Remarks at a UN Security Council Political Briefing on Syria

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the UN
New York City
June 26, 2019


Thank you, Mr. President; and thank you, Special Envoy Pedersen, for your briefing.

The UN-led political process in Geneva is the only legitimate and internationally recognized forum to create a lasting, inclusive, and peaceful political solution to the conflict in Syria. Three and a half years ago, the Council established a blueprint for a peaceful political transition: a new Constitution, elections, and a nationwide ceasefire, in Resolution 2254.

The United States will not accept any attempt by the Assad regime and its allies to use military means in Idlib or elsewhere to undercut, circumvent, or further delay Special Envoy Pedersen’s efforts to maintain the political process. Nor can we, the members of this Council, afford any further delays by the regime to implement Resolution 2254.

The regime’s escalation of attacks on civilian areas, facilities, and humanitarian actors, including yesterday’s attack on an ambulance carrying White Helmets volunteers, shows that the Assad regime still believes force will make a solution to the conflict attainable, as Damascus actively seeks to avoid negotiating a political solution with representatives of the Syrian opposition.

Time and again, Syria and Russia have given assurances to uphold ceasefires, adhere to reconciliation agreements, and advance the political process. However, these assurances have repeatedly been broken and disregarded. The lack of a political solution continues to put civilian lives at risk.

Mr. President, the Council must acknowledge that the Astana Group’s efforts to advance the political process have failed. Seventeen months after the launch of negotiations on forming the Constitutional Committee at Sochi it is time to admit that not only has progress stalled, it is likely to remain out of reach for some time. Because that is where the regime wants it to be – out of reach.

The time has come for the Council to encourage Special Envoy Pedersen to try other routes to achieving the political solution laid out in Resolution 2254—by focusing on preparing for nationwide elections with the participation of an estimated five million Syrian refugees and observed by the UN, by securing the release of detainees, and by establishing a nationwide ceasefire.

The fate of the UN political process, Resolution 2254, and millions of civilian lives depend on whether or not the regime and Russia will work with Turkey to stop further attacks in northwest Syria and immediately return to the ceasefire lines agreed in the 2018 Sochi agreement.

Idlib must not become another Aleppo, and the United States believes that progress on the political front and a genuine de-escalation is still possible but it requires the Assad regime to recognize that a healthy political system must accommodate more than one view.

Mr. President, at this stage, we see two paths for Idlib. The first path is bloody and sadly familiar—the continued vain quest for a military solution undermining both security and humanitarian conditions with the UN once again struggling to respond to the needs of innocent civilians. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people will flee Idlib and turn north to Turkey, or west into the Mediterranean, jumpstarting a second migration crisis that destabilizes the wider region.

The second path is that Idlib and its three million civilian residents are protected by a permanent ceasefire agreed between the parties on the ground, and is endorsed by the unanimous support of the Security Council. Such a cessation of violence would create momentum and a positive political environment in which to launch a political process.

The United States believes that the reinvigoration of the political process in Syria can and should start with a verifiable ceasefire in Idlib and northern Hama. Groups on the ground, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Russia, and the Assad regime must immediately cease military operations and return to the original lines of the 2018 Sochi ceasefire agreement. Not one more shot should be fired; no more barrel bombs should be dropped; and no more air strikes should be launched.

Turkey should be entrusted to remove terrorist forces from the region consistent with the 2018 Sochi Agreement. And, the final status of Idlib should be negotiated between the parties, mediated by the UN, as part of the political process in line with UNSCR 2254 once a ceasefire is in place.

In the meantime, as the UN-led Syria political track negotiations continue, the people of Idlib would administer themselves and be granted access to humanitarian aid deliveries, as enumerated under UN Security Council Resolution 2449.

Mr. President, the United States recognizes that there is no path forward without the cooperation of Russia and the Assad regime. Therefore, the United States calls upon Russia to de-escalate its military operations, press the regime to do the same, and engage with the United States in a step-by-step process to implement Resolution 2254 that will result in the final stabilization of Idlib and Syria writ large.

Until the Assad regime and Russia take concrete steps toward a full, immediate, and verifiable de-escalation in Idlib, the United States will continue to apply diplomatic and economic pressure through all available means to isolate the regime and its allies. Our preference is to work together on a step-by-step approach. But make no mistake, the United States will seek any and every opportunity to ratchet up our pressure on the regime and its supporters if political progress on humanitarian and political tracks continues to stall. Our resolve is clear and unwavering.

Mr. President, I planned to end my remarks here, but I would like to take a moment to react to the presentation of the rule 37 speaker from June 25. It is a privilege to address this Council – for each of us. And should always be treated as such. The disrespect bordering on contempt that he showed this Council is unacceptable and begs a response.

First, procedurally, this representative consistently shows a lack of respect by abusing our time, exceeding the note 507 recommended 5 minutes every time he speaks by 10, 20 or more minutes. Two days ago, he tried to assert a procedural position demonstrating a lack of knowledge about Council rules when our colleague from the UK made a point of order regarding his outrageous and dangerous claims.

Beyond the procedural points, he had tried to assert that humanitarian workers were somehow complicit in terrorism, that civilians in areas where terrorists are present are not entitled to humanitarian assistance or medical care, and that the schools and hospitals in these areas are, by extension, legitimate military targets, which they clearly are not.

It is outrageous that this representative, whose government has repeatedly used chemical weapons on its own civilians, which prevents humanitarian assistance from reaching its needy, which violates international norms and international law by intentionally targeting hospitals, schools and ambulances, would seek to lecture this council on the Geneva conventions, application of UNSCRs, or the rule of law.

Moreover, Mr. President, his vilification of David Lillie and SAMS cannot go unanswered by the United States or this Council. A humanitarian who has risked his life over and over again to help the needy on the basis of a humanitarian principle does not deserve to have a diplomat from a regime like this one who has sat out the trauma of his own country’s civil war in the comfort of New York, or for that matter anyone, question his bona fides.

The allegation that SAMS is a branch of the U.S. government simply because the United States is one of many countries contributing funds to SAMS, is both offensive and ludicrous. The United States funds over twenty percent of the costs of this body. That does not make the UN Secretary-General a U.S. government employee nor the UN Security Council a U.S. government body any more than U.S. funding makes SAMS a U.S. government entity or Mr. Lillie a U.S. government employee. This was a shameful attack on a humanitarian.

And, this in a session where the Syrian representative had no problem accepting a humanitarian briefing from a Russian General in military fatigues who has been helping prosecute the war.

And finally, his contention that a non-Syrian has no right to brief on Syria would disqualify most briefers that this Council has heard since its founding. The United States cannot let this twisted logic go unanswered. We reject the Syrian representative’s June 25 presentation during the Syria humanitarian briefing and urge other Council members to do so as well. It is an affront to this body and the rules-based international order.

I thank you, Mr. President.