Remarks by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Mr. Geir O. Pedersen to Foreign Ministers of the League of Arab States

4 Mar 2020

Remarks by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Mr. Geir O. Pedersen to Foreign Ministers of the League of Arab States

Your Royal Highnesses, your Excellencies, Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, dear friends: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to brief you on the developments in Syria and my efforts to facilitate a political solution. It is an honour to be here, among lots of friends. It is only together that we can address this immense challenge. The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic is now in its tenth year.

Syrians have experienced violence, death, injury, displacement, destruction, de-development and destitution on a massive scale – and this suffering is continuing today. Half the population have fled their homes. Syria’s neighbours – Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey – are hosting Syrians who have fled in millions, as are other countries in the region and beyond. The conflict threatens regional and global peace and security – as we are seeing anew today.

The path out of war to peace is plainly very difficult. There is very little trust and confidence to move forward, and not enough political will to do so.
Syria is beset by deep political divisions, massive humanitarian needs, and economic challenges growing in severity.

And there are continuing dangers posed by internationally-proscribed terrorist groups.

If a meaningful political process cannot take hold, a “no-war no-peace” scenario over the medium term is a very real danger, with Syria and Syrians inside and outside the country facing a bleak and uncertain future, with dire regional consequences.

Our common goal must instead be to stabilise Syria, create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees, and a better future for all Syrians.

Yet, the immediate danger is in fact more escalation and more war, and with it more death and displacement – as we see in Idlib. For months now, civilians in Idlib have been facing heavy strikes from both air and ground causing massive waves of civilian displacement and loss of civilian life. More than 900,000 people have been displaced since 1 December. Women and children together comprise 81 percent of the newly displaced population. Civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and schools, continue to be damaged and destroyed.

The current crisis is among the worst that Syria has experienced since the beginning of the conflict. Idlib is a place where some 3 million civilians are taking refuge, including those who fear living under the government’s rule It is a place where fighters who refused to reconcile with the Syrian government still remain. It is also a place where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist organisations designated by the Security Council are a major force, and who have continued to commit acts of violence against the Syrian government and its allies and against civilians.

For the Syrian government, it is an area unacceptably outside the control of the state and under foreign influence in violation of Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. Idlib is also a place which Russia and Turkey agreed to designate as a de-escalation zone. And it is now, today an area where the Syrian government and Turkish forces are directly clashing – a worrying change in the nature of the conflict.The Secretary-General and I have appealed for an immediate ceasefire in northwest Syria.

Military operations, including against and by designated groups must respect international humanitarian law, which includes the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure and the principle of proportionality.

Tomorrow, Presidents Putin and Erdogan meet in Moscow. I am sure you all join me in urging them to find an immediate diplomatic solution that could spare civilians further suffering, ensure some stability, promote cooperation rather than confrontation on the challenges in Idlib, and create more conducive conditions for a political process.

But as we all know, the challenges are not only in Idlib. With five international armies active inside Syria, the dangers of wider international conflagration remain.
Indeed, reports of missiles hitting Damascus in early February, which Syrian media attributed to Israel, remind us that the risk of international confrontation is acute across all Syria. And the ever-present danger of a resurgence of ISIL remains.

Amidst this tragedy, my mandate, in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), is to work with the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition to convene formal negotiations for a political settlement. I have pursued five priorities.

First: to build a deep engagement with the Syrian government and the opposition.

Second: to intensify engagement with a wide cross section of Syrians, including women – who have vital role to play in the process and must participate fully - and civil society. I prioritise this dialogue, because the parties and the broader Syrian society still lack trust and confidence in each other. They must at least trust the mediator, and be ready to explore with us ways to move forward. But of course, the challenges are enormous. The government remains suspicious that there will be attempts to achieve by political means what was not achieved militarily. They call for sanctions to be lifted and for reconstruction. The opposition remains suspicious that there is no real readiness from the government for any kind of meaningful political accommodation to address deep grievance. Ordinary Syrians inside and outside lack hope that a political process can really take hold or deliver some better future for them, their families, and their country. And internal divisions are magnified by regional and international divisions – divisions which right now seem deeper than ever.

This brings me to my third priority: to facilitate an agreement on -- and launch -- a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee in Geneva that could begin an intra-Syrian dialogue, and gradually open a door to a wider process. The Constitutional Committee has been convened twice in Geneva. The first meeting went quite well, but the second stalled due to differences over an agenda. It is important now that the two Syrian co-chairs agree on an agenda that is consistent with the mandate that was agreed, and that moves us forward on discussions on the constitution.I hope we will be soon in a position to reconvene the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. But this does require political will.The Constitutional Committee of course will not solve the conflict. But, handled wisely, I hope it can be a door opener to the other aspects of the political process as provided in 2254.

My fourth priority is to explore every avenue possible to secure releases of detainees and abductees, and steps for clarifying the fate of the missing persons by all parties and at a meaningful scale. I see this as a vital measure to address a tragic issue that touches almost every Syrian family. I believe real action on it could send a signal of some new beginning. I regret that we have not made more progress.

My fifth priority is to promote a deeper international cooperation over Syria. Without this, progress will not be possible.
Unfortunately, the Security Council is not united, and the states who meet on Syria in Astana and those who meet as the Small Group have not yet found a way to work together in a way that could help unlock progress. Efforts to convene various configurations continue, but what is most important is the substance, and how international cooperation could support a Geneva process.

One way of moving forward would be through a step-for-step approach based on reciprocal actions, undertaken by Syrians and international partners. Those would be actions that create positive cycles fostering trust and gradually advancing the realisation of resolution 2254. It is my hope that all Arab countries can contribute to this effort, individually and collectively. Your support in helping forge a positive future for the Syrian people and the implementation of resolution 2254 is a common responsibility. Syria is now a byword for the failure of the international community to end violence or simply even contain it, and do what is necessary to ensure that the Syrians pursue a political path.

What is desperately needed is for the regional and international players to keep in mind their common interests ... focus on a common path forward … and be guided by our common humanity. Let us work for the day when Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity are fully restored, and the Syrian people are able to determine their own future, as called for in Security Council resolution 2254.

Thank you.