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
August 29, 2019


Thank you, Madame President.

Special Envoy Pedersen and Under Secretary-General Lowcock, thank you both for your briefings. As Secretary of State Pompeo stated in this chamber last week, we appreciate the opportunity to use this Council to confront the complex challenges of the Middle East. There are few places with challenges today greater than those in Syria.

In the recently published OCHA report on the situation in Idlib, OCHA reconfirmed, despite the denials of Assad and his supporters, that the greater Idlib area has around 3 million Syrians – roughly 20 percent of the remaining population of the country. More than half of the civilians there are children.

The report notes that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured due to airstrikes and shelling since May, and more than 400,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes to escape from violence.

The overwhelming majority of the displaced people are moving to densely-populated areas close to the Turkish border in the northern Idlib governorate, where humanitarian assistance is overstretched.

Attacks by the Assad regime, Russia, and their allies in northwest Syria continue, and have increased in recent weeks. The number of civilians killed, injured, and displaced from their homes continues to rise and the Assad regime and its allies are causing devastating harm to civilian infrastructure, including to schools and medical facilities and water facilities.

And as Under Secretary-General Lockock emphatically stated moments ago, there can be no justification for this. We saw this tragic story unfold yet again when a targeted airstrike in the Ma’arat Humeh neighborhood of southern Idlib took the lives of two humanitarian workers, a paramedic, and an ambulance driver. Even more barbaric, a White Helmets volunteer who rushed to save their lives was himself killed in an infamous “double-tap” airstrike.

Meanwhile, the past week saw escalating violence and the regime’s capture of Khan Sheikhoun – the same town that was victim to the regime’s sarin attack in April 2017 that killed nearly 100 people.

The United States supports calls for a resolution to address the situation in Idlib.

Madame President, these attacks make it impossible to believe that the regime and Russia are being honest when they say they are not pursuing a military solution to this conflict. We object to the offensive launched by the Assad regime and its allies under the false pretense of counterterrorism operations. We know what counterterrorism operations look like, and although we agree there is a terrorist problem in Idlib, what we are witnessing is not counterterrorism, but rather an excuse to continue a violent military campaign against those who refuse to accept the Assad regime as it is.

Therefore, we call upon the UN to move swiftly with the Board of Inquiry responsible for investigating attacks on medical facilities in northwest Syria.

Madame President, the dire situation in Syria is not limited to Idlib. Throughout the country, more than six million internally displaced persons have yet to return to their homes because of continued violence. Millions more live in constant fear for their safety and security, while also lacking basic necessities and a way to provide for themselves and their families.

The United States calls on all members of the Council, as well as our regional partners, to ensure that the UN has the ability to freely implement cross-border aid deliveries through all agreed border crossings in accordance with UNSCR 2449. There is no substitute for cross-border operations, and it is particularly important now that we are experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Idlib.

We continue to call for full humanitarian access to Rukban and the immediate delivery of critically needed aid, as well as the ability for displaced people to depart in a safe, voluntary, and dignified manner, to the location of their choosing, if they wish to do so. We do not support forced relocations.

Further, it is important that the Syrian regime permit regular access for humanitarian agencies to reach all displaced people in need, including those in Rukban.

Repeated failures by the Astana Guarantors to maintain a ceasefire between the Assad regime and opposition groups, such as the one two weeks ago, demonstrated that the format is incapable of truly preventing violence or making substantive gains towards a political solution and other mandates of UNSCR 2254, such as the release of detainees.

Madame President, the United States strongly supports the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria to establish the Constitutional Committee, which should be led and launched by the UN as an integral part of UNSCR 2254.

The Astana Guarantors’ inability to deliver on the Constitutional Committee for the past two years shows the regime and Russia are content to use this format to slow-roll political progress. We call on the Astana group members to halt their futile attempt to seize ownership of the political process and instead put their full support behind the office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria.

On August 7, the United States and our Turkish counterparts committed to standing up a Combined Joint Operations Center and implementing this security mechanism in northeast Syria. We believe this mechanism will be a viable way to secure and stabilize the border and ensure continuity in the Global Coalition’s efforts to defeat ISIS.

The United States stands with Turkey in calling for the preservation of the 2018 Sochi agreement as agreed by Turkey and Russia last September.

Madame President, we call upon all members of this Council to help ensure that efforts to establish a de-escalation zone take hold, accompanied by a ceasefire across all of Syria and in particular in Idlib and northern Hama. Progress on a political track is unrealistic unless these conditions are met.

Of course, no path forward is possible without the cooperation of the Assad regime and Russia. We call on both to end their violence in Syria and join the international community in a process that will result in the final stabilization of the country.

We also reiterate the call made by the United States and other Council members during our recent meeting on detainees for the Assad regime to immediately release innocent civilians held in regime prisons, and grant impartial and independent international entities access to detention centers, in order to begin building mutual trust and the basis for reconciliation that is needed for a lasting peace.

Until then, we will continue to apply pressure through all appropriate means to isolate this murderous and corrupt regime and its allies.

I thank you.