context of Yemen, because it limited the opportunities of humanitarians on the ground. We appreciate your frankness and intrepidity in this regard. But what is the difference between the situations in Yemen and in Syria? The inefficient exemptions are the same, blocking of bank accounts is the same, vendors’ fear of secondary sanctions is the same, increase in fuel prices against widening shortages is also the same. Does it take the people of Syria to starve like the people of Yemen before Syrian issues are addressed in this context?
This is a discriminate approach to country-specific files. Mark, we hope you will be as principled on Syria as you were on Yemen.
Finally, we would like to ask another question, and again to M.Lowcock. Humanitarian plan for Syria and country-specific “UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework” expired in December 2020. We would be interested to learn about the progress of preparing new versions of these documents. Besides, in the context of coordinating humanitarian efforts and development assistance (which some call “nexus”, though the term is not quite clear to us) and taking into account the expanding trend of return of Syrian refugees to their homes, the issue of restoring Syria’s social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, housings) becomes more urgent.
We would like to underscore that making political conditions for UN work in the interests of Syria’s development is unacceptable. We should proceed from the real needs of Syrians and priorities of the government, as envisaged by the agreed parameters of UN assistance. We recall internal document “Parameters and Principles of UN Assistance in Syria» that contained an unacceptable point about conditions for assistance. We proceed from the assumption that in reality the United Nations remains impartial and independent. Also, this document cites the work of Inter-Agency Task Force. We would like to inquire about its parameters and progress with you, Mark, because it is our understanding that OCHA is its member.
In response to the representative of the UK:
First of all, I would like to start by saying that I presumably should appreciate the lesson on manners that the distinguished representative of the UK gave me. I also checked the timing of his intervention, it was 5 minutes 57 seconds. However, I would like to remind him that he speaks English and does not need interpretation. If I spoke English, I could have congested my statement to, perhaps, 3 minutes. But I have respect for interpreters who have to cope with my statement, with its interpretation. Still, I would like to apologize to him for stealing his precious time. Judging by the fact that he left, he indeed was in a hurry. However, it seems to us that it was not the only reason. It looks like certain parts of our statement were not particularly pleasing to the distinguished representative of the United Kingdom.
On the idea of separating political and humanitarian meetings on Syria, it is already in the February program as we know. Fine, but let's strike an understanding then. When we have political Syria, we speak political Syria. When we have humanitarian Syria, we speak humanitarian Syria. We don't mix the two, as it was often the case in our previous meetings when political and humanitarian files on Syria, according to statements of some of our colleagues, became practically indistinguishable.
Now on what Mark Lowcock commented. I wouldn't call it an answer to a question that I graciously presented to him yesterday. If Mark is unable to comment more in-depth on the strategic framework for Syria, then I suggest that we invite another briefer who is closer to that issue to our next meeting on Syria.
On Yemen and Syria comparison. I wouldn't agree that the two situations differ. They do not differ in the sense that despite Syria was not put on the list by the State Department, the amount of sanctions that they applied against Syria are no less harmful than those consequences that the decision of the State Department would entail for Yemen.
I thank you, Mr President.