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
New York City
October 29, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock, for your sobering briefing.

The timing of this session is especially important. On Friday, we heard the Syrian representative issue a chilling warning in crystal clear terms that the regime “will retake Idlib at a time of its choosing.” Later that day, we saw reports of regime strikes on areas inside the Idlib zone.

Mr. President, what this means is that the window of opportunity to prevent the slaughter of millions of Syrian civilians living in Idlib, created by Turkey and Russia’s agreement on a de-militarized zone, is closing. And it can close fast. Once that window closes, as Under-Secretary-General Lowcock has reminded us this morning, a catastrophic humanitarian crisis will be on our hands. Civilians will die. Thousands will be displaced. We have seen this over and over again just in this year alone with the Russian and regime’s offensives in eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Dara’a, and now Idlib.

While we were encouraged by the UN’s assessment that Turkey and Russia’s creation of a de-militarized zone in Idlib contributed to a reduction of violence in the last month, we’re gravely concerned about the scale of the humanitarian crisis we would face if and when Assad decides the Idlib ceasefire has outlived its usefulness to him. This would likely be the largest catastrophe yet in this already devastating conflict. Syria and Russia have shown they feel absolutely no obligation to uphold de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta, Dara’a and even Idlib based on recent developments. We cannot trust them to uphold this military agreement or basic humanitarian principles in Syria.

Mr. President, the best way to ensure the Council prevents another humanitarian tragedy from unfolding in Idlib and the countryside in Syria is to show genuine and urgent movement toward a political solution to the crisis, fully consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The United States and members of the Small Group, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom, are exerting every ounce diplomatic to see the constitutional committee launch as quickly as possible, while one other Council member seeks to invoke what is has called “artificial deadlines” to prolong the dangerous status quo. But I think we all agree that to support the political effort, the UN’s work to prepare for the worst in Idlib remains absolutely essential.

The United States applauds the heroic efforts of the United Nations and its partners for their brave work to preposition humanitarian aid in Idlib and ensure that the international community is prepared to respond should the regime break the ceasefire and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.

Mr. President, the United States urges Russia and Turkey to make this ceasefire agreement durable and for Russia to prevent the Syrian regime from any military offensive into Idlib. Provocations and disinformation by Damascus must stop, including the regime’s, and one Council member’s, continued attempts to falsely accuse the brave, humanitarian first responders, the White Helmets, of planning chemical weapons attacks in Idlib province. This is especially ridiculous as independent mechanisms created in this very council have found the Syrian regime to be the party guilty of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Returning to the issue of humanitarian access, Mr. President, it’s no surprise that sustained humanitarian access from Damascus remains elusive in far too many parts of Syria. For the three million people living in Idlib alone, cross-border humanitarian assistance is a vital lifeline. United Nations cross-border deliveries are authorized by UN Security Council Resolutions 2165 and 2393 and must be enabled by the parties to the conflict.

To that end, Mr. President, the United States strongly supports the Secretary-General’s assessment noted in the September report that the renewal of the UN’s cross-border humanitarian assistance mechanism, as set forward by the UN Security Council Resolution 2165 and subsequent resolutions, is vital for some five million Syrians who currently depend on these cross-border humanitarian deliveries.

In other areas like Rukban, the Syrian government has kept civilians under siege by denying sustained humanitarian aid to the camp. While we look forward to the arrival of a joint UN-SARC convoy reaching Rukban, we need to be clear that this is only a first step in addressing the dire humanitarian conditions people in Rukban face every day.

The United States has offered the United Nations all necessary security assurances to allow this delivery to proceed. But a one-time delivery is not good enough. A one-time delivery does not allow for safe, rapid, unhindered, and sustained access. Moscow and Damascus must ensure the UN has regular and unimpeded access to provide humanitarian assistance to Rukban and all areas in need throughout Syria.

As the Secretary-General’s report also notes, yet another month has gone by with no uptick in humanitarian access, even to territories that are now under regime control. Despite shifting battle lines and territorial control, there has been no improvement in the ability of relief organizations to meet those in need.

Mr. President, that’s why the United States fully supports the UN’s assessment that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for large-scale refugee returns. The Assad regime still has done little to demonstrate its willingness to create security and humanitarian conditions on the ground that would allow people to feel safe voluntarily returning to their homes. Reported conditions of continued insecurity and regime reprisals, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances, such as in the southwest of Syria, demonstrate that the international standards for refugee returns – and indeed, the removal of the cause of well-founded fears of persecution that led refugees to flee in the first place – have not yet been met.

Without the verifiable repeal of Law 10, and other similar laws, Syrian refugees and IDPs face credible fear about their ability to return to their homes and rebuild their lives in safety and dignity and without prejudice to the demographic makeup of Syria. Syrian refugees and IDPs must be allowed to make their own decisions to return that are safe, free, and informed, and not pressured or premature.

The United States is the leading donor of humanitarian assistance for the Syria response, providing over $9 billion in aid throughout Syria and to neighboring countries hosting more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis. And the United States is proud of our longstanding and significant support to the people of Syria.

But the responsibility for the safety, dignity and well-being of Syrians belongs first and foremost to Syrian authorities. Not to Syria’s neighbors, not to the international community, not to donors.

We therefore call on the Syrian regime to uphold their most basic obligations to the Syrian people under international law and call on the Syrian regime to uphold their obligations to this Council, including allowing for sustained humanitarian access to territories under their control. The regime’s excuses have never been acceptable. But absent the most basic signs of progress, these excuses are increasingly implausible.

And finally, Mr. President, I want to reiterate that we must move forward with the formation of the constitutional committee as quickly as possible as a first step toward an irreversible political transition in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This is not an artificial deadline. The years of suffering of millions of refugees and IDPs argue strongly that the parties and the UN must seize the fleeting window of opportunity provided by the Idlib ceasefire and act now. We are talking about saving peoples’ lives. A timeline that does so as quickly as possible is no “artificial deadline;” it’s a moral necessity and precisely why we have this Council and that United Nations and why action now is essential. The constitutional committee represents an important opportunity to improve humanitarian conditions throughout Syria by securing an end to the conflict.

We have no time to lose. We must not tolerate the imposition of more artificial delays. We must see this committee launched. Shame on all of us all if we don’t expend every effort now to prevent another humanitarian tragedy in Syria.

I thank you.