Thank you, Madam President, and since this is my first opportunity to congratulate you on taking the presidency, I’d like to do so at this time.
Thank you, Staffan, for your briefing.
Last week, the world witnessed a new and extremely dangerous escalation in Syria. It should not surprise anyone on the Security Council that Iran was responsible. Iranian forces, operating from Syrian territory, launched a rocket attack against Israeli citizens – citizens of a sovereign Member State of these United Nations. The United States strongly supports Israel’s right to act in self-defense.
Iran’s reckless and provocative act last week proves what we have been saying. Wherever Iran shows up in the Middle East, chaos follows. Last week’s rocket attack against Israel is the latest in a pattern of destabilizing behavior that is a dire threat to the region’s stability.
Iran’s rocket attack against Israel shows something else too. It puts to bed any myths about why Iran is present in Syria or what its true objectives might be. The fact is that Iran has installed offensive rocket and missile systems in Syria aimed at Israel. Iran has introduced these threats that were not present in Syria before the conflict. They are now.
Iran, together with Hizballah and other militias, is taking advantage of Syrian territory to establish bases and training camps. They are moving ever closer to Israel. The United States calls on Iran, Hizballah, and their other proxies to take no further provocative steps. If they do, Iran will bear full responsibility for its actions.
It’s also important to emphasize that Iran’s actions do not serve the interests of the Iranian or Syrian people. The Syrian people get no say in whether Iran threatens war against Syria’s neighbors. But it is the Syrian people who have to live with the consequences.
All of us on the Security Council have an important choice to make. We can stay quiet and watch as Iran builds up the infrastructure to create another Hizballah in Syria. Or we can speak up and take steps to put real pressure on Iran to stop. For our part, the United States refuses to stay quiet.
Russia, in particular, has a special responsibility here. Their troops are on the ground, sometimes alongside Iran’s. Russia must know that Iran’s provocative actions do nothing to help resolve the war in Syria. Russia must know that Iran’s actions do just the opposite. They only inflame, prolong, and widen the conflict.
We heard once again from Staffan today that there has been very little progress on the political track. There has been no progress at all in Geneva or following Russia’s own conferences in Astana and Sochi.
Since January, the UN was supposed to assemble a new constitution-drafting committee that would help kick off a new round of political talks. The UN was supposed to have the ability to choose which people would serve on the committee, and the UN was supposed to be empowered to facilitate these talks.
Instead, the Assad regime back-tracked, stalled, and then refused to cooperate. At the same time, the Syrian regime escalated its brutal military campaign. They seized eastern Ghouta, at a cost of thousands of lives and tens of thousands displaced. They used chemical weapons in Douma.
And just yesterday, the Fact-Finding Mission of the OPCW released a report determining that chlorine was used during attacks on February 4th, 2018, in Saraqib. As reported by the FFM, the facts of this chemical weapons attack bear the hallmarks of similar attacks conducted by the Assad regime. As we’ve said before, the United States assesses that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons well over 50 times since the start of the civil war.
The Assad regime, with Iran and Russia’s full support, is choosing to pursue a military solution instead of a political solution. And that goes against everything we should stand for as a Security Council.
In the aftermath of eastern Ghouta, the need for a real ceasefire could not be more obvious. Already, we see the Assad regime launching new attacks in Idlib and in the southwest. As Staffan noted, a Ghouta scenario in Idlib would be six times worse than the horror we saw in recent months in Ghouta. Airstrikes in the southwest have tripled in the last month, even though this area is part of a de-escalation zone. Russia is supposed to be a sponsor of this zone. It must urgently meet its commitments to prevent the regime from carrying out attacks and stop Iranian militias from expanding their foothold in the south.
Members of the Security Council, all of us must push the political process forward. There is Council unity behind this goal. There is a clear blueprint for a political solution in Resolution 2254, which we adopted unanimously.
We have to send a clear message to the Assad regime and to its backers: the end of this conflict can only be reached via the UN-led political process. There must be constitutional reform and free and fair elections under UN supervision. And if the Assad regime doesn’t comply, we need to be prepared to impose real costs on the regime for its years of defiance and the devastation it has wrought in Syria.
If we take these steps, we can start to change the Assad regime and its allies’ calculus in Syria. We can show them that further conflict is not in their interests and that it’s time for them to genuinely commit to a political solution. But, as we saw last week, the longer we wait, the greater the risk of confrontation. Now is the time to act to reduce tensions and address Iran’s designs in Syria. That is how we can prevent a further escalation and even worse suffering. There is no time to waste. Thank you.