Tuesday, 27 February 2024 23:21

UN Syria envoy appeals for urgent de-escalation across the Middle East

Fallout from conflict in the Middle East and ongoing fighting in Syria are having a devastating impact on civilians inside the country, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen told the Security Council on Tuesday.

Regional spillover is only the latest accelerant to a conflict that is growing in complexity and with each passing year. The situation is worsening on almost all indicators and the status quo is unsustainable and unmanageable,” he said.

Airstrikes and casualties

Multiple airstrikes attributed to Israel were carried out this month in Syria, including on residential areas of Homs and Damascus, which reportedly resulted in civilian and military casualties, including advisors from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The United States also launched retaliatory strikes on dozens of Iran-linked targets in Syria and Iraq following a deadly drone attack on its troops in Jordan.

“Meanwhile, all other vectors of the Syrian conflict itself continue, and remain the biggest cause of civilian casualties and displacement,” he said.

The entire north of Syria has seen multiple frontline skirmishes this month. Exchanges of artillery, rocket and sniper fire, and pro-Government drone strikes along with strikes by the HTS fundamentalist militant group have also been reported, as well as Turkish drone strikes.

ISIL attacks also continued to rise, both in quantity and impact, particularly in the central and northeast regions, while southern Syria remains violent and unstable.

UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Geir Pedersen (on screen), Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, briefs the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East.

Support for Gaza ceasefire

“Plainly the tensions in the region need to be urgently de-escalated, starting with the immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza that the Secretary General has called for,” Mr. Pedersen said, while also underlining the urgent need for de-escalation in Syria.

He also called for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, adding that “Security-Council listed terrorist groups must be fought in a manner that is cooperative and firmly in line with international law and that prioritizes the protection of civilians.”

Constitutional Committee ‘hiatus’

Mr. Pedersen also updated ambassadors on his efforts to convene the stalled Syrian Constitutional Committee, which brings together representatives from the Government, the opposition and civil society for meetings in Geneva.

The Committee last met in June 2022 and its ninth session, scheduled for last July, did not take place “because, as Russian Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov confirmed this month, Russia no longer considers Switzerland a neutral venue, and the Syrian Government did not accept Geneva as a result.”

From the outset the Special Envoy has been clear that Geneva was the agreed location for meetings, per the Committee’s Terms of Reference, and “that the process should take place without foreign interference.” Furthermore, as facilitator, he would explore all possible alternatives, and support the choice of another venue provided there was consensus.

April meeting announced

Although various venues were put forward, including his proposal of the UN Office at Nairobi, no consensus was reached.

“Having left no stone unturned to find an alternative venue, I believe the only way forward at this time is to reconvene in Geneva – at least as a bridging proposal while there is no consensus on an alternative venue, while also remaining open to an alternative venue for future sessions if consensus is found,” he said.

Mr. Pedersen announced that he was issuing formal invitations that day for a ninth round in Geneva in April.

“I believe it is important for the Constitutional Committee to meet as soon as possible and to continue its work. An indefinite hiatus can only undermine the Constitutional Committee’s credibility and work,” he warned.

Humanitarian situation deteriorates

The Special Envoy also addressed the bleak humanitarian situation in Syria a year after deadly earthquakes that struck the north and neighbouring Türkiye, killing thousands and displacing millions.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, who also briefed the Council, stressed that much more is still needed to address the long-term impact of the earthquakes and the wider humanitarian crisis in Syria, which has only deteriorated over the past 12 months.

Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefs on the humanitarian situation in the Middle East.
UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefs on the humanitarian situation in the Middle East.

Record needs

He said a staggering 16.7 million people in Syria, nearly three-quarters of the population, now require humanitarian assistance – the highest number since the war started nearly 13 years ago.

Mr. Griffiths welcomed the Government’s recent decision to allow the UN to deliver aid to northwest Syria through two border crossings with Türkiye — Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee – for an additional three months, through 13 May.

The extension follows the equally welcome decision in January to extend permission to use the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for an additional six months, until 13 July.

Critical need for funding

In 2023, the UN and partners moved more than 5,000 trucks carrying essential aid through the crossings and more than 40 cross-border missions have been carried out since January this year.

This has allowed us to provide essential aid to 2.5 million people every month and to administer over one million medical procedures,” he said.

Mr. Griffiths underlined the humanitarian community’s commitment to assist people all across Syria but stressed the need for funding.

He said last year’s Humanitarian Response Plan for the country received less than 40 per cent of the required funding — the smallest total since the start of the conflict.