Ambassador Kelly Craft
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
February 27, 2020
Thank you. Yes, it is a man-made humanitarian nightmare.
“There’s nothing that will protect a baby against the bombs being dropped on the tent they’re sleeping in.” Those were the words of Mark Lowcock two days ago when asked what could be done to end the catastrophe in Idlib. It is a wretched image. But for so many Syrians, tragically, he is describing what has become a daily reality. Shelter, food, and medicine are desperately needed. But they are no match for Russian airstrikes. If we are to end the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria, we must concentrate all of our efforts on immediately establishing a durable and verifiable ceasefire – one brokered by a fully empowered UN. This will require Russia to ground its planes at once and tell the regime to pull back its forces.
Reports from Idlib in recent days are stomach-turning. According to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Syrian boys and girls are being killed in regime attacks on schools. Aid workers cannot reach affected areas with food or water. Parents are burning their own clothes to keep their children warm. Families are digging out caves for shelter. Babies are freezing to death. And yet, as Lowcock noted on Tuesday, “the members of the UN Security Council can’t agree on how to deal with this problem.” But what is the source of our disagreement? Is it that nearly all Council members object to handing down death sentences to thousands of innocent Syrians, while our Russian and Chinese colleagues, whether explicitly or implicitly, do not?
In light of the Assad regime’s relentless and escalating pursuit of a military solution with the aid of Russia and Iran, UN humanitarian operations are more important than ever. The Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings authorized by Resolution 2504 are now the only humanitarian lifelines for millions of Syrians trapped in the northwest. They are the only lifelines because they are all that Russia would accept in negotiations without shutting down the entire mechanism. With the closing of the Yaroubia crossing, it is imperative that the two crossings still operating be renewed [beyond] July. The consequences of closing Yaroubia are grim and mounting, as the Secretary-General’s report details. Barring further Council action, medical supplies will run out for the 1.9 million civilians in northeast Syria left stranded by Russian and Chinese vetoes. These individuals now count among Syria’s most vulnerable, and most are children. They have been courageously served by UNICEF through this conflict, but it is critical that UNICEF be allowed to continue providing vital aid to young Syrians who are starving, freezing, sick, and displaced.
The Secretary-General’s report names alternatives to the cross-border mechanism that would rely on the Assad regime to manage and distribute vital resources. But we know better. The truth is, we cannot depend on the Assad regime to deliver any cross-line assistance, regardless of what roads or airports it may now control. The most feasible alternative crossing location identified by the Secretary-General’s report is Tel Abyad. This is the exact same crossing that OCHA recommended, and that the United States supported, just a few months ago. We encourage the Council to explore this alternative from a principled humanitarian position, as it has the potential to save thousands of innocent lives.
In all of this, we cannot forget that the crisis did not simply happen. It was imposed on the Syrian people by two of our members. The now closed Yaroubia crossing was fully functional. It did not need an alternative. And it remains the best, most direct option to provide cross-border aid to northeast Syria. The shameful fact is that Russia and China have knowingly rejected the most effective means of saving the most lives in favor of unreliable or specious options. There is no reason to believe the Assad regime will responsibly manage humanitarian assistance funding, and we should not put a single dollar of that funding in its hands. Having killed, thousands, hundreds of thousands of its own people, the regime cannot be expected to consent to rapid, impartial, and unhindered deliveries of cross-border and cross-line aid. This is why we all must be prepared to renew UN cross-border operations throughout [northern] Syria – precisely what the Secretary-General has recommended to the Council.
President Trump and I want the Syrian people to know that the United States continues to stand with them, but I want to close today by addressing my 14 colleagues. One day, maybe soon, maybe years from now, there will be a time of reckoning for those who knew that babies were freezing to death in Syria and did nothing. For those who knew children were dying in airstrikes on schools and did nothing. For those who knew millions faced a shortage of critical medicines and did nothing. But this Council can act, which means that each country represented here has a choice. You can feed the hungry, shelter the weary, and heal the sick. Or you can sit back and watch them suffer and die – and be forever remembered for doing so. Which will it be?