UN: Syria facing `acute violence’ and worst economic crisis

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Syria is facing “acute violence,” the worst economic crisis since the war began in 2011, and a rapidly spreading cholera outbreak with more that 24,000 suspected cases reported throughout the country and at least 80 deaths, U.N. officials said Tuesday.

U.N. special envoy Geir Pedersen told the U.N. Security Council that the conflict remains “very active” across the country despite the “strategic stalemate” that has blocked efforts to launch a political process between the government and opposition.

He pointed to infighting between armed opposition groups in Afrin in northern Aleppo province in recent weeks, pro-government airstrikes in the northwest, violence in the northeast, security incidents in the southwest, airstrikes attributed to Israel on airports in Damascus and Aleppo, and discovery in the northeast of one of the largest Islamic State arms caches since its so-called caliphate fell in 2017.

In recent weeks, Pedersen said, the Syrian currency, the pound, “lost a tremendous amount of its value … which in turn saw food and fuel prices jump to even higher record prices.” And he warned the economic crisis “will only get worst for the vast majority” with winter approaching and additional funding needed urgently.

Reena Ghelani, director of operations for the U.N. humanitarian office, told the council that “communities in Syria are caught in the middle of a spiraling security, public health and economic crisis” that has left many “struggling to survive.”

She said the cholera outbreak is made worse by Syria’s severe water shortage, and compounded by insufficient and poorly distributed rainfall in many places, severe drought-like conditions, low water levels in the Euphrates River and damaged water infrastructure.

“The crisis is likely to get even worse: The outlook from now to December suggests an increased probability for below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures,” Ghelani said. “If this materializes, it will further exacerbate an already dire water crisis.”

She said a three-month plan to respond to the cholera outbreak, coordinated by the U.N., needs $34.4 million to assist 5 million people with water, sanitation and hygiene needs and 162,000 with health services. The U.N. will make available about $10 million but “much more is needed,” she said.

The water scarcity has also impacted crops with the lowest wheat harvest since the war began as well as the livelihoods of farmers under threat, Ghelani said.

In addition, the rate of food insecurity “is spiraling out of control,” malnutrition rates are rising, and “Syrians today can afford only 15% of the food they were able to purchase three years ago,” she said.

With winter approaching in weeks, Ghelani said, the number of people across the country needing assistance to survive the cold has increased 30% from last year, including some 2 million in the northwest, mostly women and children living in camps with limited or no access to heating, electricity, water or sewage disposal.

Humanitarian organizations have launched winterization efforts, but the program is “grossly underfunded,” Grelani said, pointing to the sector that provides shelter, blankets, heating, fuel, winter clothes and other non-food items which is only 10% funded.

A 2012 U.N. road map to peace in Syria approved by representatives of the United Nations, Arab League, European Union, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members calls for the drafting of a new constitution and ends with U.N.-supervised elections with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.

At a Russia-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. It took until September 2019 for the committee to be formed, and after eight rounds of talks little progress has been achieved so far.

U.N. envoy Pedersen said he continues “to work to unblock obstacles to reconvening the constitutional committee” and is pushing key parties “to engage on step-for-step confidence building measures to help advance” the road map.

Russia’s military support for Syria changed the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. The EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and stepped up sanctions after President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dmitry Polyansky accused the West of supporting “terrorists” from al-Qaida linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham who are trying to broaden their area of control beyond northwestern Idlib and accused the United States of encouraging “Kurdish separatism.”

Tensions in northern Syria between U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish-backed opposition gunmen.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood responded saying “the United States is in Syria for the sole purpose of enabling the ongoing campaign against ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.

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