Thank you, Mr. President, and our thanks to the Secretary-General for his important briefing this morning as well.
We are grateful to our Russian colleagues for this opportunity to explore the root causes of conflict in the Middle East. This meeting is timely because today, Russia has the ability to stop a military escalation that is happening in the region as we speak. As noted by the United Kingdom, in Syria, the Assad regime has launched an offensive in the southwest de-escalation zone negotiated by Jordan, Russia, and the United States. Yet again, we are seeing the Syrian regime launch airstrikes, artillery, barrel bombs, and rocket attacks that are displacing tens of thousands of people. And Russia itself has launched airstrikes in this zone over the weekend, in a clear violation of an agreement that was meant to save lives and promote a political solution in Syria. The ceasefire reflects a commitment between President Trump and President Putin, and the United States remains determined to uphold our commitment. On a day when Russia has asked us to talk about the root causes of conflict in the Middle East, we expect Russia to do its part to uphold the ceasefire that it helped establish.
Before going further, it is worth noting the enormous positive contributions that the peoples of the Middle East has made to the world. It is a region of ancient civilizations that has given us all so much. In the arts, in language, in science and in philosophy, in religion, the world owes a great deal to the people of the Middle East.
Conflict has many roots, and in the Middle East, for too many decades, brutal dictatorships and authoritarian governments have denied basic human rights to their people. That has inevitably caused conflict. Violent religious fanaticism from non-governmental groups, as well as from some governments, has also caused conflict. Lack of economic development and economic opportunity is a source of conflict.
This is, of course, not a new topic for the Security Council, though it is my first chance to participate in this debate. Each month the council has a meeting on the Middle East, at which the United States tries to drill down on precisely this question of root causes.
In these debates, the United States has raised the issue of humanitarian crises in Gaza and the suffering of the people there. What is at the root of this crisis? Hamas, a terrorist group that took power in 2007, has since served as the de facto authority in Gaza. In the eleven years that followed, Hamas has demonstrated far more interest in initiating violence than in caring for the Palestinian people.
The United States has also taken the opportunity in these debates to talk about the widespread and unacceptable use of civilians, including women and children, as human shields in conflicts throughout the Middle East.
At the root of these conflicts are groups, like Hamas and ISIS, willing to make a ruthless, blood-thirsty trade-off: they sacrifice innocent civilians in order to accomplish their political objectives. Children and families are either used to provide cover for their military infrastructure, or they become victims of attacks intended to rally the international media to their overlords’ cause, either way, ensuring that emotions harden and that conflicts continue.
The United States has also used this monthly meeting to talk about the key missing ingredient for peace in the Middle East. That ingredient is leaders with the will to do what is needed to achieve peace.
The Middle East needs more leaders like Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat – leaders who are willing to step forward, acknowledge hard truths, and make compromises. The Middle East needs more leaders like Jordan’s King Hussein, who in 1994 created a peace that survives to this day.
And we have raised another major cause of conflict in the Middle East, namely, the role of Iran and its partner militia, Hizballah. In warzone after warzone, and terrorist act after terrorist act, we find Iran and Hizballah at the root of violence in the Middle East.
We have talked about the arsenal of war being amassed in Lebanon. Its source is Iran and Hizballah.
We have talked about Bashar al-Assad’s and the Syrian regime’s war against the Syrian people. These were people who protested peacefully in 2011 for economic opportunity, political rights, and basic human dignity. Their noble pursuit, however, was met with brutal violence in the form of torture, starvation, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and the denial of humanitarian and medical assistance. Standing behind Assad, and fighting alongside his troops, are Hizballah, and Iran, and Russia.
The United States has also used these monthly meetings on conflict in the Middle East to highlight Iran’s repeated and blatant violations of Security Council Resolution 2231 and others. The Security Council unanimously prohibited Iran from transferring weapons to other countries. And yet Iran is the source of weapons in conflicts across the region, from Yemen to Syria to Lebanon. The Security Council unanimously called on Hizballah to disarm. But the leaders of Hizballah talk openly about the continuing support they receive from Iran. In the words of one Hizballah leader, “Everything [Hizballah] eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Later this week, the Council will meet to talk about the Secretary-General’s latest report on the implementation of Resolution 2231. The findings of this report provide even more evidence of Iran fueling conflicts with the supply of banned weapons.
These are the root causes of conflict in the Middle East: leadership that is unwilling to compromise; Hamas terrorists who sacrifice the well-being of civilians for their own militant objectives; Hizballah terrorists who roam the Middle East like a rogue, mercenary army; and a regime in Iran that seeks political, military, and territorial advantage through the spread of violence and human misery. What ties it all together is the people’s lack of voice in their own governance. The people who pay the price of conflict have little or no say in when or if it ends. And those who stand to gain from conflict – like the regime in Tehran – pay no penalty for the suffering they cause.
And when the people of Syria and Iran have risen up to demand that their governments respect their rights, they have been met with arrest, torture, and murder. It is this oppression – these violations of human rights – that are the ultimate root of the conflicts. And yet, there is reason to hope. The desire for human dignity and fundamental human rights is a powerful force.
Mr. President, as sponsor of today’s session, the Russian Federation itself a testament to this phenomenon. Its predecessor state, the Soviet Union, was among the most oppressive and brutal governments in the world. After more than seventy years of being denied their basic human rights and human dignity, the Russian people, as well as the Ukrainian people, the people of the Baltic States, and the people of the Central Asian republics, finally had their say.
The great American columnist Charles Krauthammer, who tragically passed away a few days ago, once wrote that discussions of root causes can lead to despair, because root causes are difficult to change, if they can be changed at all. While I appreciate this analysis, I urge that we not walk away from today’s meeting in despair, but instead, that we go with a broadened understanding of the sources of conflict in the Middle East and a renewed determination to change them.
Mr. President, the United States believes peace is possible because we believe in the right of people to govern themselves. We will continue to pursue the causes of peace, freedom and human rights in the Middle East, and with these, the end to conflicts that have for too long plagued the people of this great region.