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We Don’t Have Chemical Weapons, Stresses Permanent Representative, Insisting Damascus Sought Investigation of Attack
The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Syria said today that, in the wake of the chemical attack on civilians in that country, there was an opportunity to redouble efforts for a political settlement of a conflict that could have no definitive military outcome.
Briefing the Security Council, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said that intensified fighting and a lack of unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance endangered the fragile progress made during a fifth round of negotiations in Geneva last month. The chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Khan Shaykhun “that shocked the conscience of the human family”, and a subsequent United States missile strike on a Syrian air base at Shayrat, had been followed by more fighting, amid fresh claims that cluster weapons and barrel bombs had been used.
Warning that spoilers opposing the peace process would stop at nothing to undermine it, he said talks that could resume in Geneva in May must move from a preparatory stage to “the heart of the matter”, following the road map endorsed in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), which envisioned a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition to end the conflict.
Noting the current visit to Moscow by the Secretary of State of the United States, he said that country and the Russian Federation had serious differences, but also common interests and responsibilities. They must find a way to come together and stabilize the situation in support of the political process. The guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria must “step up and deliver now”, he emphasized. There could only be a political rather than a military solution to the conflict, despite what some might attempt or believe, he stressed, adding that Syrians from all walks of life had told him as much, and that the Council had long agreed.
The ensuing debate revealed divisions among Council members, with the representative of the United States stressing that the Russian Federation must stop covering for the President of Syria and push for peace. Calling for a real ceasefire and a genuine effort towards peace talks, she described Iran as a “chief accomplice” in Syria’s actions, with Hizbullah providing support. Pointing out that the Council had repeatedly declared that there could be no military solution, it must hold those pursuing that route to account.
Her counterpart from the Russian Federation said his country had been communicating with the Government of Syria with a view to advancing negotiations towards a political solution, and expected the Geneva process to continue without pause. Urging all patriotically motivated Syrian parties to participate in the talks on an equal footing, he said there should be an all-inclusive opposition party. A comprehensive investigation into the chemical attacks was needed and he expressed surprise that a French team had already announced results implicating Damascus even without visiting the area in question.
On that point, the United Kingdom delegate said tests showing the use of sarin in Khan Shaykhun demonstrated that the Assad regime had not honoured the Astana process, thus ruining the Russian Federation’s credibility. There was no place in Syria’s future for its current President.
Bolivia’s representative, calling for an independent investigation into the chemical attack, expressed surprise that assumptions had been made about that incident. He wondered who was benefiting from the conflict and from the Council’s division on the matter. Those gaining the most were terrorists of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). He expressed hope that the Council would free Syrians from the nightmare of war instead of leading them into an “unescapable dead end”. Kazakhstan’s delegate meanwhile emphasized the need for a regional approach that would involve Syria’s neighbours.
Syria’s representative, addressing the Council after a three-month absence, said that during that period he had taken part in the Astana and Geneva talks, recalled having been present in 2003 when the then-United States Secretary of State had said that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, he said, Washington was switching from proxy aggression through armed groups to direct action. Its 7 April missile strike on the Shayrat air base had been carried out under the pretext of responding to chemical attacks on Khan Shaykun, an area under Nusrah Front control, which distracted from the real perpetrators — terrorist groups.
“We do not have chemical weapons,” he reiterated, insisting that Syria had sought an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to determine those responsible for the attack. During the Geneva talks, Syria had submitted a number of proposals for a political solution, but had found no partner “across the table” with whom to work on counter-terrorism efforts, he said, vowing nevertheless that Syria would spare no effort to support any genuine endeavour that would allow Syrians to chart their own future.
Also speaking today were representatives of Egypt, France, Uruguay, Senegal, Japan, China, Sweden, Ethiopia, Italy and Ukraine.
The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 12:16 p.m.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, said the stakes in that country were very high and “we all know why”. In light of recent developments, two paths lay ahead : more destruction and death, stoked by international divisions, with the danger of deeper confrontation; or a consensus among major stakeholders in support of United Nations-led negotiations leading to an orderly political transition, as set out in resolution 2254 (2015).
Despite modest and incremental progress in negotiations, he continued, a fifth round of talks in Geneva had produced no breakthroughs, but also no breakdown. There had been nine full days of engagement on substance, in which the negotiations had been business-like and correct. The parties had discussed all four “baskets” of issues and were prepared to return for another round in May. However, the fragile progress already made was in grave danger, he warned ,noting that the talks had been overshadowed by intensified fighting on the ground and the continued lack of unimpeded humanitarian access. Displacement was also continuing.
The Government had stated its intention to reconquer all of Syria rather than emphasizing the need for a ceasefire and negotiations, he said, recalling the horrors inflicted by chemical weapons on innocent Syrian victims, including children, women and men, even as representatives from more than 70 countries and organizations had gathered in Brussels for an important meeting on Syria’s future. “That outrage shocked the conscience of the whole human family,” he said, adding that, a few days later, the United States had targeted a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Since then, there had been more fighting and violence, with new claims that cluster weapons, barrel bombs and other devices were being used, he continued. Emphasizing that the Secretary-General had made his position clear, he said now was a time for clear thinking. Spoilers would stop at nothing to undermine political process, he warned, stressing: “We must not allow that to happen.” Talks must move from a preparatory stage to the heart of the matter, leading to a transition package, he said, adding that he would remain at his post and continue to serve, especially in view of the current emergency. However, a few things must be sorted out first, he said.
Noting the visit to Moscow by the Secretary of State of the United States, he welcomed the “high-level diplomatic engagement at this crucial moment”, emphasizing that although the United States and the Russian Federation had serious differences, they also had common interests and responsibilities. They must find a way to come together and stabilize the situation in support of the political process, he said, underlining the need for the ceasefire’s guarantors must “step up and deliver now”. Reiterating that there could only be a political solution to the bloody conflict, he emphasized that there was no military solution, despite what some might try or believe. He said that Syrians from all walks of life had told him as much, and the Council had long agreed. The current moment of crisis was an opportunity in the search for a political solution.
MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom) said tests showing the use of sarin in Khan Shaykhun demonstrated that the Assad regime had not honoured the Astana process, thus ruining the Russian Federation’s credibility. It was clear that there was no place for Mr. Assad in Syria’s future. The Geneva communiqué and resolution 2254 (2015) charted the path to the future, alongside the Special Envoy’s efforts. Yet, both discussions in the Council and the conflict had continued. The Russian Federation had protected the regime, with seven vetoes on related resolutions, and its reputation had been poisoned. “They have chosen the wrong side of history,” he said, adding that it was not too late for the Russian Federation to change course and use its influence over the regime to end the conflict. The Council offered the Russian Federation the chance to work with the international community as a credible member. Standing with the United States, he expressed support for that country’s attacks on Syria.
AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) said that after six years, the conflict had devolved into an ever more complex situation. Members of the international community, instead of bringing together the views of Syrian parties, had encouraged them to achieve a hollow victory that could not be attained, as seen in the currently polarized Security Council. The crisis would have no victor and its continuation would only lead to more suffering. He called on all actors, including the International Syria Support Group to work towards resolving the conflict. He also called on all Syrian parties to commit to negotiations in good faith, without preconditions, while setting aside narrow interests. An independent investigation was needed to determine who was responsible for the Khan Shaykhun attack.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said the chemical attacks on Khan Shaykhun and the subsequent United States attack had demonstrated the gravity of the current situation. Those responsible for the chemical attacks must be brought to justice. The ceasefire had obviously not been respected and the situation was worsening, violating international humanitarian law. Syria must respect its obligations and the Russian Federation must “walk its talk”. All actors must respect the ceasefire to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, he said, recalling France’s proposal for a monitoring mechanism. A political solution leading towards a genuine transition was the only way forward. As long as the current regime was in power, there would never be peace in Syria. The priority now was resuming negotiations to hammer out a political solution, he said, urging all Council members to work towards that goal immediately. Recent developments had moved the lines and underscored the need for a political transition in Syria, he said, calling for a re-engagement of all stakeholders to negotiations.
ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) encouraged continued work towards a solution to the crisis. The Government, civil society and other stakeholders in Syria had the responsibility to commit to that process, he said, urging third States to stop interfering in the conflict with a view to advancing their own interests. The Council must exert pressure to ensure parties negotiated a solution. There was no military solution to the conflict; only through negotiations and the United Nations could a political one be established. Condemning the use of chemical weapons, he called for the perpetrators of recent attacks to be held accountable. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the Syrian people would continue to suffer.
FODÉ SECK (Senegal) expressed hope for the continued determination of participants at the Geneva talks to find a way to end hostilities. Emphasizing the need for a global strategy to combat terrorism in full respect of international humanitarian law and relevant Security Council resolutions, he encouraged the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to identify those responsible for the attacks on Khan Shaykhun and expressed hope that the Council would play its part in that regard. Only a political solution, based on the Geneva communiqué and resolution 2254 (2015), would end the conflict. In that vein, he renewed his call for the Council and countries with influence, particularly the International Syria Support Group and its co-chairs, to continue to provide assistance to the Special Envoy’s efforts with ongoing negotiations in Geneva.
KORO BESSHO (Japan) urged the Council to reaffirm its determination to address the alleged use of chemical weapons last week. Japan’s position remained clear, he said. Pledging to continue to support the Syrian people, he urged the Syrian Government to simplify procedures and ease bureaucratic impediments to allow aid to reach those in need. The Council must send a “clear message to the Syrian people that they have not been abandoned,” he stressed, noting that the wider international community could demonstrate that by emphasizing accountability. He underscored the crucial role of the Joint Investigative Mechanism in addressing chemical weapons, as well as the potential impact of the International, Impartial, Independent Investigative Mechanism established by the General Assembly last year. The facts were clear, he said, calling on the United Nations to prove it could find a solution to a crisis. “Proof is long overdue.”
LIU JIEYI (China) said his country was deeply sympathetic to the suffering of the Syrian people and appealed to all parties to proceed towards an appropriate solution to the conflict through dialogue and consultation. Expressing hope that forthcoming talks in Astana would help maintain the ceasefire, he said a political solution was the only way out for the Syrian issue. All parties should stick to the diplomatic effort and prevent a deterioration of situation. The Council should prioritize the interests of Syrians and play its role in advancing the political process, he said, appealing to all parties to maintain the ceasefire and gradually devise a solution that would be acceptable to all. In parts of Syria, the counter-terrorism situation had taken on new complexities, he said, adding that China would continue to play a positive and constructive role so as to advance a comprehensive, just and appropriate solution at an early date.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) called on the Council to redouble efforts to reinvigorate the political process, revitalize the ceasefire and increase humanitarian access. Talks in Geneva should resume as soon as possible. The Syrian Government must seriously and meaningfully engage on all fronts, while the opposition delegation — which had engaged constructively and maturely — must maintain unity. Moreover, he urged the ceasefire guarantors to live up to their Astana commitments and step up efforts, and called on all actors with influence over the parties to help end ceasefire violations and reduce violence. He urged Syrian authorities to simplify the humanitarian convoy approval process, noting that the United Nations was ready to assist 300,000 people every week. He expressed regret that the Council had failed to agree on a strong resolution regarding the attack on Khan Shaykhun, stressing the need for a rapid, full and impartial investigation to confirm the use of chemical weapons, with perpetrators being held to account.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said there was cause for optimism following the latest round of Geneva negotiations. However, the crisis continued to unfold with an impact on the entire region. A regional approach involving neighbouring countries should be considered, he said, calling on all countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region to join guarantor countries in ensuring that all parties respected the ceasefire. He expressed deep concern over the chemical weapons situation, pressing the Council to remain united and show solidarity in moving towards a political settlement. He welcomed the declaration on the Syria crisis at the recent League of Arab States summit, called for international support to Jordan and other countries that had accepted Syrian refugees and appealed for urgent humanitarian access to besieged areas for the United Nations and its partners.
TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia), saying he was appalled at the reported recent use of chemical weapons, expressed hope that the attacks would not hamper progress towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria. Only a political solution could end the crisis, he said, urging continued support for the Special Envoy’s efforts. The Council must do its utmost to ensure that the peace talks advanced, and exert the necessary influence on the participants to negotiate towards peace. Emphasizing that the military approach should not be allowed the upper hand, he said the Astana process must advance, voicing hope that it would be instrumental in ending the violence. The Council had agreed on many issues, including the need for a political solution and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, he said, stressing that it must now capitalize on the convergence around those issues to overcome the current paralysis and achieve a breakthrough.
VLADIMIR SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) said his country had been actively communicating with the Government of Syria with a view to advancing negotiations towards a political solution, and expected the Geneva process to continue without pause. He urged the Special Envoy to continue his work with the Syrian delegation in order to find “common denominators”.
Noting that the United Kingdom’s representative had brought a confrontational attitude into the Council, he said that, in essence, his counterpart was afraid that the Russian Federation was cooperating with the United States. The United Kingdom’s representative had not said a word today about the political process, he noted, asking: “What have you done for a ceasefire?” The United Kingdom supported armed groups that were murdering civilians and committing terrorist acts against churches on Palm Sunday, he said, adding that regime change was more important for the United Kingdom’s representative than it was for many States, including Council members.
Urging all patriotically motivated Syrian parties to participate in talks on an equal footing, he said there should be an all-inclusive opposition party. There was no room for arrogance at a time when the world must think about Syria’s future, he emphasized. London and Paris were working with various opposition groups and should encourage them to honour the Astana process at a time when the importance of political efforts was growing.
Turning to the recent chemical attacks, he emphasized that a comprehensive investigation must be conducted, expressing surprise that a French team had already announced results implicating Damascus even without visiting the area in question. Asking why no food had been delivered to areas controlled by the Government of Syria, he said that support was needed from States that were currently only engaged in rhetoric. The Astana process was aimed at ending the violence and directly supported the Geneva process, he emphasized.
Calling attention to the contamination of Syrian territory by landmines, he called for an immediate demining effort, rather than waiting until there was a change of regime, as some had suggested. The Syrian people needed to be safe now, not later, in areas such as Palmyra, he said, adding that demining and migration, not regime change, were the issues to be discussed. “We need to work together on improving the social conditions in which people live.” Instead, international forums saw States pledging billions without a Syrian representative being present, he said, describing the exclusion of Syrians as unacceptable and arrogant.
SEBASTIANO CARDI (Italy) said attacks on civilians in Syria had become even more barbaric, as the use of chemical weapons in an air strike on Khan Shaykhun had shown. A political solution was needed more than ever. He recalled the Group of Seven discussions on 11 April, during which all countries had expressed support for the political process, in particular, the Geneva talks and the Special Representative’s efforts. Calling for swift implementation of resolution 2254 (2015), he said there should be redoubled efforts to address substantive issues. Further, all parties must ensure unhindered humanitarian access throughout Syria. Noting that progress in Astana would feed into the Geneva process, he said that progress on the political track was essential for ensuring more effective international cooperation in fighting terrorism.
VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) said there was not much to be optimistic about, as the only achievement had been the arrival of two delegations in Geneva. Such a situation was due to a lack of political will, particularly on the part of the Syrian regime, to negotiate in full faith on the core issues. Damascus and its allies must understand that a “my way or no way” approach would lead nowhere, prolong the crisis and feed extremists. It also must understand that a political solution was the only way out of the quagmire. The Russian Federation had all the means at its disposal to influence Damascus and its allied militias to reconsider their militaristic approach in favour of the political process and national reconciliation. However, that influence had never been employed for good. Without serious pressure on Damascus, and the establishment of an accountability mechanism, there would be no progress on the political track. Now was the time to concentrate all efforts on the United Nations-led Geneva process.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) emphasized that the Council had found convergence on a number of issues, including the Astana process — which had resulted in the longest-ever ceasefire — and the Geneva talks. It could take coordinated action together and must do so now because millions of Syrian lives were at stake. Reiterating that all States must combat terrorism in accordance with the United Nations Charter, he called upon the Council to defend multilateralism, not unilateralism. He also called for an independent investigation of the chemical attack, saying he was surprised that assumptions had already been made. Questioning the wisdom of tabling a draft resolution that would not win unanimous adoption, he wondered who was benefiting from the war in Syria and from the Council’s division on the matter. Those gaining the most were terrorists of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), he said. Citing a The New York Times op-ed that described war as a business, he expressed hope that the Council would shoulder its responsibilities and free people from the nightmare of war rather than leading them into a cul-de-sac from which they could not escape.
NIKKI HALEY (United States), Council President for April, spoke in her national capacity, saying that the Assad regime’s attack on the Syrian people demonstrated that it was not a partner for peace. When planes dropped chemical weapons, the regime was in violation of Security Council resolutions, she said, adding that the United States had been compelled to act. “We are not going to look the other way,” she emphasized.
The Russian Federation was isolating itself from the international community with every barrel bomb dropped by the regime, she continued, stressing that it must stop covering for Mr. Assad and push for peace. A political solution would not be found overnight, but the parties must work towards that goal. Access to areas affected by the chemical attacks must be granted to investigators mandated through existing mechanisms, and there must be a real ceasefire, as well as a genuine effort towards peace talks. Describing Iran as the chief accomplice in the regime’s actions, with Hizbullah providing support, she said Iran was dumping fuel on the flames of the war in Syria, and the Council must focus on its actions, which were “terrorizing the entire region”.
The Council had repeatedly stated that there was no military solution to the Syria crisis, she recalled, emphasizing that it must now hold accountable those who sought that route. The United States would continue to encourage allies to influence any and all opposition groups, she said, underlining: “We will not stand for continued use of chemical weapons.” She added: “There are actions by the Assad regime that we simply won’t tolerate.” The United States was committed to the Geneva process and seeking partners with the aim of defeating ISIL and working towards peace in Syria.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) recalled his presence in the Security Council Chamber when Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, had stated that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the pretext for invading that country in 2003. The United Kingdom was using similar extreme statements in the Council, he said, recalling the involvement of Tony Blair, that country’s Prime Minister at the time, in the Iraq war. He said that he was addressing the Council after a three-month absence during which he had led the Astana and Geneva talks aimed at launching a drive towards a political solution.
Despite optimistic signs during the talks, the United States had replayed in Syria what it had done in Iraq in 2003, he said, adding that Washington, D.C., was switching from proxy aggression through armed groups to direct action against Syria. It was also leading terrorist attacks against the Government and infrastructure and providing cover for Nusrah Front, ISIL and other such groups. Israel was also supporting terrorists by providing them with medical care and air cover, as well as conducting strikes against Syria.
On 7 April, he recalled, the United States had attacked Syria under the pretext of responding to chemical attacks against an area controlled by Nusrah Front while distracting attention from the real perpetrators — terrorist groups. Efforts were being made to demonize the Syrian Government, he said, emphasizing that information made available provided details on the smuggling of two litres of sarin from Libya through Turkey into Syria. Citing a report in a United Kingdom newspaper, he said an investigation had uncovered a plot to destabilize Syria, involving the United States and Qatar. While claiming that counter-terrorism was a priority, the new Administration in the United States had returned to the “red line pretext”, fabricating reports on the chemical attacks and finding excuses for attacking Syria, he said, stressing: “We do not have chemical weapons.”
He went on to emphasize that, moving forward, border controls, particularly the Turkey frontier, must be reinforced to stop the flow of terrorist fighters and weapons into Syria. Such efforts, as well as implementation of other elements of the Astana process, would end the conflict in 24 hours. Syria had sent a letter to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons requesting an investigation to find those responsible for the use of chemical weapons. He said that, during the last round of talks in Geneva, Syria had submitted a number of papers related on a possible political solution, including efforts to find common ground on counter-terrorism, but had not found a partner “across the table” with whom to work on counter-terrorism efforts, he said, vowing that Syria would spare no effort in supporting any genuine endeavour that would enable to chart their own future on their own.