While the confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in Syria currently stands at 3,618, reports from inside the country are pointing to a much broader spread of the disease, and it will not be possible to gauge the extent of the outbreak without more laboratory testing nationwide, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Security Council during a videoconference meeting on 16 September.
Delivering his monthly briefing to the Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, he said that community transmission is widespread, as nearly 90 per cent of newly confirmed cases cannot be traced to a known source. Infection rates among health workers are rising, while shortages of staff and supplies, as well as temporary shutdowns, are putting even more pressure on a health system decimated by nine years of conflict.
At the Al Hol camp for displaced persons, the first confirmed cases among its 65,000 residents were reported on 27 August, after five health-care workers at one of its field hospitals tested positive in recent weeks, he said. Noting that two thirds of Al Hol’s residents are children from more than 60 different countries, he urged States to assume responsibility for their nationals, as required by international law. “It is cruel and inhuman simply to leave them detained in their current bad conditions,” he said.
Underscoring the impact of COVID-19 on Syria’s economy, he said that, according to recent data, 45 per cent of businesses have temporarily shut down, with another 25 per cent operating at reduced levels and 15 per cent permanently closed. In the north-west, where 45 per cent of households draw their income from day labour, more than 70 per cent of households say their income cannot cover their needs, an increase of 10 per cent since January. While the value of the Syrian pound remains relatively stable, food prices remain at their highest-ever levels after soaring more than 250 per cent in the last year, he reported.
Turning to the protection of civilians, he said that while the situation in the north-west remains relatively stable, there continue to be reports of ceasefire violations, with shelling close to the frontlines around Idlib and south of the M4 highway. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported at least four civilian deaths and nine civilian injuries in August due to shelling in the so-called de-escalation zone.
In the south, he continued, reports of kidnapping and targeted attacks continue almost daily, while explosive hazards killed at least 27 civilians, 13 of them children, between 1 August and 13 September. Following constructive engagement among several Member States, water from the Alouk water station — disrupted for almost a year now — reached several neighbourhoods in Al Hasakeh city on 27 August. “I hope this reflects a shared recognition that it is in everyone’s interest, ultimately, to keep the water flowing,” he said.
Focusing on humanitarian access, he said that the United Nations is adjusting its cross-border operations at Bab al-Hawa, in line with Council resolution 2533 (2020). The Organization’s loading facility at Bab al-Hawa has been expanded, with sufficient capacity to manage increased traffic. He stressed, however, that the first convoys from Bab al-Hawa to areas previously served from Bab al-Salaam, including northern Aleppo, faced significant challenges on the Syrian side of the border, including substantial delays. One convoy had to turn back completely. Since then, agreements have been reached to simplify bureaucratic procedures to support unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid through lines of control. On cross-line aid deliveries within Syria, he called for redoubled efforts to agree on operational details.
Turning to the north-east, he said that bureaucratic procedures imposed by local authorities affected more than 100 aid trucks at the Al Tabqa crossing point, which nevertheless were able to cross earlier in the day (16 September). Many primary health clinics and mobile medical units on the frontlines have yet to receive supplies, with one non-governmental organization (NGO) partner that supports 38 facilities reporting a complete stock-out of insulin. In the south, the situation for 12,000 civilians at Rukban is getting worse, he said, calling for humanitarian access to be granted to the camp, which has received no aid deliveries for a year.
Most humanitarian assistance continues to be provided from within Syria, reaching more than 4 million people every month, he said. In July, humanitarian operations inside the country reached 4.6 million people, including food assistance for 3.8 million people, and over 900,000 medical procedures and 1 million treatment courses for those requiring drugs. All efforts are also being made to carry out routine immunizations, which have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, with 23,000 children under the age of five administered polio vaccines in Rural Damascus over five days in August. But the need for larger campaigns is increasingly acute to avoid a rise in the number of avoidable infant and child deaths, he said.
In the ensuing debate, Belgium’s delegate, also speaking on behalf of Germany as the co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file, underlined the need to implement the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement in Syria’s north-west. The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming winter now present new challenges, he said, stressing that the dawning economic crisis is without precedent and the rising number of COVID-19 cases “is only the tip of the iceberg”. Health systems devastated during years of war will be unable to cope, especially as millions of displaced people already live in camps.
Calling on all parties to allow neutral humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, he emphasized that administrative hurdles are unacceptable and said more crossline and cross-border access is required. While most Council members have consistently been in favour of such access, several claim that crossline deliveries from inside Syria will compensate for the closure of cross-border posts in recent months. “We cannot accept Damascus deciding who is to receive aid and who isn’t,” he stressed.
Germany’s representative, speaking in his national capacity, described a scene from a regional court in Germany, where two intelligence officers recruited by President Assad stood accused of torture, sexual violence, murder and other crimes against humanity. According to a witness in that trial, in the city of Koblenz, the accused men took part in the delivery of mutilated bodies to a mass grave. The corpses showed evidence of torture, with fingernails pulled out and even genitalia cut off. Against such a backdrop, he emphasized that there can be no reconciliation, nor any reconstruction, in Syria without full accountability. “To all those who want sanctions lifted on Syria, I say no,” he stressed.
France’s representative said that the Syrian regime’s COVID-19 figures are “well below reality” and while testing capacities are gradually being strengthened, they remain insufficient. Emphasizing that food security is worsening, he said that every effort must be made to put into place a nationwide cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian pause. The protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and civilian infrastructure must be a top priority. He called on all parties, “especially the Syrian regime”, to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. He expressed regret at the lack of consensus in the Council on the cross-border mechanism, resulting in longer travel distances for humanitarian convoys. He went on to stress that until a credible political process is afoot, France and the European Union will not finance Syria’s reconstruction. France’s position on the lifting of sanctions and the normalization of relations also remains unchanged, he added.
Viet Nam’s representative, emphasizing the need for full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian assistance, urged all parties to preserve the relative calm on the ground and uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. He echoed calls for a ceasefire and noted the delivery of World Health Organization (WHO) medical supplies in the north-east, adding, however, that shortages of humanitarian supplies persist. He urged all parties to cooperate fully with the United Nations and humanitarian partners and to maintain the provision of assistance to all those in need. Special focus should be placed on controlling the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating its impact on the dire humanitarian situation, he said, stressing also the need to ensure that Syria’s ability to respond to the pandemic is not impacted by sanctions.
The representative of the United States said that there is no doubt that Syria’s humanitarian challenges would be lessened if the Assad regime was committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of the Syrian people. The United States is increasingly concerned by reliable reports of massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Damascus region and elsewhere in the Assad-controlled areas, including in Homs, Latakia, and Tartous. It is also deeply concerned by reports that the regime is preventing the dissemination of coronavirus assistance to punish communities perceived as supporting the opposition. Noting that the United States has provided $32.4 million to assist Syria’s response to COVID-19, she called on the Assad regime to grant full and transparent access to the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations to determine the scale of the pandemic, help to address the situation and save lives.
She went on to say that allegations that United States sanctions are preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Syria are blatantly false. “Such statements are cynically designed to distort reality through disinformation and lies,” she said, adding that it is the Assad regime that is preventing medicine from reaching those in need. The Trump Administration, the largest provider of humanitarian aid for Syria, is a friend to the Syrian people, “and we will not forget you,” she said.
China’s representative stressed the need to take a holistic approach towards revitalizing Syria’s economy and improving the humanitarian situation. Government initiatives to ease economic woes should be acknowledged, he said, adding that the international community should fulfil its humanitarian commitments to Syria without delay, with no strings attached and with no pressure on the Government. Relevant countries must lift unilateral sanctions immediately. Describing the COVID-19 situation as worrying, he encouraged the Government to continue its proactive efforts and called on the international community to increase multilateral and bilateral support. With the situation on the ground relatively calm since March, the various parties in Syria should take the opportunity to strengthen dialogue. Noting that more than 10,000 members of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) are active in Syria and Iraq, according a report from the Secretary-General, he emphasized that any ceasefire must not result in giving free rein to terrorist activities.
Estonia’s representative expressed regret that some Council members have not made the Special Envoy’s job any easier. Months after the closure of cross-border aid delivery points, there is still no clear-cut agreement between the Syrian regime and humanitarian organizations for aid delivery. Demanding unimpeded access to those in need in all parts of the country, he said that, through its sanctions on Syrian leaders, the European Union is committed to denying war criminals any funds and ensures that their crimes “will not be seen as something normal”.
The representative of the United Kingdom, expressing deep concern that COVID-19 is still compounding the humanitarian crisis, condemned an attack on 14 September against the Turkish Red Crescent in Al Bab that left one aid worker dead and another wounded, as well as a car bomb attack in Afrin that left 11 people dead. As the 15 September report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic makes clear, such attacks may amount to war crimes. He described ongoing access issues in north-east Syria as the “especially galling” result of unacceptable and calculated obstruction. The United Nations must be given unfettered access and be allowed to deliver aid to those who need it most, he emphasized. With winter approaching, the Council must come together to prevent a worsening of the humanitarian disaster, he said, adding that the lifting of sanctions depends on the Syrian regime engaging seriously with the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria and the United Nations-led political process to bring a peaceful end to the conflict.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed concern that COVID-19 is now a nationwide issue in Syria, which is also facing a serious shortage of medical equipment and supplies as well as a weakened health-care system. Meanwhile, food insecurity and economic decline have also become commonplace in the lives of many Syrians. Against that backdrop, she called on countries to lift all unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria, which will only increase the burden on the country’s people and hamper the fight against the pandemic. Also voicing concern about fires raging across some parts of the country in recent days, she hoped they will be swiftly subdued in order to save land and prevent further displacement. She went on to underline the importance of a continued ceasefire in the north-west while calling for a complete nationwide cessation of hostilities.
Indonesia’s representative welcomed scaled-up humanitarian aid deliveries, calling on all parties to redouble their efforts to close gaps and reach those in need. The parties must refrain from obstructing that process, he stressed, adding that access to safe drinking water and other basic services is also crucial. A long-term solution is needed to prevent future disruptions to critical water infrastructure. “The Syrian people need a sustained calm,” he said, reaffirming that all parties to the conflict must adhere to their obligations under international law. Calling for continued diplomacy, he emphasized there can be no military solution to the conflict.
The representative of the Dominican Republic described the now-confirmed widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in Syria as a cause for serious concern. Warning that infected people may be forced to choose between paying for medical care and buying food, he recalled that about 80 per cent of the population lived before the poverty line even before the pandemic struck. Humanitarian and medical workers face enormous risks due to the lack of adequate protective equipment and resources. Also sounding alarm about the rise of food insecurity — which requires unimpeded humanitarian access to all those in need — he echoed other speakers in calling for the release of vulnerable and sick detainees, as well as detained women and children, as a humanitarian act amid the pandemic.
Tunisia’s representative, noting the manner in which COVID-19 is complicating the humanitarian situation, said that restoring stability must be a priority to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. He reiterated the dire need to silence the guns throughout Syria, in line with resolution 2532 (2020) and calls from the Secretary-General and his Special Envoy for Syria, adding that all parties must respect measures to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. He underscored the need for urgent measures to combat COVID-19 and its longer-term economic impact, with health workers on the front lines getting the protective supplies that they need. It is also vital to keep supporting and funding United Nations efforts to support basic services and to secure humanitarian access while also respecting Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
South Africa’s representative said nine years of conflict, a deteriorating economic situation, the impact of sanctions and rising cases of COVID-19 have resulted in a devastating humanitarian situation in Syria. Reiterating the importance of unimpeded and impartial humanitarian assistance, as well as the need to ensure the safety of humanitarian actors, he said aid delivery in the north-west was negatively impacted by the recent closure of border crossing points. The Syrian authorities must work with humanitarian actors to scale up and streamline the delivery of both cross-line and cross-border aid. Echoing calls on Member States to waive all economic sanctions imposed on Syria, he went on to ask the Secretary-General to provide the Council with an overview of the impact of such economic measures on the country.
The representative of the Russian Federation focused on the increasing capacity of delivering humanitarian aid within Syria, saying that little is heard in the Council about cooperation between the Government of Syria and World Health Organization to send medical supplies to hospitals mostly outside Government-controlled areas in the north-east. “Being responsible for its people, Damascus clearly demonstrates its cooperation on humanitarian issues.” Citing a recent report from Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council titled “Hard Lessons”, as well as the General Assembly’s omnibus resolution on COVID-19, he said that partnerships with the Government must be enhanced and sanctions — which disrupt the humanitarian response enormously — lifted.
He expressed surprise at the ongoing silence of United Nations officials about the environmental disaster in north-east Syria and requested the Secretariat to provide an assessment of conditions in the Euphrates region. Underscoring his country’s readiness to continue to help Syria and its people nationwide and without preconditions, he said that the situation in Idlib has stabilized, with people returning to their homes. He went on to announce that during its turn as Council President in October, the Russian Federation will propose that the political and humanitarian situations be discussed in a single meeting.
The representative of Niger, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity, noting that COVID-19 has turned much of the world upside down and is now presenting challenges for children attempting to return to school — especially in conflict zones. Voicing concern about Syria’s degraded health facilities, he said many people in the country — including students and those living in overcrowded camps — are now at serious risk of contracting the virus. Calling for scaled up humanitarian support, he said the strength of the Council lies in its unity and “it is a shame that is taking so long in this case”. Members must step up and do better. Meanwhile, all relevant stakeholders should heed the Secretary-General’s call to lift sanctions on countries as they confront the pandemic, and all the parties in Syria must uphold their international obligations, protect civilians and allow swift, unhindered humanitarian access to those in need across the country. Indeed, he concluded, humanitarian assistance must be fully decoupled from political concerns.
Syria’s representative, quoting Joseph Goebbels, said that representatives of many Western Governments still adhere to the idea that if you keep repeating a lie, people will believe it. They insist that unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria do not target its people, that their countries make great efforts to ensure that humanitarian exemptions are in place and that the Syrian “regime” — for that is how they describe the Government — is responsible for depriving Syrians of receiving treatment for COVID-19. The reality is every Syrian suffers every minute, every hour, every month from the catastrophic impact of unilateral coercive measures.
Targeting the Syrian people with economic terrorism is the result of the United States Administration’s narrow vision based on sponsoring and serving Israel’s interests at the expense of regional security, he said. Successive Administrations have imposed unilateral coercive measures on a variety of Syrian economic sectors, including health care, and in doing so made a mockery of United Nations documents and resolutions that confirm the illegality of such measures. In the past year, unilateral coercive measures directed at Syria have been tightened, leading to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, he said, adding that on 15 September, President Donald J. Trump said that his Administration was planning to assassinate the President of Syria.
While all Syrians are suffering from a wide range of coercive measures, the United Nations and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have ignored the Government’s repeated requests — including in a letter to the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly on 31 May — to report on their disastrous effects, he said. Noting that the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and his predecessors have all been United Kingdom citizens, he said that the Office has delivered 68 reports and hundreds of briefings on Syria, yet it dares not address the need to end coercive measures. There is no need for satellites, telescopes or fact-finding missions to verify the situation on the ground. Those who have imposed unilateral coercive measures are war criminals who must face an international tribunal that is not affiliated with the United Nations, “which no longer represents international legitimacy”.
He went on to stress the need to end Turkey’s occupation of north-west Syria and the United States occupation of north-east Syria, and for European Governments to repatriate their “terrorists without borders”. He concluded by wondering how the Council can maintain international peace and security when its Western members, both permanent and non-permanent, act as arsonist and firefighter at the same time.
Turkey’s representative strongly condemned a recent terrorist attack against a Turkish Red Crescent convoy in Syria, which killed one staff member and injured others, pledging to hold the perpetrators accountable. Last week, the Council discussed the impact of COVID-19 on international peace and security, and Syria — one of the most dangerous places in the world with a highly vulnerable population and a devastated health system — is particularly at risk. In the north-west, the virus continues to have a multiplier effect on already dire humanitarian conditions. Recalling that some 3 million people there rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs, he said the recent closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing has further complicated the situation.
“The limited cross-border delivery will have grave repercussions on the health system, which is already deteriorating at a large scale,” he stressed, calling on the Council to immediately consider reauthorizing Bab al-Salam. Regarding the Aluk water station, he stressed that the sustainability of its water supply depends on electricity and noted that PKK/YPG has repeatedly and deliberately disrupted the electricity supply to Aluk for nearly a year. Those with influence over these spoilers should use it. While the Syrian regime continues to attempt to distract from its crimes against its own people, the Council should not forget. Turkey currently hosts about one fifth of Syria’s pre-war population as refugees, he said, also voicing regret that COVID-19 is now being used by some countries as a pretext to abandon or push back migrants at sea.