UN envoy warns against ‘worrying and dangerous’ military escalation in Syria

OCHA/Bilal al Hamoud Two children collect drinking water in a camp for displaced people in Idlib, Syria.

UN News Syria needs less military activity and more focus on the political process, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen told the Security Council on Tuesday, appealing for restraint amid a worrying trend towards escalation.

Mr. Pedersen feared the ramp-up in military operations has the potential to unravel a strategic stalemate in the war that has brought relative calm for almost three years.

“In repeated briefings, I have warned of the dangers of military escalation in Syria. I am here in person today to tell you that escalatory dynamics are taking place, and this is worrying and dangerous,” he said.

He reported that in recent months, mutual strikes have slowly increased in the north between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on one side, and Türkiye and armed opposition groups on the other, with the violence spilling over the border.

Following a deadly bombing in Istanbul earlier this month, Türkiye launched airstrikes on what it said were terrorist targets across northern Syria and Iraq.  SDF strikes on Turkish forces, and armed opposition-controlled areas and inside Turkish territory, also were reported.

Meanwhile, deadly pro-Government air and ground-based strikes have occurred in Idlib, in northwestern Syria – the last area where rebel groups hold sway – hitting camps that host internally displaced persons.

Reported terrorist attacks also were carried out against Syrian forces in Government-controlled areas.

Furthermore, strikes attributed to Israel hit Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia, prompting Syrian Government anti-aircraft fire in response.  There also were reports of airstrikes on the border between Syria and Iraq, among other incidents.

“The trend lines are deeply worrying, and carry real dangers of further escalation,” Mr. Pedersen told the Council.

“Let me therefore call loudly and clearly on all actors to restrain themselves and engage in serious efforts to reinstate the calm, move towards a nationwide ceasefire and a cooperative approach to counter-terrorism in line with international humanitarian law.”

In the interim, Mr. Pedersen continues to work with stakeholders to promote what he called “step-for-step confidence building measures” towards a Syrian-led political process.

He also will further engage with the Government during a visit to Damascus next week.

However, the UN envoy lamented that the Syrian Constitutional Committee has not met for six months, noting that it is the only process that brings together representatives nominated by the Government, opposition, and civil society.

“The longer it lies dormant, the harder it will be to resume. And the absence of a credible political process can only promote further conflict and instability,” he remarked.

Addressing the overall situation in Syria, Mr. Pedersen worried that “we are at something of a fork in the road”, given the potential for a resumption of major military operations.

“I fear what this would mean for Syrian civilians, and also for wider regional stability. And I equally fear a scenario where the situation escalates in part because there is today no serious effort to resolve the conflict politically,” he said.

He outlined steps for the way forward, which include stepping back from escalation and restoring relative calm on the ground, as well as resuming the Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva.

This approach also calls for action on the humanitarian front. More Syrians need aid relief each year to survive, according to UN relief chief Martin Griffiths, who also briefed the Council.

“We expect to see a surge in the number of people needing humanitarian assistance from 14.6 million this year to over 15 million in 2023,” he said.

Building on the Special Envoy’s remarks, Mr. Griffiths reported that the recent hostilities in the north have had a detrimental impact on civilians and critical civilian infrastructure.

“Like Geir…I am equally horrified by the most recent murders reported in Al Hol camp of two girls, who were 12 and 15 years old. Life there is a misery, but their death there is a tragedy,” he added.

Mr. Griffiths reminded ambassadors that northern Syria continues to face a water crisis brought on by factors such as insufficient rainfall, severe drought-like conditions, damaged water infrastructure, and low water levels in the Euphrates River.

“The current rapid spread of cholera, a waterborne disease, should therefore come as a surprise to no one. Nor should the fact that cholera has also seeped into Lebanon since, as we know only too well, diseases know no borders,” he said.

Spiralling global food prices have also hit Syrians hard, and they are struggling to put food on the table, while another harsh winter is on the way, with millions of families living in tents.

The UN humanitarian chief underscored the importance of maintaining aid delivery to northwest Syria through cross-border operations from Türkiye, which will expire by the end of the year.

He emphasized the greater need for peace, highlighting the critical work of the UN Special Envoy.

“What the people of Syria want is to see me go, and him arrive; to see the need for aid to disappear, and the arrival of peace to be celebrated among them, and shared by them,” said Mr. Griffiths.

“And that, of course, is the principal task and raison d’etre of this Council, and we must hope that we will soon see these things happen.”

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