Since 2011, the conflict in Syria has cost the lives of well over 400,000 people. Around 6.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, and a further 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries and the wider region. After almost nine years of conflict, nearly 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, and more than 80 per cent of people live below the poverty line. This year there have been alarming escalations of violence in the north-east and north-west in the country.
In the north-east, the Turkish incursion of October 2019 against Kurdish forces in the border area has severely destabilised the region and undermined the fight against ISIS. Around 75,000 people remain displaced as a result of the unilateral action. Moreover, the potential for conflict remains while Russian, Turkish and Syrian Government troops vie for influence and control. Ireland has issued three statements on the military action, stressing that respect for international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, especially displaced and vulnerable communities, must be paramount. As a result of the operation, EU Member States have committed to halting arms export to Turkey.
In the north-west of Syria, in the area around Idlib, conflict between armed groups and forces of the Syrian Government, aided by Russia, has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of more than 400,000 people since May. I have publically condemned, on a number of occasions, the violence that is taking place. The airstrikes that are reported to have targeted civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and schools, are particularly abhorrent and the escalation of hostilities in recent days is very troubling. The EU has called on the Syrian Government and its allies to cease these attacks. Ireland welcomed the announcement, on 1 August, of the establishment of a UN Board of Inquiry to investigate these incidents.
Ireland takes every appropriate opportunity to speak out against human rights abuses and breaches of international humanitarian law in Syria in international fora, including the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Ireland also strongly supports accountability mechanisms for crimes committed during the war and has contributed €500,000 to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), established by the UN General Assembly.
The UN is attempting to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. Ireland welcomes the agreement on the formation of the UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee, which has begun meeting in Geneva. It is intended that this Committee will chart the way forward for the country and unlock a broader political process. This will, of course, only be a starting point; reforming the constitution will not, in itself, offer the types of guarantees against persecution which Syrian refugees would need to return home.
It is imperative that Ireland continues to contribute to the humanitarian effort in Syria. Our overall funding supports those in need inside Syria as well as Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities in the region. In March 2019, Ireland pledged a further €25 million to the crisis, bringing the total amount of humanitarian assistance committed to the Syria crisis to over €143 million since 2012 – our largest ever response to any single crisis. In November, Ireland supported two projects in areas that have received the highest proportion of displaced persons, including one in north-east Syria.
Humanitarian aid will not solve the conflict, though it is important in mitigating its impact on the millions of innocent victims of the war. Any sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict requires a genuine political transition. I take this opportunity to reiterate Ireland’s strong support for the work of the UN Special Envoy and urge all parties to engage with the UN-led process.