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

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
June 27, 2018


Thank you, Special Envoy de Mistura and Director Ging, for your briefings this morning.

Mr. President, we are no closer to peace in Syria and no closer to addressing any of this Council’s concerns about the Assad regime’s denials of humanitarian access.

The situation in the southwest de-escalation zone has become extremely serious. On Monday, during the Council’s meeting on threats to international peace and security in the Middle East, the Russian representative said, “Nobody is doing more to de-escalate the conflict in Syria than the Russian Federation.” This is just not true.

The United States is deeply concerned by the Syrian regime’s new offensive – with direct support from Russia – in the southwest, where ongoing airstrikes, barrel bombs, artillery, and rocket attacks are taking a significant toll on the civilian population. This is a part of the country that had enjoyed relative calm for almost a year because all parties were abiding by the de-escalation zone. But now, at least 45,000 people are confirmed to have fled their homes in southern Syria since the start of the offensive just 12 days ago, and we are now hearing that number may be as high as 70,000. It is deeply alarming that we see additional escalation in the southwest despite formal arrangements to keep that area calm.

When Jordan, Russia and the United States established the southwest de-escalation zone last year, the terms were clear. Above all, there would be a ceasefire that would allow the parties to engage on combatting extremist groups and terrorist groups designated by the UN Security Council. The arrangement remains in place, and the United States and Jordan have upheld our commitments in good faith. But now, the situation is changing.

Once again, Russia is justifying a military offensive by the Assad regime by saying that more than half the de-escalation zone is controlled by terrorists. That is just not true. The predominant armed opposition groups operating in the de-escalation zone belong to the moderate Free Syrian Army. The de-escalation arrangement does not allow military operations against them; rather, it only allows for the combatting of ISIS, al-Nusrah Front, and al-Qa’ida, and other terrorist groups as designated by this council. For years, the Assad regime and Russia have justified brutal assaults on civilian populations and infrastructure—on schools, on bakeries, on hospitals— under the pretext of counterterrorism. We are now seeing the same pattern in the southwest.

The United States can confirm that Russia itself launched airstrikes in the southwest de-escalation zone in recent days. To be clear: the unilateral military operations underway by the Assad regime and Russia in southwest Syria represent a violation of the ceasefire arrangement reaffirmed by President Trump and President Putin.

The United States remains determined to keep our commitment to the ceasefire. We urge our Russian partners to also uphold the ceasefire that it helped to establish, with the partnership of Jordan and the United States. We further urge Russia to take immediate steps to de-escalate violence in the southwest and throughout the whole of Syria, consistent with previous Security Council resolutions.

This Council already witnessed the horrific suffering of the people of eastern Ghouta during a ruthless assault by the regime and Russia, where thousands were killed and displaced. Russia yet again appears to be choosing a military option rather than a political one. It is incumbent on those sitting at this table – and the international community more broadly – to demand that this escalation of violence in Syria stop immediately.

Additionally, the offensive in southwest Syria is threatening the vital al-Ramtha border crossing that this Council has authorized for cross-border humanitarian deliveries. A closing of this crossing would inflict untold suffering on civilians who depend on life-saving assistance.

Mr. President, it is vital that cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries continue to serve the millions who depend on them. In last week’s report on cross-border humanitarian operations, the Secretary-General asserted that “the full and complementary use of all delivery options, including from within Syria and from neighboring countries, is necessary to access people in need.” Because the regime routinely fails to facilitate humanitarian assistance, and often removes medical items and other aid from convoys, it is vital that the Council uses its authority to support the continuation of cross-border operations. Alternative proposals from Council members to implement a new humanitarian operations mechanism that requires the Syrian regime’s approval are out of step with reality. Most importantly, these new proposals will harm the Syrian people. We cannot put humanitarian assistance – and the cross-border mechanism that assures its delivery – in jeopardy.

Mr. President, as always, the need for a political solution to end this crisis is obvious. The United States urges the swift formation of the constitutional committee under UN auspices. For this committee to work, and to lead to a lasting settlement, it must be inclusive. That is why we support the UN’s efforts to include civil society, women, and opposition representatives from the Syrian Negotiations Committee. The United Nations must be given a free hand to determine the composition of the committee, its scope of work, and schedule. The statement from Russia’s conference in Sochi in January makes clear that the UN has authority to make decisions about who sits on that constitutional committee, and that must be respected.

Lastly, we reiterate our commitment to the Geneva process and the full implementation of Resolution 2254. Geneva remains the sole, legitimate venue for the peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Council members around this table often reiterate this message, but actions on the ground appear to suggest that some are hedging their bets and seeking to create alternatives to Geneva. We must not delay progress on the political process any further.

Mr. President, the fact that we were able to work with Russia on a de-escalation arrangement that held for nearly a year shows that when we have the political will, we can help reduce violence and suffering in Syria. Progress is possible, and that’s why the U.S. remains committed to the de-escalation agreement and to working with this council to support peace in Syria. Like Special Envoy de Mistura, we will not give up.

Thank you.