Ambassador Richard Mills
Deputy Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
October 27, 2020
Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you, Mark for your briefing on the continued dire humanitarian situation in the country. I also want to thank the Special Envoy, on behalf of my government, for his efforts on Syria. We are grateful at my delegation for the updates from your recent travels to Damascus to revive the UN-facilitated political process.
The only legitimate path to securing a peaceful future for the Syrian people is the internationally agreed roadmap for a political transition outlined in our Resolution 2254. In our view today, the Council must make clear to Damascus, Moscow, and the Syrian people that there is no alternative solution to the Syrian conflict.
The United States Government will remain unwavering in calling for the implementation of Resolution 2254, and that resolution’s calls for an inclusive Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
The lack of progress on the Constitutional Committee that we heard just described is both regrettable and unacceptable. The Assad regime has unilaterally stymied any progress in the Constitutional Committee despite agreeing to the Special Envoy’s Terms of Reference.
At present, from what we are hearing, the regime representative co-chair to the Committee refuses to agree to an agenda or date for any subsequent meeting. Over the past year, every member of this Council has expressed support for the Committee’s work. We believe it is time now to tell the Assad regime that enough is enough. The Constitutional Committee must move forward with regular, substantive meetings without further obstruction by Damascus.
The U.S. Government calls on all parties to the UN-facilitated political process, which means the regime and the Syrian Opposition, to adhere to specific principles, including: committing to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character; the principle of protecting the rights of all Syrians; and, finally, the principle of ensuring unimpeded UN humanitarian access throughout the country. In order for the parties to move beyond previous discussions of first principles and directly address constitutional reforms, the Assad regime must actively participate in the organization and conduct of future Constitutional Committee meetings.
We believe the Council must do everything in its power to prevent the regime representatives from continuing to block agreement on an agenda as we move into the final months of 2020. The U.S. Government is concerned that the Assad regime’s goal is to further derail the Committee’s work into 2021, when, as you all know, Syria is scheduled to hold presidential elections in April. We believe the regime’s hope is to invalidate the work of Special Envoy Pedersen and our calls, the Council’s calls, for a negotiated political transition. Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair, and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora. This is why we need to the Constitutional Committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.
The United States urges Special Envoy Pedersen to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts consistent with the UN’s parameters and principles, and also to identify to the Council who is blocking progress. We ask the Special Envoy to press the Syrian regime to act in accordance with the agreements that it has made on the agenda so that the next session can be held as soon as possible with continued regular meetings throughout the end of the year.
We expect the UN and the Syrian parties to work on concrete deliverables on other confidence-building measures. Those measures would include things like the unilateral release of arbitrary detainees who are languishing in overcrowded regime prisons, it could be the restoration of property rights, the allowance of regular UN aid deliveries to all parts of Syria, as well as preparations to support free and fair elections in line with Resolution 2254.
The cornerstone of peace in Syria and a negotiated political solution is a permanent, verifiable, nationwide ceasefire. Once again, the United States calls for the March 5 Idlib ceasefire agreement to be fully upheld by all actors on the ground in the northwest – Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. The Council must continue to demand the regime’s agreement to uphold a nationwide ceasefire.
Let me shift to the ongoing humanitarian crisis – Mark, again thank you for your briefing. The U.S. Delegation salutes the brave work of the UN and all the humanitarians working to help the Syrian people. The attacks on humanitarians in the northwest in the three separate incidents you describe are very troubling, and we want to express our sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones to that violence.
The recent airstrikes against civilians and humanitarians, that we just heard of, in northwest Syria are just one of many examples that demonstrates without a doubt that Syria remains a country at war. The regime’s failure to address the spread of COVID, coupled with the continued politicization of UN aid deliveries, just cannot be ignored, nor can it be rewarded with reconstruction projects, capacity building, or normalization of relations with Damascus. Therefore, the U.S. calls on the UN to fully uphold its principles and its parameters and maintain its focus on humanitarian relief operations inside Syria until a political agreement is reached.
Conditions inside Syria, I think as we heard, are not yet conducive for the safe facilitation of the large-scale return of refugees. That is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ position. It is also the position of the United States Government, and of the other major donors who provide the overwhelming majority of funding to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
Therefore, the U.S. calls on the Assad regime to stop targeting Syrians who have returned to regime-held areas and signed reconciliation agreements, and we call on the Assad regime to create the conditions that would allow for the safe, voluntary, dignified, and timely return of refugees to the country.
We believe it is important to be clear about the UN’s assessment of conditions for returns because this must be our guiding principle, not Syria’s or Russia’s political priorities. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced plans to host a conference next month in Damascus on international refugee returns, as many of you know. It is the strong belief of the United States that this conference is counterproductive and it is totally inappropriate for any military organization to manage refugee returns in Syria, Russia, or otherwise.
The conference does not address in any way the root causes of the conflict that created millions of refugees in Syria. The conference aims to discuss refugee returns, which is completely premature given the lack of conditions on the ground for any large-scale refugee returns. Prematurely encouraging refugee returns will only lead to instability and a revolving door of displacement. We also note the conference was not coordinated with the UN or with the countries that are hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, such as Germany and Turkey.
In April, the Secretary-General’s Board of Inquiry Report for northwest Syria found it highly probable that the Syrian Government and its allies, meaning the Russian Ministry of Defense, were responsible for conducting attacks that damaged hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, wreaking further devastation on the Syrian people.
The Russian Federation formally withdrew from its deconfliction arrangements with OCHA last year, and that placed hospitals, civilian IDP camps, and medical workers in its crosshairs with devastating effect throughout northwest Syria. Quite frankly, the U.S. Government does not believe that the Russian military is a credible host for convening a meaningful discussion on the returns of refugees.
For these reasons, the United States will not attend the conference. We strongly urge the United Nations and all others to forego attendance as well at this conference that has been orchestrated by those responsible for the refugees fleeing in the first place.
Aid deliveries to areas recently back under Assad’s control in the southwest and the Damascus suburbs, as well as the northwest and northeast, are still insufficient, as we’ve heard, to meet humanitarian needs and respond to COVID. Thousands of civilian residents of the Rukban IDP camp have been denied humanitarian access to the UN for 13 months due to non-approvals by the regime and by Russia.
So we call on the Assad regime and Russia to immediately allow unfettered humanitarian access to the camp, including UN humanitarian deliveries and a needs assessment mission into Rukban so that the UN can work to find solutions for those remaining in the camp.
Let me end by saying, the Trump Administration, the U.S. Government will continue to pursue a whole-of-government approach, including through implementation of the U.S. Caesar Act, to maintain the economic and diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime until that regime makes concrete and irreversible progress toward a political resolution of the conflict. This is the only way forward to protect the Syrian people and ensure they have the future they deserve – a future that they control.
Thank you, Mr. President.