Statement by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at UNSC briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria
We thank Secretary-General A.Guterres for his welcoming word. We also thank Ramesh Rajasingham and Sherine Ibrahim for their reports.
Worrisome remarks that many our Council colleagues made today depict Syria’s humanitarian landscape only in black and white. In the verbal opposition with regard to the future of cross-border mechanism of humanitarian deliveries for Syria (CBM), the Western countries are presented as the “forces of good” that do not cease to care about the people of Idlib, in particular children. As for Russia and Syria – they are presented as “incarnate evil” that remains indifferent to the sufferings of those desolate people and are ready to cut the last artery supplying them with basic necessity items.
But is it truly so? Colleagues, let’s be frank. Back in 2014, when the Security Council was adopting resolution 2165 that opened 4 border crossings on the Syrian border to ensure access of UN humanitarian assistance, Russia agreed to this solution which violated Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity only for one reason. The Syrian Arab Republic was being torn apart by terrorists, Syrian statehood per se was at risk, and refugees and IDPs badly needed humanitarian assistance “here and now”. Since then, supported by Russian Air-Space forces who arrived in Syria upon request of its legitimate government, Damascus has fought back terrorists, liberated almost 90 % of its territory and embarked on solid efforts to improve the life of its people. In these conditions, the CBM is a mere anachronism. In the meantime, our Western partners act as if time stood still. They carefully ignore the fact that it is quite possible (and sometimes much easier) to provide assistance to remaining refugees from within Syria.
Last year, when the Council was considering draft resolution 2533, we gave our consent to keep the CBM until 10 July 2021, having clearly indicated the importance of developing sustainable humanitarian cross-line deliveries to Idlib. We directly stated that the future of the CBM would depend on whether capacities of deliveries from within Syria were actively employed. While noting that it is usually not easy to agree on such deliveries, we counted on the good will of our colleagues. However the convoy of UN/SARC/ICRC that received clearance from Damascus in April last year, never got under way. Neither of you did anything to set the ball rolling.
If the sides had had the good will, this past year could have given enough time and opportunity to find a seamless and constructive solution and an optimal balance of Idlib’s procurement through both “Bab Al-Hawa” and domestic channels. But no such attempt was made. You just tried to convince us that the CBM would anyway need renewal. This can hardly be called a constructive approach.
I was quite surprised at the remarks of our today’s briefers. For example, Mr. Rajasingham said that cross-line deliveries were a vital supplement to the cross-border assistance. His point was that crossline added to the cross-border mechanism but could not replace it. To put it mildly, this is a strange thing to hear from a high-ranking UN official, acting head of OCHA, who is perfectly aware what resolution 46/182 is and what parameters of humanitarian assistance it stipulates.
I was no less surprised to hear the Secretary-General in his welcoming remarks say that cross-line deliveries would never – that’s what he said – substitute for the CBM in its current scope and capacity. How should we understand that? Does it mean the CBM will remain forever? This is the only way I can interpret those words.
Let me ask this: what about the country the territory of which is receiving the humanitarian assistance? Does anyone care to ask what it thinks about the CBM? Or is the proclaimed commitment to Syria’s sovereignty just an empty sound?
Allegations that cross-line deliveries be ineffective or totally impossible are ridiculous. UN personnel in Syria openly admit that the mechanism to have emerged after the closure of “Al Yarubiyah” lets them achieve greater results in the cross-Euphrates area with the help of cross-line deliveries than in the northwest with the CBM. Humanitarian coverage in the northeast has increased from 35 % to 45 %, and there is every opportunity to further boost humanitarian action. It means they could compensate for the closure of “Al Yarubiyah” by enhancing the humanitarian assistance in the northeast, doesn’t it? I repeat – it is the UN personnel who say so. But today several speakers claimed that the assistance in the northeast has dropped after “Al Yarubiyah” had been shut down.
Reportedly, the WFP has made arrangement with Damascus that it will have food supplies delivered from within Syria to a warehouse in Sarmada in the de-escalation zone, and now is negotiating this issue with the other parties. Is this what you believe is Syria’s lack of cooperation? If we want to make deliveries to Idlib more effective, we just need to have a look at the map – it is easier done from Aleppo in terms of both logistics and monitoring.
Many commend the UN monitoring mechanism, assuming that in its absence uncontrolled deliveries would “flow” into the enclave. At the same time, no one mentions that the CBM lets equal volumes of humanitarian aid and smuggled goods into Syria. M.Lowcock recently admitted that UN deliveries constitute no more than 50% of the total goods that pass through “Bab Al-Hawa” checkpoint. In other words, UN channels are openly used for some grey schemes that the remaining terrorists in Idlib benefit from. Is this your vision of a perfect humanitarian deliveries mechanism?
All CBM resolutions request the Secretary-General to include in his reports “detailed information on the humanitarian assistance delivered through United Nations humanitarian cross-border operations, including on the number of beneficiaries, locations of aid deliveries at district-level and the volume and nature of items delivered”. However, over the 7 years of the CBM work, nothing has been done to promote transparency of cargo flows. The reason is clear – the UN is not present in Idlib, and cannot know how the delivered items are distributed.
Why then, for seven years on end, we have been offered to take the words of unnamed NGOs at their face value? Many of those NGOs do not even conceal that they are affiliated with HTS militants. Do you proceed from their dubious conclusions when saying that the CBM knows no alternative? Give us at least one reason why we should do this, bearing in mind that no one stirred a finger to establish cross-line deliveries.
We hear Syrians being reproached for impeding the work of UN personnel in the governmental areas, i.a. for non-issuance of permits for humanitarian operations. In this case, we are dealing with banal manipulation of facts. Let us turn to the recent SG reports which keep track of both the number of permits issued and the scope of recipients of humanitarian assistance. The reports specifically emphasize that Syrians issued ever fewer permits for UN humanitarian operations from one reporting period to another (257 in December-January, 167 in February-March, 93 in April-May). However, the reports for those periods indicate that the number of people receiving humanitarian assistance from within Syria remained the same – approximately 3.5 million. No one in OCHA cared(or wanted) to analyze this situation. Had they done so – we would have seen it in the reports that the effectiveness of UN humanitarian operations was actually growing: fewer permits and the same level of assistance. UN personnel on the ground claimed that they had no complaints to the Syrian authorities, adding that the issue looked differently and things had long changed. It is not the number of convoys or the volume of goods delivered that define the efficiency of humanitarian operations, because we no longer have to do with sporadic humanitarian campaigns, but rather with a standing opportunity for the humanitarian personnel to be present wherever needed.
We cannot consider renewal of the CBM in detachment from the situation in Idlib. The enclave has long turned into a “safe haven” for terrorists in Syria. Apart from remaining terrorists from ‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) and ‘Hurras ad-Din’ who feel at home in Idlib, northwest Syria receives new jihadists escaping from ‘Al-Hol’. Terrorists who radicalize Idlib use ordinary Syrians as a human shield; they have established total control over the local population. Those willing to leave this hotbed of instability are simply unable to exit to the governmental territories. No exceptions are made – even for schoolchildren who need to leave to take their exams. We can only guess what morals those temporary rulers of Idlib are spreading there. Recently the so-called University of Idlib prohibited boys and girls from being in the same chats and communities on messengers and social media, where schoolchildren communicated on studies-related topics. Apart from that, the statistics of early and child marriages in Idlib is growing. However, the pioneers of women’s and children’s agenda in the Security Council turn a blind eye to this. Besides, we witness consecutive attempts of some states to present the HTS as some sort of a moderate political force that diligently and justly administers Idlib’s affairs – in contrast to the proverbial “Assad regime”. In the Council, we do not hear a word of condemnation addressed to those terrorists. It might seem that our colleagues are perfectly satisfied with this status quo, and with the fact that UN humanitarian assistance (to which your taxpayers contribute dozens or even hundreds millions) is plundered. This cannot be called anything else but criminal hypocrisy.
When proposing to keep the “Bab Al-Hawa” crossing and open further checkpoints in addition to it, our Western colleagues step into a new phase of cynicism. Such methods are unacceptable to us. We believe it is the duty of all UNSC members to take efforts to restore territorial integrity of Syria, strengthen its sovereignty, improve the socio-economic situation and uphold the principles of humanitarian assistance that are observed elsewhere, in any other humanitarian operation, but not in Syria. Cross-line assistance is not just a part of equation as our US colleague put it. Cross-line assistance is the only legitimate option for a humanitarian operation to deliver assistance.
During this past year our colleagues were moving in the opposite direction and did everything to exacerbate the problems that Syrians encounter in the government-controlled areas. Suffice it to mention the illegal sanctions, imposed by sidestepping the Security Council - a heavy burden that every Syrian citizen has to shoulder. You blow the whistle regarding humanitarian access while pretending that the problem of Syria’s suffocation with sanctions does not exist.
Let me give you one example. In April-May 2021, UN agencies failed to deliver several endorsed and planned batches of cargo due to a country-wide scarcity of fuel. Where do you think this comes from? It resulted from sanctions that you imposed.
It took a year until the voice of international NGOs operating in Syria was finally heard and the problem was raised in a Secretary-General’s report. We call on OCHA not to evade this topic and keep the Council posted on this in future.
We would specifically highlight the “know-how” of our US colleagues – the so-called Caesar Act. Unless it is revoked, all attempts to relax sanction regimes will be just half-measures impeding Syria’s independent development. We have taken note of Washington’s attempt to loosen the sanctions pressure. I mean General License 21 that the US Department of the Treasury issued on 17 June 2021. The license extends American humanitarian exemptions for Syria in order to facilitate deliveries of goods and services to respond to the pandemic. Time will show if these new measures turn out effective. Declared exemptions have existed before, but they worked only on paper. We believe our colleagues from the European Union should also give a thought to the ineffective humanitarian exemptions and take the necessary measures.
Our Western colleagues still deliberately ignore the issue of recovery of Syria’s infrastructure. Today my French colleague said that more than a half of the Syrian population experienced food shortages and food insecurity. Have you ever asked yourself why it is so? Is it the result of lacking humanitarian access? Or is it the result of the ruining of infrastructure that you refuse to restore? Is it the result of Syria being devastated by uncompromising fight against terrorism or the result of sanctions that you imposed on a sovereign state?
Recovery of infrastructure is a prerequisite for return of refugees to their homes and for a reset of economy. It is simple logic which will ultimately mitigate the donors’ burden. At the same time, Western sponsors are ready to finance projects in Idlib, even though the terrorists will plunder the major part thereof. Only this sort of distorted corrupt reality can give birth to draft documents on the CBM the likes of which our colleagues plant on us.
We must not dismiss the manmade environmental disaster in northeast Syria. Mitigation of its consequences both on the spot and as medical aid for the affected people will be a long-lasting process that needs financing. We would like to point out that we are generally concerned about the cross-Euphrates region, and the unstopping attempts at forceful demographical engineering that are taking place there. The situation in ‘Al-Hol’ threatens to grow out of control. Reportedly, active radicalization of the population in under way there. Similar worrisome developments evolve around ‘Al-Tanf’. We remind that full responsibility for this rests with the occupying power.
Syria’s grave humanitarian problems have a solution, and it should not be sought in the CBM domain. The argument that humanitarians find it more convenient to work within the CBM is little convincing to us. Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria is much more important than this inconvenience, which, as the situation with the closing of “Al Yarubiyah” demonstrated, can be overcome. Unless our Western colleagues both in words and deeds prove their commitment to this goal, there is no point in speaking about the renewal of the CBM. We still have some time before the “D-Day”, Hopefully, it will not be wasted.
Now let me ask some questions to our briefers. First questions to Mr. Rajasingham.
1. According to UN data, 300 mln USD are allocated yearly to humanitarian assistance to be delivered via the CBM. Why do you think this huge sum now hardly suffices to procure the Syrian population with basic items and services? Why does Idlib has the toughest situation with food security? Judging by UNSG reports, it deteriorates on monthly bases.
As we understand, the WFP covers almost 80 % of deliveries. Armed action in Idlib has long stopped, the so-called local administration, as we hear from various sources, ostensibly enjoys respect not only of some donor states, but also of the humanitarians working on the ground, and no more IDPs arrive in the enclave. On the opposite, people try to leave it (though unsuccessfully). Then what is the matter with food security?
2. You are an experiences high-ranking humanitarian worker of the United Nations. What do you think needs to be done to unlock cross-line deliveries to Idlib? From the UN perspective, how should this be arranged? What are the problems?
3. Why can’t we relocate the UN Monitoring Mission to the governmental area and launch humanitarian convoys to Idlib via Syrian domestic routes?
4. Reports of the Monitoring Mission of Committee 1267 on ISIL/Al-Qaida repeatedly highlighted that HTS terrorists used the CBM “umbrella” for money laundering. Thanks to “Bab Al-Hawa” crossing, their monthly income stands at approximately 4 million USD. We should add to this considerable funds that the militants receive controlling all border activity and trade in the enclave. Active participation of HTS in UN humanitarian operations is evident. Could you please comment on all that?
Now questions to Ms.Ibrahim.
1. How do you guarantee that humanitarian assistance of your NGO reaches its final recipients? How do you do it technically?
Who are your partners on the ground?
2. Armed groups in Idlib signed so-called Declaration on Commitment on Compliance with IHL and Humanitarian Assistance under OCHA auspices. As a beneficiary of this declaration, what do you know about this document? How did the situation on the ground change after it had been signed?
3. In your view, in what aspects potential cross-line deliveries are worse than the CBM, taking into account that cross-line deliveries from Damascus can be better monitored? What prevents your NGO, the main goal of which is helping those who need help, from committing to cross-line?