18 September 2018
1. Thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey. Welcome! I am delighted to see you here in view of your new important role, which in my opinion has already shown a further engagement of your country in this conflict environment. So, thank you for chairing this meeting and for being here.
2. Let me start with yesterday’s developments on Idlib. They are important. As you know, Idlib has been a major source of concern for all of us - everyone in this chamber and beyond. Yesterday, Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan reached an agreement to establish a de-militarized zone within the Idlib de-escalation zone. The Government of Syria has welcomed the agreement - we saw it recently - and confirmed its full coordination on this with the Russian Federation.
3. We welcome as Secretariat - and I think the Secretary-General will and has been very clear on that - the fact that diplomacy has produced progress in the effort to address the challenges posed by UN Security Council-listed terrorist groups while protecting civilians – up to 3 million of them, including one million children. The squaring of a very difficult circle. I thank therefore President Putin and President Erdogan for their personal engagement. We were hoping that they would have that meeting, and that meeting took place and produced a very important outcome. I also believe that the strong international engagement on the dangers of a full-scale offensive in Idlib has been important. So, thank you, all of you, because I know everyone here has been raising it very strongly, together with my colleague and friend, Mark Lowcock. And I commend Syrian civil society for raising their voices. There are 3 million of them. They have been raising their voices. In fact, just yesterday, for instance, I received a letter from over 13,000 women from Idlib calling for protection and security for their families, and reminding us that they are civilians.
4. We hope therefore that this agreement is expeditiously implemented, with full respect for international humanitarian law; with sustained humanitarian access; with respect for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria; and with continued preference for dialogue - we had an example yesterday - over escalation in addressing a complex situation like this.
5. In that context, let met also note: just as we are seeing crisis in Idlib averted - and that is very good news - we are seeing worrying military activities elsewhere. Overnight, a Russian military aircraft was downed, killing 15 servicemen. The Russian Ministry of Defense has stated that the plane was accidentally downed by Syrian government anti-aircraft fire, which was responding to Israeli fighter jets carrying out attacks just off the coast. The Government of Syria has been stating that Israeli jets struck a government facility near Latakia. Russia has blamed Israel for this. Israel has stated that Israeli jets were targeting weapons shipments headed for Lebanon that threatened Israeli security, and has blamed the Syrian Government for the incident. We call upon all parties - especially when we are getting this type of positive news regarding what could have been a dramatic military escalation [in Idlib] - to refrain from military actions elsewhere that would only exacerbate an already complex situation.
6. But for now, we are pleased that there is de-escalation in one major area: Idlib. And now that we have this deal, there is no reason not to move forward expeditiously with the political process. Let me turn to that process, Mr. President, and take stock of where we stand.
7. Syrians look to the UN to facilitate a political process that can help them exit this war and enter into a better future – a future that they determine, they determine, independently and democratically. That requires a real dialogue and genuine negotiation – a process that is credible - credible, and inclusive. My guide is and will always be Security Council Resolution 2254, which mandates the United Nations to facilitate the political process. I have always looked for creative ways, together with my team, to advance resolution 2254 in light of the many political and military developments taking place all the time – a roller coaster - but always with a view to ensuring that the political process is credible - I repeat: credible - and addresses the real issues that divide Syrians. Which brings me to the constitutional committee.
8. The Secretary-General dispatched me to the Sochi Congress seven and a half months ago. It was a carefully considered decision, made after special consultations in Vienna with the Syrian parties and with the Russian Federation – and not just by me, but involving the Secretary-General himself too on this. Based on those consultations, the UN had reasons to believe that Sochi would contribute to accelerating the Geneva process. Its outcome was to be brought back to Geneva as a core component of the wider political process. And the final terms of a constitutional committee were to be facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva.
9. True to this spirit, since the Sochi Congress, I have worked carefully to facilitate the establishment of a Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated constitutional committee. I have consulted particularly closely with Iran, Russia and Turkey, given what is logically their particular interest - since they were in Sochi - and their responsibility to help make the Sochi outcomes meaningful. Of course, I have also consulted widely – including the members of the so-called Small Group, and others too. And I have continually been available and listening to Syrians – the government, all parts of the opposition, and many others too, from inside and outside Syria.
10. In these consultations, a formula on participation gained acceptance – one-third of delegates would be the Government delegation; one-third would be a wide-represented opposition delegation; and a middle third would be, as the Sochi final statement clearly says: “Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women”. It became clear that each third could comprise 50. And from each 50, 15 could be identified to play a particular role as regards drafting a constitutional reform. This, when combined with clear rules of procedure, would be a package to launch a credible and inclusive process for drafting a constitutional reform.
11. Based on this formula, three lists have emerged: the list of the Government delegation – with Russia and Iran’s support; the list of a wide-represented opposition delegation – with Turkey’s support and that of other states as well; and a middle third list – which, consistent with resolution 2254 and Sochi, is clearly my duty and responsibility to facilitate in order to be able to finalize it.
12. The middle third list currently on the table, according to our modest opinion, meets the criteria outlined in the Sochi statement. And I also ensured that it was something that the UN could support, in terms of credibility and international legitimacy. This meant selecting experts with critical technical expertise - we are talking about constitution - and experience in constitution drafting. It meant including Syrians from different ethnic, religious and geographical backgrounds; those from both inside and outside Syria; those who are known to be bridge-builders. It also meant ensuring a minimum of 30% women across the entire 150. And one overarching consideration is: there needs to be a balance in the middle third. No particular leaning should totally dominate – a core component of the credibility of the committee.
13. In addition, after having consulted the Astana guarantors, I offered suggestions and options on the mandate, chairing and steering, decision-making – in the UN we have a lot of training on that and experience. These were designed to offer a minimum set of procedural points that would allow the Syrians to meet productively, and progress, in a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, UN-facilitated process.
14. At the start of this month, I said we were getting closer to a moment of truth. All opportunities had been offered to canvas all issues thoroughly – including via teams from my office who visited Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, and other capitals too. I convened the Astana trio on 10 and 11 September in Geneva in an effort to move ahead.
15. At that meeting, some issues became clear. For instance, the Government list is not contested. Nor is the Opposition list. This is important.
16. But, I have to admit, my team and I were disappointed that the middle third list – the list for which I have a particular responsibility – was significantly questioned. Approaches were suggested that I found inconsistent with the credibility and legitimacy needed for a UN-facilitated process. Meanwhile, while issues such as chairing and voting were canvassed, a lot was left unresolved regarding rules of procedure.
17. The Astana guarantors proposed that we continue technical talks on the middle third list before another meeting in Geneva in October. While I really have no problem with such technical meetings, let me be clear: the middle third list needs to be balanced and credible to Syrians from all sides and to the international community. And as per 2254 and the Sochi Final Statement, it is the United Nations and the Geneva process that facilitates and finalizes the way forward. Moreover, there is urgency to moving ahead – we cannot afford to keep consulting.
18. This was and is my message to the Astana trio. I gave the exact same message when I met the members of the so-called Small Group – that is Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America – on 14 September in Geneva. I told them where we are in the process and welcomed their support. I made clear to them, just I had to the Astana 3, that they should not seek to intervene in the issues that are basically for the UN to facilitate – not the lists, not the rules of procedure and also not the substance of the process either - beyond what is in resolution 2254 and the 12 principles developed in the Geneva process and endorsed in Sochi.
19. It is too easy to say: “we will keep consulting”; if we are not careful this becomes an end in itself. What Syrians want to know is: “When, when, will a credible process start?” As far as I am concerned, all the pieces are in place for that to happen. We could start in one week. If everyone supports the UN-lead and recognizes the need for a balanced, credible process, and sensible rules of procedure, we can move ahead very fast. Indeed, I believe the time is approaching for me to indicate a fixed date by which the Sochi Final Statement is given effect to by launching the constitutional committee.
20. This next month is therefore critical. I am ready to engage all. In addition to the international players, I look forward of course to engaging the Syrian parties, starting, very much, with the Syrian government, since their active involvement is obviously crucial if a constitutional committee is to proceed. I will also need to engage with the opposition and a wide range of Syrian voices. Above all, I want to move beyond the current preparations and see a genuinely Syrian-led and Syrian-owned constitutional committee up and running for the good of Syria and Syrians as a core component of a credible political process. This is what we have. The political process has reduced itself to a very important thing, which is the constitutional committee and safe and neutral environment and elections - very important, sufficient to make a difference.
21. Let’s not under-estimate the importance of this. There is a need to see Syrians start to talk to each other, and that can happen in the constitutional committee. There is a need to find steps that can build confidence and that can in time create a safe, calm and neutral environment. At a time when there is an effort to focus on refugees, and on rehabilitation, let’s not forget that without meaningful and irreversible political process, and without real steps on the ground, the confidence required may not develop. I cannot but remind the Council here of the need for urgent, concrete action on the release of detainees and abductees, the handover of bodies and the identification of missing people, all of which are crucial issues that affect thousands of Syrians. And let us also remember that we must ultimately prepare for UN-supervised Presidential and Parliamentary elections with all Syrians participating, inside and outside, as called for in resolution 2254.
22. Last week, Mr. President, I was honored, like many of my colleagues, to attend Kofi Annan’s funeral. As the first Envoy on the Syria conflict, he emphasized some fundamental points: a political not military solution - and here we see it in Idlib going in that direction - with one, one, UN-led process of mediation, based on inclusion and consent, backed by a united Security Council. He offered the first way out – the six-point plan and the Geneva Communiqué – but could not carry the effort forward when this Council was not united. And that was a bitter price which had to be paid. We all know what happened - and it was a greatly, sadly missed opportunity, as Kofi Annan reminded us.
23. Much has changed since then, Mr. President, but we all agree: there is no military solution – in Idlb, or anywhere else; we need an inclusive political process and the UN is here to facilitate that process, starting with a constitutional committee getting to work. But it must be credible, because only then can the UN invest it with the legitimacy it needs. I ask all concerned to give the UN facilitation in the next weeks – we are talking about October - their full support.
Thank you, Mr. President, Ambassador Jeffrey.
18 September 2018