The UN Security Council met on Friday to discuss the fate of Idlib, one of the last government-opposition strongholds in Syria and a de-escalation zone designated by the Astana talks. As a potentially calamitous Syrian government offensive becomes imminent, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, called the meeting as Iran and Russia rejected Turkey’s call for a ceasefire at a peace summit in Tehran on Friday.
UN Special Envoy for the Syrian crisis Staffan de Mistura demanded the conflicting Member States to think of the humanitarian cost of a military intervention in Idlib: “The Security Council cannot accept that the civilians of Idlib must face this type of fate. Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international law in the moral conscience of humanity. We must put the sanctity of human civilian life above everything else.”
Idlib is home to nearly three million Syrian civilians of whom half are victims of internal displacement. According to Director of the Coordination and Response Division of OCHA in Syria John Ging, an estimated 2.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, otherwise known as al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria al-Nusra Front, controls the province beside other armed groups such as the National Liberation Front (a Turkish-backed extremist rebel group), Hurras al-Din (an al-Nusra affiliate), and the Turkistan Islamic Party.
But the extent of extremist hold on the civilian population is not clear. Pro-Assad MP Fares Shehabi told BBC that of Idlib’s 100,000 “al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists,” 40,000 are “hardcore radicals,” yet de Mistura estimates that only 10,000 militants are al-Qaeda affiliates.
Ambassador Haley declared that Syria, Iran, and Russia have a “playbook of death” for the Syrian war, involving the annihilation of terrorist groups regardless of the loss of civilian life and the destruction of key infrastructure. She remarked that “the atrocities committed by [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] will be a permanent stain on history.” She demanded that Russia and Iran as backers of the Assad regime must bring an end to the pending catastrophe in Idlib.
While civilian devastation is an inevitability of military intervention in Idlib, the Russian, Syrian, and Bolivian ambassadors pointed out the hypocrisy of Western nations’ support for so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria, who in reality support and fight alongside terrorist groups such as al-Nusra Front. Journalists Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton, and Gareth Porter suggest that had the U.S. and its allies not provided military support for extremist groups, the bloody seven-year war might have been spared.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia criticized Ambassador Haley’s framing of Friday’s UNSC meeting, arguing that anti-Assad Member States spoke of Idlib as a “discrete state entity,” rather than under the sovereign control of the Syrian Arab Republic. The ambassador asserted Syria’s right to liberate all regions of the nation, emphasizing the threat of terrorists in Idlib, yet seemingly ignoring the possibility of an offensive causing a humanitarian disaster.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, after being pressured by the majority of the Security Council to halt military action, attacked the legitimacy of the Member States’ calls for a ceasefire in the name of humanitarianism. First by questioning the existence of a de-escalation zone, he stated that “whoever is talking about the de-escalation zone in Idlib is not aware of the situation on the ground… there is no de-escalation zone in Idlib because armed groups did not respect the provisions of the Astana process.”
He then attacked the authenticity of the other representatives’ demands for the suspension of military intervention and an exclusively nonviolent solution. He claimed that “the situation is as it is now in Idlib because the countries sponsoring terrorism do not want to distinguish between terrorist and armed opposition.” Turning to the representative of Kuwait, who sat directly to his left, Jaafari cites a New York Times article, stating that “a sergeant of the Kuwaiti army sent 500 million dollars to sponsor terrorism in my country… Kuwait is calling us brothers, but I don’t know what kind of brothers act this way.” He does not believe that the Council’s demand for a nonviolent humanitarian solution is realistic nor sincere, giving the ultimatum that “supporting Syria today is the true test to prove good intentions.”
With an air of frustration, Special Envoy de Mistura took the floor again, underscoring the meeting as “potentially crucial.” Displaying a picture of Syrian women holding candles in Idlib, de Mistura powerfully insisted, “They are civilians. This is what 98.8% of the people in Idlib are. And this is our top priority.”
“Women, not terrorists. Mothers, not terrorists,” he echoed through the chamber. The Special Envoy called for “more creativity” in the realm of “separation;” separating moderate, “reconcilable” rebel groups from extremists, and separating the militants from the civilian population. He argued that empowering the civilians of Idlib may present paths to such separation, and he called out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is concerned by the potential immigration crisis in Turkey following an Idlib invasion, for continuing to fund militants in the region.
De Mistura pushed the Council to not treat Syria as a strategic geopolitical chess piece, but rather to champion the rights and security of its people above all else. He urged the Council to construct solutions based on the “commonsense of the population, who the UN is supposed to represent sometimes. Don’t you think so?”
Officials from the Syrian Negotiation Commision were present in an open UN Security Council Arria-Formula meeting after the Member States met. Bassma Koudmani; member of the Syrian Negotiation Commission at Geneva (SNC), Fadwa Ojyli; Deputy Head of the SNC External Affairs Committee Office, Hind Kabawat; and Hadi Al-Bahra Chief negotiator of the SNC delegation in Geneva were present to provide their own account of what has been happening in Syria. They wanted the United Nations to know that the continued failure of the Security Council to broker peace in Syria has led to the death of thousands of civilians and the displacement of millions. In the meeting, the Syrian officials plead with the Security Council to look at the people of Idlib as human.
Koudmani questioned the intention of those nations (mainly Russia) who claim they want to eradicate terrorism. She emphasized that no one wants to end terrorism more than the Syrians who have lost everything because of the war. She asked the Council, “Is the objective to eradicate terrorism or is it simply to announce that terrorism has been defeated and the regime has retired its control over the area?”
She went on to say that “there is a difference between these objectives. If we agree on where the objective lies, I think you will find out that everyone will cooperate.” She asked the Council to not simply look at civilians as collateral damage, but to use the Security Council’s leverage because the locals know where the terrorist nests are, and they want them out of their home more than anyone else.
She stressed that the local population in Idlib should be seen as more than the unfortunate victims; the only way to eradicate terrorism in the area is by including civilians in the plan to drive out terrorism once and for all. Hind Kabawat quoted Syrian civilians, who cried “We are against ISIS, we are against Al Nusra and we are against Assad!” in a demonstration.
The Syrian nationals drew attention to the fact that two forms of terrorists are killing Syrians today: the Assad regime and the radical terrorist organizations operating in Syria. Hadi Al-Bahra reminded the Council that young Syrian men are drafted into the military and forced to kill their fellow citizens because of the Assad regime’s bloodthirst. He warned that more radicals are created every time a bomb is dropped on innocent civilians and that vulnerable Syrians are forced to work with al-Nusra to provide for their family.
Most importantly, the speakers reminded the Council that international apathy towards Syria has dragged this war on way longer than it should have been. The voices of the Syrian nationals helped the Council to see their people as more than just numbers in a proxy war.
Ojyli, looking fondly at Vladimir Safronkov who sits directly in front of her, remembered how Russia built the bridge in Ar Raqqa, and how she played with Russian students as a little girl. She then asked him to remember to “Be friend to Syria, not to the regime. Be with us, not with Assad”. Safronkov, representing Russia, recalled how his country never felt negative feelings from any of the Syrian people, omitting Assad from his response.