Credible political transition remains ‘the central issue’ in ending horrific Syrian conflict, says UN chief

A child and a man sell baked goods in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: UNICEF/Rami Zayat

20 October 2016 – Stressing that the Syrian conflict “continues to reach new and awful depths,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today welcomed Russia’s latest unilateral announcement of a humanitarian pause to the bombing in war-raved eastern Aleppo, but emphasized that the nationwide ceasefire must be revived.

“I welcome the unilateral pause in the bombing, announced by the Russian Federation, which began today,” Mr. Ban told the UN General Assembly during an informal meeting on the situation in Syria, in which his Special Envoy for the country, Staffan de Mistura, addressed Member States via videoconference from Geneva.

“This has helped pave the way for the implementation of the UN’s medical evacuation plan,” said Mr. Ban, noting that UN agencies and their partners are preparing to carry out urgent medical evacuations and provide emergency medical supplies for hundreds of sick and critically wounded people and their families in eastern Aleppo.

“This depends on all sides adhering to security assurances and facilitating this urgent, life-saving initiative,” the UN chief said. “But this is the bare minimum. It is far from enough. We need full humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo.”

According to UN agencies, the offensive being carried out by the Syrian Government in eastern Aleppo since 23 September has been the most sustained and intensive aerial bombardment since the conflict began. Nearly 500 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 injured, with more than a quarter of all deaths being children. No UN convoy has entered eastern Aleppo since 7 July.

“Under these medieval conditions, the vulnerable are suffering the most,” Mr. Ban said. “The health sector has been mercilessly pummelled – hundreds of people are in urgent need of medical evacuation,” he added.

People across the world are rightly asking how any further destruction can be tolerated, he said, explaining that they are looking for signs that the international community – the UN – has a conscience and a heart, and are asking if the UN has learned anything from Srebrenica and Rwanda [genocides] and when the international community will unite to stop the carnage.

Yet sadly, long-standing and familiar divisions continue to stand in the way, as evidenced in the Security Council’s inability to discharge its responsibilities on this issue, regional rivalries that have taken primacy over the needs of the Syrian people, and the Syrian parties’ continued faith in rockets, guns and barrel bombs.

“There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis,” Mr. Ban stressed. “The nationwide cessation of hostilities must be revived and the Government must agree to ground its air force over Aleppo. Extremist elements must be isolated. This will require robust and credible monitoring and compliance mechanisms.”

The central issue is and must remain a credible political transition, he said, stating that this is fundamental to realizing a process by which the Syrian people can achieve a new, peaceful and democratic reality, while protecting their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, preserving and reforming their state institutions, and uniting against terrorism.

Mr. Ban recalled that the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) has urged the Syrian parties to agree on a framework for a genuine political transition, which would include a broad, inclusive transitional body with full executive powers. This is also consistent with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), which endorsed a roadmap for peace in the country, and the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, he added.

His Special Envoy continues to work intensively to re-convene formal intra-Syrian talks, the UN chief said.The ISSG has established the respective taskforces on humanitarian aid delivery and a wider ceasefire, which have been meeting separately since early this year on a way forward in the crisis. Russia and the United States are the co-chairs of the taskforces and the ISSG, which also comprises the UN, the Arab League, the European Union and 16 other countries.

Turning to “grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law” committed in Syria, he said that some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. I call on all of you to cooperate and fulfil your collective responsibility to protect,” said the Secretary-General.He also recalled that he has established an internal UN Board of Inquiry to investigate the tragedy involving a UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent relief operation to Urum al-Kubra on 19 September.

“I began by saying we have run out of words to describe the situation in Syria. Let us resolve together to replace all of our words with collective action to finally deliver peace to the people of Syria and uphold our common humanity,” he concluded.

UN Special Envoy for Syria

Echoing many of the Secretary-General’s concerns, Mr. de Mistura, said that indeed, a litany of human rights abuses has been committed all across the country for five years. “If a way is not found, […] by the international community to unify and stop the ongoing carnage and chart a credible path to a political settlement, this toll will only increase and come to haunt our consciences,” he stated.

And while there are “many emergencies” in Syria, it was the destruction of iconic Aleppo and the ongoing dire humanitarian situation in the city’s east that are most pressing. While he also welcomed the “unilateral announcement of a pause by Russian and Syrian Air Forces,” he expressed the hope that it would last several days.

“That is what we need and it’s what we hope,” and the pause could be used by the UN in order to evacuate safely seriously wounded or sick people from eastern Aleppo and to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable civilians inside the besieged part of eastern Aleppo.

Yet, Mr. de Mistura said: “This unilateral pause of aerial bombing, let’s be frank, is not yet an implementation [the UN’s] Aleppo initiative, although as we have learned in Syria all initiatives, always start with a cessation of hostilities.” He reiterated his hope that the pause in fighting is more than a temporary initiative, saying that if it is brief, he feared that heavier bombing will occur and eastern Aleppo could be gone before the end of the year. “The world is looking to the UN to not let this happen on our watch,” he underscored.

As for the main elements of the UN proposal for Aleppo, he said it called for: an immediate and total halt of the bombing of eastern Aleppo, as well as shelling of western Aleppo and fighting on the frontlines inside the city; evacuation of all Al-Nusra fighters; an immediate lifting of the siege so as to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo; leaving the local and existing independent administration in tact; and guarantees regarding the Government’s readiness for a cessation of military activities, safe passage of fighters, and full respect for local administration.

As for the political track, Mr. de Mistura recalled that he had met with the ISSG chairs at the Foreign Minister level in Lausanne and had had a productive meeting late last week in Lausanne. Those talks had underscored the importance of the restoration of a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

Mr. de Mistura also recalled that in September, he had underlined to the Security Council that a new round of negotiations should focus on the central issue of a genuine political transition in Syria – “the mother of all issues”– and that he stood ready to present a set of proposals as a starting point for resumed intra-Syrian talks. “I reaffirm that readiness today,” he stated.

“But first things first: we must save Aleppo now. And we must get a cessation of hostilities. The alternative is too awful to contemplate,” he concluded.