New York, 20 June 2014 – Spotlighting the worsening of the already horrifying war in Syria, “which continues to bleed beyond its borders,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today delivered a strong rebuke to the world’s indifference to the bloodshed and rejected the notion that a military solution is the only way to end it, offering instead a “principled and integrated” approach that would end the violence, jumpstart political talks and sow the seeds for a better future for the Syrian people.
“We must act. All the values for which we stand, and all the reasons for which the United Nation exist are at stake, here and now, across the devastated landscape that is Syria today,” declared Mr. Ban in an impassioned address to the Asia Society, urging the international community not to abandon the people of Syria and the region to “never-ending waves of cruelty and crisis.” Let us recognize the unimaginable suffering that abounds today; and work together now to build a better future for the people of Syria
Expressing disappointment at the “cold calculation that seems to be taking hold” – that little can be done except to arm the parties and watch the conflict rage, the UN chief painted a grim picture of what such indifference and cynicism has wrought since the conflict broke out in 2011, noting that the death toll may now be well over 150,000 – the UN had stopped releasing figures because it became “impossible to count all the bodies” – half the country’s population has been displaced and the makeshift prisons continue to swell with detainees.
“It did not have to be this way,” said the UN chief, recalling that three years ago, when thousands of Syrian civilians began peaceful protests – calling not for regime change, but reform – they had been carrying banners, not weapons. But the Government’s response had been “merciless” as snipers and tanks fired indiscriminately into the crowds.
Appeals to President Bashar Al Assad fell on deaf ears. Eventually, Mr. Ban continued, the protestors took up arms. “Syrians turned against each other. Regional powers became involved. Radical groups gained a foothold. Syria today is increasingly a failed State.”
And while the UN has tried hard to address the conflict’s deep roots and devastating impact, its work helping to save lives and reduce suffering, “our fundamental objective ¬– an end to the conflict – remains unmet,” he said, underscoring that divisions within Syria, the region and the international community, and continued arms flows, continue to fuel the conflict.
“These bleak prospects have darkened further with the flare-up of violence and sectarian tensions in Iraq. Suddenly, the cohesion and integrity of two major countries, not just one, is in question,” said the Secretary-General, stressing that against such a backdrop the time is “long past” for the international community, in particular the Security Council, to uphold its responsibilities.
In that spirit, the UN chief set out a six-point strategy, which, he said, could “chart a principled and integrated way forward to international action,” with the immediate priority of ending the violence. Noting the authorities’ indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, mortar attacks by opposition forces and terrorist tactics by extremists, he said, “Governments that hope to regain legitimacy do not massacre their own people.”
The Secretary-General went on to say that it is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country. “It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating fundamental principles of human rights and international law.”
In Homs, Syria, smoke drifts into the sky from buildings and houses hit by shelling (June 2012). Photo: UNSMIS
He also urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo. If divisions in the Council continue to prevent such a step, he urged countries to do so individually. Syria’s neighbours should enforce a firm prohibition on the use of their land borders and airspace for arms flows and smuggling into Syria.
“I recognize that an embargo would risk freezing an imbalance in place, given the extent of the Government’s weaponry. But the Syrian war cannot be won militarily. The sides will have to sit across from each other again at the negotiating table. The only question is how many more people must die before they get there.”
Calling next for scaled up efforts to ease the humanitarian suffering and protect human rights and dignity, the Secretary-General said barely a third of the funding needed to address the deepening crisis had been provided. Additional Member States must step forward. He also called on the Syrian Government end siege warfare on civilian areas and for both the Government and the armed opposition to immediately release individuals that have been detained arbitrarily.
“We desperately needs new efforts to start a serious political process for a new Syria, said Mr. Ban, moving on to his third point. The 2012 Geneva Communique had set out a clear roadmap for a democratic transition and remains the basis for any peaceful settlement.
“However, the warring parties systematically blocked the tireless efforts of two of the world’s leading diplomats, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi. Diplomacy seems to have stopped in its tracks,” said the Secretary-General, adding that the Syrian presidential election earlier this month was a further blow to the political process.
“The election did not meet even minimal standards for credible voting, and has created a fact that runs counter to the Geneva agreement,” he said, explaining that he will soon name a new Special Envoy. That person will have a mandate to pursue a political solution – but will not be able to wave a magic wand. “Much painstaking effort and cooperation will be needed,” he said.
No one is winning; no one can win. Even if one side were to prevail in the short term, the devastating toll will have sown the seeds of future conflict.
Mr. Ban went on to set out his fourth and fifth points – completing the destruction of chemical weapons and ensuring accountability for serious crimes, saying: “I ask those Member States standing in the way of [referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC)] to consider the message this sends about their commitment to accountability,” noting the recent failure of the Security Council to adopt a resolution on the matter.
With his final point, he called on the international community to address the regional dimensions of the conflict, including the extremist threat. While Syria’s neighbours were showing “remarkable resilience and generosity” in hosting the massive influx of refugees, he said that the already heightened economic, social and political strains in recipient countries could intensify.
“The conflict has created fertile ground for radical armed groups from within and outside Syria, including Hizbollah and those affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaida and other extremist groups. Foreign fighters are in action on both sides,” he said, which has increased the level of the violence and exacerbated sectarian divisions.
Further, the Syrian Government has demonized the opposition as terrorists, but many of the armed opposition groups want to be a part of a political solution, said Mr. Ban, emphasizing: “Whatever the differences on the country’s political future, the world must come together to eliminate funding and other support for organizations designated as terrorist groups by the Security Council, including Jatÿhatal-Ntisra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”
He noted that the Syrian conflict has now spread visibly and devastatingly to Iraq, with flows of arms and fighters across a porous border. “Here, too, while responding to a very real danger, one must also guard against a narrative that fails to see the legitimate grievances of all the country’s people, and pursues a sectarian agenda,” he said.
Explaining that the Sunni extremists of [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIS are trying to show that the Government in Baghdad, Iran and the United States are working together to support atrocities against Sunnis in order to inflame their supports, the Secretary-General stressed that it is essential that the Government of Iraq and its supporters do everything possible to avoid falling into this trap.
“The ISIS is a threat to all communities in Iraq; all should now work together. Moderate Sunnis should make it clear that they are against terrorism. Kurds should not be seen as disengaging or benefitting from the ongoing chaos. And Shias should agree that the army is a national institution. Sectarian warfare is a disaster for all,” he declared.
Concluding his statement, the Secretary-General said, those six elements “can point the way forward – provided there is strong backing by the warring parties and all those with influence over them.”
He said that for the moment, the greatest obstacle to ending the Syria war is the notion that it can be won militarily. “I reject the current narrative that the Government of Syria is ‘winning.’ Conquering territory through aerial bombardments into densely populated civilian neighbourhoods is not a victory. Starving besieged communities into surrender is not a victory,” he said.
“No one is winning; no one can win. Even if one side were to prevail in the short term, the devastating toll will have sown the seeds of future conflict,” said the Secretary-General.
“To the Syrian people, I say: the United Nations will not give up in trying to help you restore peace in your country. To the Member States of the United Nations, my appeal is this: you must put your differences aside, uphold your responsibilities and work with the United Nations to end to this tragedy.”