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Briefing on Syria by Lakhdar Brahimi to the UN General Assembly

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Mr. President of the General Assembly,
Mr. Secretary General,
Your Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates.

l. I am deeply honoured to address this august Assembly.

2. On Tuesday 25 February, the General Assembly was briefed by the Assistant Secretary General for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Director General of the World Health Organisation. They have confirmed what you have known only too .well: that the humanitarian situation is bad and continues to get worse, and that the UN and aid agencies do not have all the space and assured protection they need to do as much as they can and should do.

3. will therefore not say too much about the humanitarian situation except to underline the gravity of that situation, the immense suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people and the urgent need to solve this crisis which, as the Secretary General has just reminded us, is entering its fourth year. I feel however that it is my duty, to pay tribute to the UN Staff, national and international who are trying to deliver aid to the millions of suffering Syrian men, women and children. I salute the memory. of the local Syrian staff who have made the ultimate sacrifice all 14 of them - alongside 34 young volunteers of the Syrian Red Crescent also killed while flying to help their suffering compatriots. I would like to draw attention to those of our colleagues, national staff, - 23 from UNRWA, 2 from UNDP and one from IOM who have been imprisoned and call on the Syrian Government to release them. And I would like to pay tribute to all the partners of the UN, chief among them the ICRC, for their admirable compassion and dedication. And I must add my voice to the many calls made for the release of the ICRC staff members who have been kidnapped in Northern Syria; several months ago.

4. The scope of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is mind-boggling: we now speak of close to 10 million people who need aid to simply survive. About this time last year, we were told that the number of refugees will pass the‘ 2 million mark by the end of 2013; it has. We now hear that, if the conflict continues at its present level of devastation, we should expect the refugees to number 4 million by the end of this year and the number of the dead may reach 350,000 if not more by 2015. These numbers sound frighteningly high. But when one hears that half a million people left Aleppo during the past few weeks, we see that those levels will alas! be attained and probably surpassed.

5. The admirable hospitality of Syria’s neighbours and the generous solidarity of the donor community are highly appreciated: they are saving thousands and thousands of lives; they will naturally not provide a lasting solution to a catastrophe of this magnitude. Only a political solution to the crisis will. The Secretary General has been calling for such a solution from the very beginning of the crisis. And when the confrontation between the Government and significant parts of the population became a military confrontation, he ceaselessly called for an end to the flow of arms to all parties and pleaded for a collective international effort to help the Syrians solve their crisis through peaceful means. His appeals have unfortunately not been heard.

6. For a long time, each side in the bloody confrontation in Syria was determined to achieve military victory and confident that such a military victory was within reach. It was first the Government who thought they would crush in no time what they called a foreign-inspired and funded terrorist campaign. It was then the opposition, armed and civilian, who thought that the present regime in their country would crumble the way the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt did. Others expected or called for a repeat of the Libyan scenario. It is now again the Government who are confident that their side will win on the battlefield and soon.

7. The military position of the Government of Syria is clearly much stronger in the beginning of 2014 than it was in 2013. Nonetheless, the conflict remain in a stalemate. The assessment of most observers is still that neither side can achieve a decisive military victory in 2014. Relationships between Armed Groups were and still are complex. The Free Syrian Army has firmly distanced themselves from Al-Qaeda affiliates. But locally, the two sides at times get together to carry out joined operations. In other cases, heavy fighting occurred between various Armed Opposition Groups. Thus, in Aleppo the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Sham or ISIS managed to expel other groups and take control of a significant number of neighbourhoods starting from September 2013, which led to a decision by other armed groups, mainly the Islamic Front and Jaysh Al Mujahedeen, to start a campaign against ISIS.

8. The Government has embarked on a number of negotiations with Opposition Armed Groups, mainly around the capital and in the provinces of Horns and Quneitra. By the end of February, about twenty such arrangements had been made and at least twenty more are under negotiations. The pro-Government media portray these cease-fire agreements as the perfect model to end violence and start a national reconciliation process. Observers have expressed doubts about the viability of these ad-hoc arrangements. Witness the recent development at the Palestinian Refugee Camp of Al-Yarmouk where fighters belonging to Al-Nusra Front have re-entered the camp and the Government has re-imposed a very tight siege on the camp where 18,000 to 20,000 Palestinian refugees are again ’deprived of everything.

9. The remarkable efforts of our colleagues of the UN Country Team and volunteers the Syrian Red Crescent in the case of the Old City in Homs were truly heroic. It is not normal, however that mediators and humanitarian workers are made to take such high risks. The ICRC did not take part in that operation because the minimum conditions required by International Humanitarian Law were not respected.

10. In an op-ed published on February 15, Dr. Peter Maurer, the President of the ICRC reminded everyone of 7 those conditions, some of which are:
- Evacuation must be voluntary and those who choose to be evacuated must be protected;
- A pause in the fighting must remain in place for as long as it takes for the agreement to be implemented in a specific area;
- Civilians evacuated must be provided with shelter, hygiene, nutrition and safety. Anyone detained evacuation must be treated humanely and allowed toicontact his family;
- Humanitarian workers must be allowed to carry out field visits to the besieged areas and have direct contact with the population to assess their needs.

Mr. President,

11. Meanwhile, the country continues to be systematically destroyed. The Govemment and the Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) are not only destroying their present and compromising the future of the Syrian people. They are also destroying their past. Few countries have as rich a history, a civilization and culture as Syria does. As we have- repeated many times since the beginning of the conflict, protecting culture today is essential for building peace tomorrow. The Secretary-General, UNESCO Director General Irina Bukova and myself have made a joint appeal to the Syrian parties, to the Syrian people and to the world at large to save what can still be saved of Syria’s and the world’s cultural heritage.

12. The economic situation is catastrophic. More than three years of bitter conflict have placed Syria on the cusp of colossal destruction that could see it become a failed state by 2015. With each day the conflict continues, Syria turns back the clock in terms of human development and economic growth. According to ESCWA, every additional day of conflict costs the country over US$100 million in GDP; by the end of 2013 Syria’s GDP had contracted by 42% from pre-crisis level. With GDP per capita currently at little over US$1600 at 2010 nominal prices, Syria’s economy is gradually falling to become that of an LDC. Unemployment has reached 42%. In 2010, it boasted one of the lowest poverty rates Worldwide, relative to its level of income per capita. The undernourished population is now close to 10 per cent of the population. And these are averages, meaning that in some areas, the situation is far more tragic than these figures suggest.

13. Every hour close to 300 people flee their homes. Not surprisingly, according to Syrian official sources, nearly 38% of students today are falling outside the educational system. Access to water has decreased by 70% since 2011 To sum up, the Syrian conflict has thus far cost over three decades of development. That means each year of crisis costs the country around 10 years of development.

Mr. President,

14. Let me now turn to politics. You have all seen the statement made by the Secretary-General on Wednesday as the Syrian crisis entered its fourth year: “Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world” he said. The agreement reached in Moscow between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry on 7 May 2013 was a wakeup call for everyone. In substance the two ministers agreed that:
- First, the Syrian crisis was a serious threat to peace and security;
- Second, military victory was not possible for either side;
- Third, a political solution was necessary and possible;
- Fourth the Russian Federation and the United States would work together and with others to achieve such a solution; and
- And fifth, the Geneva Communiqué adopted by the so-called “Action Group” on 30 June 2012, offered a good basis for such a Solution.

15. Although the agreement was well received everywhere, it took 8 months for Geneva 2 to be convened; but Syrians and non-Syrians remain divided in all sorts of ways. The Coalition of Revolutionary and opposition Forces (SOC) was bitterly divided between those for a long time a minority — who cautiously and conditionally welcomed the prospect of Geneva 2 and those who remained opposed to it because they considered that the regime would not negotiate in good faith and would not respond even to the minimum demands of the Revolution and the Syrian people. They finally agreed to participate merely 48 hours before the opening of the Conference at Montreux, on 22 January. There was no time, of course, for them to resume their contacts with others to form a broader based delegation to the Conference.

16. The Government gave a conditional agreement to its participation in the Conference. On 8 January, replying to the invitation from the Secretary General, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem wrote: “I should like to note that we do not agree with several of the points made in the letter [of invitation] because they are contrary to the legal and political stance of the Syrian State and are not in accordance with the supreme interests of the Syrian people. The top priority for the Syrian Arab people remains to combat terrorism, which targets all components of our people; to tackle its sources; and to insist that its State sponsors comply with international law and United Nations resolutions by desisting from arming, training and sheltering the terrorist groups.”

17. In Montreux, neither side extended an open hand to the other. The long speech delivered by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Moallam was uncompromising. In Geneva, the Government delegation remained true to the line expressed in the above quotation and the Moallam speech in Montreux, i.e. that combating terrorism was their top priority if not the only subject they were ready to discuss. The Opposition delegation embraced the Geneva Communique with a new found enthusiasm; they were rigidly focused on what they hoped would be a quick implementation of its main provision: the formation of the Transitional Governing Body which should take power away from the present Administration.

18. In Geneva, my aim for the first round of discussions was to keep the two sides in the room and that was achieved; but there was no real dialogue between them. The Government presented what they called a draft declaration of principles right at the beginning, which the other side refused to discuss. The Opposition made an emotional appeal to the other side which was not heard. At the end of the week I drew my own conclusions from the meetings and deliberately gave it an optimistic assessment.

19. Before we resumed our meetings, I addressed a letter to the two sides, suggesting an agenda for the next round and a method of work. The Agenda included four points:
a) Ending violence and fighting terrorism;
b) the Transitional Governing Body;
c) National Institutions between continuity and change;
d) National Reconciliation and National Dialogue.

20. A revised agenda was agreed to, but only at the very end of Round 2 it was meant for. The proposed programme of work was based on the faCt that the Government delegation considered that Terrorism was the most important if not the sole point to be discussed, while the Opposition gave utmost importance and priority to the TGB’. I recognized that both issues were indeed important and proposed that they be discussed in parallel. At the same time, I reminded the parties that the basic principle was that final agreement will take place only when both sides were satisfied that the subject or subjects they considered important had been addressed to their satisfaction.

21. The Opposition finally agreed with my proposal. The Government delegation did not. They demanded that the items of the agenda should be discussed in succession and insisted that the issue of terrorism had to be discussed until some common ground on terrorism was achieved and agreed upon by the Opposition. Although the Government delegation repeatedly said they were ready to discuss all subjects, including the TGB in due course, they created a clear impression that theirs were delaying tactics and the Opposition was strongly suspicious that the Government side did not wish to discuss the TGB any time soon, if ever.

22. I At the end, I had to accept that we were going nowhere. I was hoping that the second round would be better than the first. It was not; indeed it was worse. I therefore put an end to the last meeting after only half an hour and invited the two delegations, especially that of the Govemment, to return home to reflect and consult with their respective leadership on if and how this process can be energized.

Mr. President,

23. number of bad news darkened the atmosphere: on the last few days of round 2, it was leaked that the Government had, last November, put the names of several members of the opposition delegation on their list of terrorists, with their property confiscated and their bank accounts frozen: these were Ahmed Al-Jarba, Anas AlAbda, Nazir al—Hakim, Haitham al-Maleh, Louay Rima Flayhan, Souhair al-Atassi and Badr Jamous. Soon after the end of Round 2, we heard that Mahmoud Sabra, brother of Mohamed Sabra , a member of the Opposition Delegation was arrested and, still worse, Wissam Fayez Sara, the son of a member of the SOC died in detention — allegedly under torture. Let us also recall that Raja Al-Nasser, a prominent member of the National Coordination Committee had been arrested, allegedly because he supported the participation of his organization to the Conference in Geneva. As is the ease for his colleague Adbulaziz Alkhayer, who disappeared more than 18 months ago as he left Damascus airport, the Government now says that Raja Al-Nasser is not in their hands. The latest worrying news concerns Ms. Amal Nasr who was arrested a few days ago; she is a member of the group of women Who met in Geneva and strongly support the Geneva process and a political solution to the crisis in their country. These women, I understand, include women who support the Government, who support the Opposition, or who are independent.

Mr. President,

24. The Syrian people have followed the talks closely and with very high expectations. They are deeply disappointed but that disappointment reflects a deep conviction that only a political outcome, not fighting, killing and destruction will bring deliverance. Perhaps Geneva also gave some impetus to discussions on humanitarian access. Some even tell me that the discussions in Geneva were a consideration in the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2139. I do hope that the momentum created by that resolution will not only give better access to the needy people in Syria but also open the way to the exchange of prisoners, the release of detainees, more and better built local cease-fires and, Why not, an end to violence.

25. The Secretary-General strongly supports the continuation of the Geneva process and wishes that the two parties return as soon as possible to the table for a third round and continue the discussions until the beginning of the end of this cruel conflict appears in the horizon. I am sure that this Assembly shares that view. I too, naturally agree with this position. For a Third Round to be meaningful, we need to ensure the parties come better prepared and motivated to make progress. Both should come back with genuine political will to negotiate.

26. The beginning of the process, modest and disappointing as it was, has nevertheless the Syrian parties and all of us with the fact that simple mantras on how the conflict should end will not do; she or he who believes in a political solution must understand and accept that there is no substitute to negotiating seriously and patiently the tough issues that divide the nation.

27. There is another factor that complicates the picture further, namely the numerous indications that the Government in Damascus may be seriously preparing the ground for a Presidential Election to be held in May or June 2014, in conformity with the present Syrian Constitution. I very much doubt that any of the opposition groups that are strongly opposed to the present Government, inside or outside of the country will consider that negotiations may continue if presidential elections are scheduled in May or June. There is every reason to fear that presidential elections in Syria under the present circumstances will slam the door to the Geneva negotiations for the foreseeable future.

28. I very much doubt that a Presidential election and another 7 year term for President Bashar Al-Assad will put an end to the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people, stop the destruction of the country, and reestablish harmony and mutual confidence in the region.

29. Whether the process in Geneva resumes or not, whether the Syrian Government holds a Presidential election or not, the Secretary-General for his part, and the United Nations as a whole, do not have the option of walking away from Syria. And left alone, Syria will continue to bum and engulf with it the region.

30. Yesterday, I told the Security Council that Syria cannot be placed on a back burner. of that magnitude needs the full attention of this Organization - the attention of the Security Council and that of the General Assembly.

Thank you Mr. President.

Lakhdar Brahimi

Lakhdar Brahimi Special Representative of the general secretaries of the UN and the Arab League for Syria.

 
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