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

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
July 27, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock and Special Representative Gamba for your detailed and disturbing briefings, and for your important work on Syria.

The United States condemns the attack that took place earlier this week in Syria’s Sweida province, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility. This barbaric attack killed scores of civilians and we send our sympathies to the families of the victims.

Civilians – and particularly children – continue to bear the brunt of ongoing violence in Syria. Each month, Mr. Lowcock briefs us on desperate civilians caught up in military offensives and the thousands who are denied access to the most basic necessities, including life-saving aid. The latest military campaign in the southwest is yet another dark chapter in Syria’s tragic story. This month, Special Representative Gamba has provided us with an even closer look at the misery; it’s clear that Syria’s children have experienced an almost unimaginable level of suffering and trauma that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

The statistics cited here and in the monthly reports on Syria should not be misinterpreted. Yes, the number of besieged areas has been reduced to zero, but not because the regime lifted sieges. Instead, it’s because they mercilessly followed through with their “surrender or starve” campaign. Likewise, the number of Syrians living in hard-to-reach areas is down from just over two million last month to 1.5 million in July – not because the regime is allowing more access, but because it has taken more territory by force. Sadly, more than 13 million people in Syria still require humanitarian assistance, and at least six million of those are children.

In southwest Syria, the regime’s military offensives since June 17 have displaced more than 325,000 civilians, approximately half of whom were children. Yet, humanitarians are largely unable to reach these vulnerable populations and supplies are dwindling. Even more concerning is that this loss of humanitarian access in southwest Syria includes the halting of UN cross-border aid deliveries demanded by this Council most recently in Resolution 2393.

Nothing about the regime’s failure to facilitate humanitarian access has changed since last month’s Council meeting. Instead of placing the needs of its own population first, the regime continues to weaponize humanitarian assistance and withhold access as a tool to force reconciliation in areas formerly held by the armed opposition.

We call on the Syrian regime and its Russian allies to allow the UN to resume cross-border convoys from Jordan and to facilitate delivery of cross-line assistance from Damascus to people in need, in line with this Council’s previous resolutions on the matter. For the 800,000 people dependent on life-saving cross-border assistance, UN operations need to continue.

Turning to Idlib, the Syrian regime and its supporters have continued their aggressive actions and are building up their military forces for their next major offensive. The UN’s dire warnings have been clear and unmistakable: a Syrian regime military campaign in Idlib, akin to what we saw in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, would result in a disastrous humanitarian crisis. This Council urgently needs to put measures in place to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access in Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of people are at risk.

The United States will once again put on record that UN humanitarian convoys are welcome at any time in Rukban. We welcome this assistance and are ready to do everything we can to facilitate it. In Rukban, Coalition forces have worked with the UN and other partners to provide requested details on operational security and medical evacuations. The bottom line is that the United States is ready to support humanitarian deliveries. The delay, as always, continues to be the Assad regime and its refusal to grant permission for the UN’s convoys to move.

In Raqqa, removing unexploded ordinances is one of our top priorities; it is a critical first step for humanitarian and stabilization assistance. To date, Coalition-funded explosive hazards removal teams have cleared more than 20,000 explosive hazards from 15.5 million square meters of territory in Manbij, Tabqa, and Raqqa cities and trained over 300 Syrian nationals to conduct marking, survey, and clearance up to international humanitarian mine action standards. The task is not easy, but it’s vital to ensure Syrians can return home safely.

Mr. President, the United States continues to support refugee returns when they are safe, voluntary, and dignified. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees assesses that it is not yet safe for large-scale refugee returns in Syria. We also remind the Council that the cessation of violence is a critical element for planning successful large-scale refugee returns. Russia is still not upholding its commitment to maintain a de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria. If Russia is serious about its concern for refugees and other displaced Syrians, it should work with the Syrian regime to stop the violence and allow unhindered humanitarian access to civilians in need.

To conclude, the positive developments are few and far between, but we must find light where we can: we are glad that children and their families in two previously besieged parts of Idlib were finally able to depart for safer areas and no longer face being cut off from the basic elements of survival. Now, we must find a way to protect the other children in Idlib in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you.