UN: Turkish-Russian Working Group Offers Hope On Idlib Crisis

By Janet Ekstract

UNITED NATIONS (TURKISH JOURNAL) – United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary Di Carlo made an urgent plea on Idlib in her briefing to the Security Council at the UN, a week ago.

The Under-Secretary-General said, “civilians are paying the price of a never-ending war,” referring to the ongoing Syrian conflict. She emphasized that 3 million are at risk and that currently,” we now see increasing hostilities on the ground.”

The risk, she said would be “catastrophic humanitarian fallout” with major threats to international peace as well as security.

To that end, Di Carlo announced that the UN “welcomes the announcement” made on May 15 that a Turkish-Russian working group would be formed in order to ward off hostilities and bring an end to violence in northwest Syria. She added that this type of cooperation is “desperately needed.”

Prior to this working group, there was a Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding signed September 17, 2018, that had reduced violence in northwest Syria to a major degree. The Under-Secretary-General stressed though that the UN is greatly troubled and concerned by a “dangerous intensification” of violence in the de-escalation area of northwestern Syria that involves Syrian government forces and their allies, armed opposition forces, and Security Council listed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, known as HTS.

Di Carlo explained that between February and March the UN received reports about Syrian government airstrikes that resumed in areas inside the Idlib de-escalation area. There were also reports that HTS increased its cross-line raids on government forces with a mutual exchange of mortars and rockets. She said, “We have continued to receive reports of HTS launching attacks toward government areas, including Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase.”

On March 8 of this year, Turkey and Russia began cooperating to begin patrolling inside the “de-militarized zone,” she said.  Though the patrols were helpful in de-escalating violence – in areas that were not being patroled and outside of patrol hours, attacks from both sides resumed and significantly increased late last, the Under-Secretary-General explained.

Since late April, when the stepped-up violence began, over a hundred civilians have been injured or killed while 180,000 have been displaced. On May 6, Di Carlo reported that a ground offensive began by government forces that reportedly included Russian air support and as of May 15, the government had seized several towns in northern Hama inside the “demilitarized zone.”

The fighting has moved closer to a Turkish observation post in northern Hama and two Turkish soldiers were reported injured on May 4 by government shelling. Syrian government and Russian strikes were reported in close vicinity to the post. The Under-Secretary-General stated that “aerial bombing is alarming,” also including the use of “barrel bombs on populated areas.”

 Greater Idlib has been a major target of airstrikes, barrel bombs and shelling, affecting multiple health facilities and schools. Shelling was also reported from the de-escalation zone into areas under government control, including a reported rocket strike on the Neirab camp for Palestinian refugees.

The Under-Secretary-General made several points in one of her concluding statements:

”We appeal to all parties to cease hostilities, uphold international and civilian infrastructure, in particular, medical facilities and schools, and urge the parties to respect the safety and neutrality of health and humanitarian workers.”

Meanwhile, Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres has called for an immediate de-escalation of this situation while urging all parties to recommit fully to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan. Guterres implored the Astana guarantors – specifically Turkey and Russia – to make sure this happens. He also stressed that there is a very urgent need for a “political solution.”

The UN chief added that the international community agrees that the issue of HTS remaining in Idlib must be dealt with urgently. He made it clear that with “3 million civilians in close quarters, combating terrorism cannot be allowed to supersede obligations under international law.” Special Envoy Pedersen detailed priorities for opening up the political process. Guterres explained: “This Council has expressed support for his efforts. Alongside the urgent imperative to end the current violence in northwest Syria, we need to revitalize the UN-facilitated political track.

The UN chief emphasized that a “sustained dialogue” with all parties must be ongoing in order to build trust and confidence. The UN Secretary-General said: “If we can work together in support of Russia and Turkey’s recommitment to a ceasefire in Idlib, then we can work towards restoring a nationwide ceasefire and focus on advancing the political roadmap in resolution 2254. He said that much progress has been made in gathering a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee.

There must be “concrete action” on the release of detainees and clarification of the fate of missing persons, he stressed. Since 2011, reported estimates of those detained and missing reach beyond 100,000. The current, most immediate action now, the Secretary-General said is “large-scale release of children, women, the infirm and elderly.”

The UN is in an ongoing process to consult all parties on a comprehensive plan, addressing the committee’s composition and rules of procedure acceptable to the government and the opposition Syrian Negotiation Commission. The UN chief stressed that “international cooperation and support of the Geneva process is critical if Special Envoy Pedersen is to realize his mandate.

Guterres reiterated that the possibility is there of opening up a “broader political process,” provided that overall agreement is in place.

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