Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Syria

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
October 17, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Special Envoy de Mistura, for your briefing and your hard work to prepare for political progress in Syria. We have before the Security Council today a very rare thing; a brief window of opportunity to advance a political solution in Syria. We should take it. History will be unforgiving if we fail to do so.

Mr. President, the United States has sought every opportunity to prevent the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies from pursuing a military end to the conflict in Syria. We have long called for a credible, inclusive constitutional committee that will begin the essential work of drafting a new Syrian constitution.

This committee will lay the groundwork for free and fair elections in Syria – elections supervised by the United Nations and open to all eligible Syrians, including those who were forced to flee their country during the present conflict.

The United States has worked long and hard for this progress in Syria, as have some others on this Council. That said, the United States did not always support Russia’s January proposal for such a committee.

We had concerns that this initiative would undermine the Geneva process. We had concerns about Russia’s good faith.

We had doubts about whether Russia intended to support a political transition in Syria. And whether the proposed constitutional committee was a way for Russia to assert its influence over Syria, rather than to blaze a path to peace.

Because frankly, Mr. President, Assad, Russia, and Iran have the most to gain from pursuing a military end to the Syria war. De-escalation zones have been established and ignored by Russia and the Assad regime. Accountability has been resisted. Villages have been leveled. Humanitarian assistance has been denied. Weapons of mass destruction have been used.

So yes. We had concerns.

Mr. President, in the eight months since the announcement, the United States has consulted with other Security Council members. We felt that if there was an opportunity to move toward a political solution, we should do everything possible to make it work.

Today, there is a consensus in the Security Council that a constitutional committee should be convened in Geneva immediately by the UN Special Envoy, as he wishes to do.

We join in this consensus. Our Syria Small Group partners have also rallied behind this idea. Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom support the creation of this group to map Syria’s political future – and without delay.

But it’s starting to look like our concerns might have been warranted. We see the Assad regime using the same delaying tactics that have stalled the political process in Syria for years.

Mr. President, the Special Envoy has worked hard to prepare a diverse and credible list of Syrians to serve on the constitutional committee. The candidates are drawn from all parts of Syrian society. Many of them are experts in the law and the process of drafting a new constitution. And just last month, Turkey and Russia announced an agreement in principle on lists of possible members of the committee.

But now the Assad regime is objecting to these lists. They now want veto power over the UN’s process. They have, at the eleventh hour, invited the Special Envoy to Damascus next week for new consultations, after months of not engaging. We welcome Special Envoy de Mistura’s offer to brief this Council on his Damascus trip as soon as possible and we hope that will take place before the end of this month.

The Syrian representative to the UN has told this Council that Damascus reject’s Russia’s own Sochi Declaration that launched the Constitutional Committee. Syria rejected Russia’s diplomatic initiative. So let’s be clear about what Assad is up to. This is not a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy, this is another obvious attempt to delay the UN’s effort to forge a political consensus and a political solution.

There can only be two purposes for these delaying tactics, neither of which speak well of the motives of Assad and his Russian friends.

Either they are attempting to create an unbalanced committee that will rubber stamp the regime’s positions, or they are attempting to forestall the vital work of the committee, which is the critical work of establishing self-government for the Syrian people.

Let’s remember what is at stake if the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation delay the creation of the committee: There will be no progress on the new Syrian constitution, no progress toward free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, and no progress on a political solution. And this moment of calm and opportunity, which has created the time and space for political progress, could well evaporate.

Mr. President, the United States does not share the view that a November launch of this committee is rushed or premature. In fact, quite the contrary. Delay risks disaster. We have the lists of participants. The Security Council has the roadmap for a political settlement and has had since it passed Resolution 2254 in 2015. The Special Envoy has every authority to convene this committee and tells us he is ready to do so. We believe he should.

Special Envoy de Mistura should set a date for the first meeting of the committee, issue invitations, and move ahead with talks. And he should do so without delay.

While some in this room are in no hurry to move forward on the political process, there are six million refugees who cannot return home without progress on the 2254 process – the constitutional committee is only a very early step toward this. There are three million Syrian civilians in Idlib whose fate also hangs in the balance.

The Syrian and Russian jets are grounded – for now. The heavy weapons have been removed from Turkey and Russia’s demilitarized zone – for now. The ceasefire in Idlib has given us a window of opportunity, but it is a window that could close at any minute.

Mr. President, we remind the Security Council that Resolution 2254 – which passed without opposition in this chamber – explicitly supports a nationwide ceasefire to accompany and reinforce initial steps toward political transition.

The United States has been clear: Any military escalation in Idlib and beyond remains unacceptable and would gravely threaten efforts to find a peaceful, political solution to this crisis.

The Syrian people have been silenced for too long. We have a unique opportunity to forge a political solution to one of the most bloody and destructive wars of our lifetime. This moment of opportunity will not last, based on all we’ve seen in Syria the past years. I urge my colleagues to resist further delays and take this historic opportunity.

Thank you.