Monday, 30 October 2023 22:17

Immediate de-escalation ‘only antidote’ to conflict in Syria

The UN Special Envoy for Syria on Monday warned that civilians there are facing the “terrifying” prospect of a potential wider escalation given the uptick in violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Briefing the Security Council, Geir Pedersen said the country had been in a “strategic stalemate” since March 2020, with the brutal conflict now marked by static front lines, persistent violence, and sporadic escalation in fighting.

De facto authorities are strengthening control, while foreign armies remain active, he told ambassadors.

The lack of a meaningful political process has led to growing instability and violence, making the situation now highly dangerous, Mr. Pedersen warned.

In addition to the internal conflict, Syria faces the alarming possibility of a wider escalation in violence widens since the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas.

Spillover has begun

“Spillover into Syria is not just a risk; it has already begun,” he said, citing the recent airstrikes, attributed to Israel, that have hit Aleppo and Damascus airports several times, temporarily halting the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service operations from there.

Syria has experienced its worst violence surge in over three years, resulting in civilian casualties, injuries, and infrastructure damage. Government-controlled areas have seen intensified attacks, including unclaimed attacks on a military academy in Homs and rocket attacks by extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, leading to civilian casualties.

Bombardment from the Government side in the northwest has meanwhile reached levels reminiscent of the pre-2020 conflict, displacing over 120,000 civilians and causing damage to critical services and infrastructure, the envoy said.

The northeast has recently witnessed a significant escalation following a terrorist attack in Ankara, with Turkish strikes and and civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, the terrorist group ISIL remains active, carrying out attacks on various fronts.

Stop the suffering

In the past month, Mr. Pedersen said, Syrian civilians have endured significant suffering: a worsening economy, degraded infrastructure, reports of arrests and rights abuses, no progress on those detained and missing individuals, and unsafe conditions for refugee returns.

© OCHA/Bilal Al Hammoud
A woman sits in a shelter for displaced people after fleeing her home in northern Syria.

“The only antidote would be an immediate de-escalation to stem the tide of violence and to refocus on a credible political process that charts a path forward in a framework that fully respects and restores Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity, and that enables the Syrian people to realize their legitimate aspirations,” the envoy stressed.

Mr. Pedersen warned the international community against complacency, noting that “the already-fraying status quo may fully collapse.”

“We must de-escalate and de-escalate now, for the sake of Syria,” he urged.

Humanitarian operation impacted

Also addressing Security Council members, Edem Wosornu, the Director of Operations and Advocacy at UN humanitarian aid coordination office, OCHA, said the serious escalation in hostilities in the north had had a deep impact on humanitarian workers and operations, particularly in the northwest.

Three aid workers were among those killed, and many organizations were forced to temporarily suspend their operations.

Hostilities have also damaged critical services and infrastructure, including more than 40 health facilities, two dozen schools and some 20 water systems; and temporarily affected the main power station in Idlib.

Ten months into this year, Ms. Wosornu said, the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan is less than 30 per cent funded, and without additional funding, OCHA fears that many will go without the support they need to get through the harsh winter months.

“This is a deeply concerning time for the region and indeed for the world”, she told ambassadors, briefing from Cairo. Her trip to the region also included a visit to Syria.

“But with more than 15 million people in need of critical humanitarian and protection support in ever more challenging conditions, the situation in Syria is one that unquestionably demands our continued focus and action”, she concluded.