UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council moved quickly Wednesday to follow through on its newfound resolve to deal with Syria, issuing an urgent appeal for immediate access to all areas of the country to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to millions of civilians enduring the 2 ½-year-old conflict.
The council adopted a presidential statement addressing what it described as "the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria" five days after unanimously approving its first legally binding action since violence erupted in Syria — a resolution ordering the elimination its chemical weapons.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant called the international focus on Syria in recent days "a very welcome, positive step after years of paralysis in the Security Council." He cited the humanitarian statement, the chemical weapons resolution and agreement to hold a peace conference on Syria in mid-November.
The statement, aimed at helping the nearly 7 million Syrians affected by the fighting, urges the Syrian government to facilitate "safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries."
Without urgent increased humanitarian action, the council warned that the lives of several million Syrians "will be at risk."
A presidential statement is a step below a resolution. Some diplomats consider presidential statements legally binding but others do not.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos praised the council for addressing "the horrifying humanitarian situation in Syria."
She said she would have preferred a resolution, and still hopes the council will pass one, but negotiations on a resolution take much more time and speedy action was critical as humanitarian situation deteriorated.
"If the commitments and practical steps in this statement are implemented, humanitarian workers will be able to reach over two million people who have been unreachable for many months," Amos said. "Our operations will be faster and more effective, delivering more supplies — like lifesaving medicines, food for children, and chlorination tablets to provide clean water — to more people in need."
Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan, who drafted the statement with Luxembourg envoy Sylvie Lucas, said they decided to move quickly to address the humanitarian crisis after Friday's first united action by the council on chemical weapons.
Quinlan praised the council's "strong, unified ... unanimous message to all parties in Syria ... that humanitarian access, humanitarian assistance must not be impeded."
Lucas said the humanitarian situation is dire: over 2 million refugees, almost 5 million Syrians displaced within the country, one-third of Syria's housing destroyed, and 6,000 new refugees every day.
The presidential statement urges Syrian authorities to take immediate steps to expand humanitarian relief operations by lifting "bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles."
It calls on Syrian authorities to approve the entry of additional domestic and international humanitarian organizations, to expedite visas for aid workers and permits for convoys, equipment and armored vehicles needed for humanitarian operations, and to "immediately demilitarize" medical facilities, schools and water stations.
The statement condemns all violence in Syria and "increased terrorist attacks ... carried out by organizations and individuals associated with al-Qaida," and it demands an end to all terrorist attacks.
It condemns "the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities" and any similar abuses by armed groups. It stresses the obligation under international law to distinguish between civilians and combatants and the prohibition against "indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks" against civilians and using chemical weapons.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari welcomed the council's first-ever reference to violations of human rights and humanitarian law carried out by terrorist groups, calling it "a positive development." President Bashar Assad's government calls all rebels fighting to topple the regime "terrorists."
Ja'afari said the government is committed to a humanitarian agreement signed with Amos, "so the Syrian government is part of the overall collective effort aiming at providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, wherever they are." He said the government will study Wednesday's statement and then respond to it.
The issue of the cross-border provision of humanitarian aid is a sensitive one.
Ja'afari stressed that the statement requires respect for Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Amos said the U.N. is already carrying out humanitarian operations in Syria from neighboring Lebanon, and was also conducting operations from Jordan until the security situation deteriorated.
The Security Council emphasized that "the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution to the crisis," a point Amos stressed.
The statement reiterated the council's support for a new Geneva peace conference to try to agree on a transitional government based on a plan adopted in that city in June 2012.
The council also urged all 193 U.N. member states to contribute to a U.N. humanitarian appeal to meet "the spiraling needs of people inside Syria."
Britain's Lyall Grant said over $1 billion was raised in new pledges over the past month, but there is still "a $3 billion funding gap."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the presidential statement, saying it "illustrates the commitment of the international community to support the people caught up in the crisis" and urges the parties "to do their utmost to end the violence in Syria," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said the statement "demonstrates the unified political will of the international community to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria." It urged the Assad regime — which it accused of allowing the humanitarian crisis "to grow uncontrollably and to escalate regionally" — to take immediate steps "to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people."