Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
June 25, 2019


Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock for yet another deeply sobering briefing. Mr. President, one hundred and thirty-nine days have now passed since the last UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent humanitarian assistance convoy arrived in Rukban in early February. One hundred and thirty-nine days without heeding OCHA’s call to ease the suffering.

Since February, the Assad regime has failed to approve multiple requests from the UN to make a third humanitarian aid delivery to Rukban, where reports of dwindling food supplies are growing increasingly dire. It is unacceptable for the regime to withhold humanitarian aid deliveries as a means of forcing civilians to flee the encampment and furthering its claims that humanitarian conditions in Syria are stabilizing. Under-Secretary-General Lowcock’s briefing today demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. President, the United States renews its call for the Assad regime to approve the UN’s request for a third convoy to Rukban immediately. The regime must also allow unfettered, regular, humanitarian assistance to Rukban as long as there are displaced people in the encampment. Furthermore, the US calls upon the Russian Federation to secure the Assad regime’s compliance with the UN’s requests for a third convoy as well as to lift the Russian and Syrian military blockade of commercial access to the Rukban camp.

Mr. President, the United States supports the UN’s efforts to facilitate voluntary, safe, dignified, and informed departures from Rukban in combination with additional aid delivered to the camp. The US stands ready to provide security assurances for UN humanitarian convoys to Rukban.

Any accusation that the United States is responsible for blocking humanitarian aid deliveries to Rukban are absolutely false.

Though thousands of civilians have already left Rukban for relocation centers in Homs due to the dire humanitarian conditions, the United States does not consider returns voluntary if people are leaving the camp because they are not receiving the food, water, medicine, and shelter that they need to survive.

We strongly encourage the Assad regime to allow the UN unfettered access to Rukban residents from the time they depart Rukban until they reach their home or destination of their choice.

Mr. President, the Security Council must support the continuation of resolution 2449’s authorization of cross-border aid deliveries. The United States calls on every Council member, and our regional partners, to ensure that the UN can freely implement cross-border aid deliveries through all agreed border crossings, including from Jordan, and in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2449.

There is no substitute for the UN’s cross-border operations, which are the most transparent, most effective, and essential way to deliver humanitarian assistance to those who need it most—people like the three million civilians in Idlib who, according to Under-Secretary-General Lowcock, are completely reliant on resolution 2449’s UN cross-border aid deliveries.

Turning to the situation in Idlib, Mr. President, the United States is alarmed at yet another deliberate escalation of air strikes in northwest Syria by Syrian forces over the last week despite repeated calls by Council members as well as the Secretary-General and other senior UN officials for an immediate de-escalation.

The United States remains gravely concerned that, absent an immediate and full return by all parties to the 2018 Sochi Agreement ceasefire line, and restoration of the de-escalation agreements, the humanitarian conditions in Idlib and northwest Syria could soon be beyond the UN’s ability to mount a humanitarian response.

The United States takes very seriously the Under-Secretary-General’s remarks on the status of the de-confliction mechanism. Any attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure as such, including schools and medical facilities, are off limits, regardless of whether they are part of the UN’s de-confliction mechanism.

Mr. President, this should not even need to be said, let alone repeated meeting after meeting. When it comes to northwest Syria, it is clear who has control of the airspace and, thus, who is responsible for these attacks on the de-conflicted sites. Therefore, the United States urges Russia to assure the UN and this Council that it will abide by all of its commitments to the de-confliction mechanism, and ensure that Syrian forces also act in full compliance with the de-confliction arrangements. Mr. President, the Russian Federation can and must do better to restore peace and bring about a political solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation and the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria’s track record on de-escalation and reconciliation speaks for itself. Another Russian-brokered agreement made; another Russian-brokered agreement tossed aside for military and political expediency. The situation in Idlib is escalating, thousands were killed last year during the regime and Russian joint offensive in Eastern Ghouta—a former Astana protected de-escalation zone— and the situation in southwest Syria is deteriorating despite a Russian-brokered reconciliation agreement there with local communities.

The United States is concerned that despite the regime’s recapture with Russian assistance by brute military force of areas such as eastern Ghouta and southwest Syria, the UN and humanitarian actors continue to struggle for access to these locations. Meanwhile, civilians’ access to electricity and safe drinking water in these areas remains intermittent.

Eastern Ghouta and southwest Syria have become “black holes” of information, due to residents’ fear of sharing information and ending up in regime custody. However, the United States is aware of reports that the Assad regime is deploying a vast network of intelligence checkpoints where regime forces regularly arrest civilians and force them into conscription in violation of the Russian-brokered reconciliation agreements.

Mr. President, the United States is also concerned by growing indications that the regime plans to take full control of the region and by growing frustration among communities in Dara’a and Quneitra as regime intelligence forces expand their control across the area and establish checkpoints into Dara’a. Reports of assassinations, kidnappings, poor provision of essential services, and forced conscription all call into question Russia’s role as a trustworthy broker between the Syrian people and the regime forces for improved security and living conditions in the south.

Finally, Mr. President, the United States would like to thank David Lillie, the Executive Director of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), for being with us today and for his important and troubling briefing to the council. SAMS network of medical professionals and health facilities are real lifelines to millions of people in northwest Syria. We on this council must protect them and we on this council must protect civil society and civilian populations from any further attacks by the Assad regime and its allies.

I thank you.