Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
June 23, 2021
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Today the Security Council is being confronted with a critical decision: what we communicate to millions of Syrians about the dire situation they are in and whether we plan to continue to provide crucial humanitarian aid cross-border.
Three weeks ago, I traveled to Turkish-Syrian border, and I visited Bab al-Hawa. There, I met with UN frontline workers, with NGOs, with refugees who shared devastating stories about what they’ve faced after a decade of conflict. I went because I wanted the Syrian people to know they are not forgotten. And I went because I wanted to see, with my own eyes, how the cross-border mechanism works so that I could speak to the Council about it firsthand. And I did that today.
My message to the Council was simple: I told them that people will die if we do not renew the mandate. After 10 years of war, Syria is among the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. And COVID has only made the situation worse. Three weeks ago, on the border, I spoke to a humanitarian worker, and I asked, “What was the impact of COVID on refugees?” And he said to me, and I quote, “Refugees – Syrian refugees say COVID was just another reason to die.” So, for millions of people, Bab al-Hawa is a literal lifeline. As we have heard, every month, one thousand trucks carry food, nutritional assistance, clean water, medical supplies to people living in desperate need.
The Syrian refugees and courageous UN humanitarian workers I met with on the border really warned me over and over again that the cross at Bab al-Hawa is a matter of life and death. So I believe the questions before the Security Council are very straightforward. Do we want to ensure our humanitarian aid continues to be monitored from start to finish? Do we follow through with our commitment to end the COVID-19 pandemic? Do we want to fulfill the mission and the mandate of the Council, which is to ensure international peace and security?
Keeping Bab al-Hawa open is the only way to accomplish these goals. And we should build on it, not tear it down. More crossings will save more lives. If – and it’s really, really simple. This will be one of the most consequential votes we take as a Council. And the people of Syria are depending on us.
I thank you very much, and I’ll be happy to take a couple of questions from you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador, some of the ambassadors in the Council mentioned the sanctions on Syria. And I want to ask you, do you expect that the sanctions could be part of the negotiations on the draft resolution? Are you open to discuss it with the Council members? Or this is something out of discussion for you?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, the sanctions are not part of the resolution, nor should the sanctions be a part of the resolution. This is about humanitarian assistance. And the situation in Syria, from a humanitarian standpoint, is not a result of sanctions. The situation in Syria is a consequence of actions that have been taken by the Assad regime, their corruption, their mismanagement, and their violence against the Syrian people. So we will continue to work to increase our humanitarian assistance – which is provided across Syria to all people, even in the Assad-held areas. We have adjusted our sanctions to ensure that humanitarian supplies are able to get into the Syrian people. So no, this is not about sanctions. This is about providing life-saving assistance to Syrians.
QUESTION: Ambassador, thank you. Michelle Nichols from Reuters. After listening to your Russian counterpart today, do you see any opening to convince Russia to agree to renew one crossing – let alone two or three? And can you give us any more insight into what President Biden said to President Putin about this? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we continue to be hopeful. I mean this is about humanitarian assistance, and I will continue to appeal to our Russian colleagues that it is imperative that they listen to the voices of all of the members of the Council, of the humanitarian community, of the Syrian people, and particularly the refugees who depend on this life-saving assistance. And I can tell you, as we heard in the press, that President Biden did raise this issue with President Putin because it is an issue that is a high priority for him.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. It’s Pamela from CBS. It’s the same question in a different way which is if presidents Biden and Putin didn’t resolve it or at least didn’t seem to have a result. And the Council – at least the Russian ambassador – seemed very skeptical. You have two weeks. What can you do, and is there any back channel – are there other things that are going on that can help your diplomacy to keep the one border crossing open? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This issue has the attention of the U.S. government at the highest levels. And so, yes, we are continuing to raise it across the board wherever we have the opportunity, both with our Russian colleagues here as well as in Capitol but also among our E10 colleagues here as well as in Capitol. We think that the decision is a simple one. It is to extend the mandate. And we will keep pressing that until the final days. And I remain hopeful because people’s lives depend on it. And if I give up hope, they, of course, will give up hope.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Madam Ambassador. And I know we all hope you’ll do this often. Edith Lederer from the Associated Press. The Russian Foreign Minister in a verbal note to the Secretary-General accused the United States and Western countries of trying to blackmail Russia by threatening to cut off humanitarian aid to Syria if the resolution on cross-border operations is not adopted. And he emphatically said, basically, that they weren’t going to be moved by this. What’s your reaction to that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I have no comment on the letter, but what I can say is that we’re committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people in need. And we will work to do that regardless of what happens. But we are still going to continue to work to keep the border crossing open. Last year, we had some difficulty, but we were able to achieve keeping this one border crossing open. And we’re working full force to do that again this year, including reopening two of the borders that were closed previously. So that’s our goal and we’re going to work on it and not give up until we achieve at least keeping one border open, if not reopening a second or third.
QUESTION: Hi Ambassador, I might just change the subject from Syria to another topic. Nicaragua is a big concern for the western –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m sorry, what is a big concern?
QUESTION: Nicaragua is a big concern for the western hemisphere. You were in Ecuador during the new presidential procession, so you know the region. What is the Biden administration feeling about what it could be bringing to the Security Council, the issue of Nicaragua, especially with the detention of opposition leaders, the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights? What can you tell us?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we’re very concerned about the situation in Nicaragua, and the really horrific decisions that are being made by President Ortega arresting his opposition opponents. I can’t preview whether this is going to be brought before the Security Council or not, but I can say – from a bilateral standpoint – that we’re making clear our position on what is happening there, and looking to work with members of the region to address the situation.
QUESTION: Hi Ambassador, thank you for this stakeout. Amanda Price from Al Jazeera. Tigray, another important topic. I know we’re focused on Syria here today, but there was an airstrike in the Tigray region that reportedly left dozens of people dead. What is the U.S. government’s position? What should the Council be doing?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well I heard about that airstrike while I was in the room, and you might read the tweet, because I called for accountability, I called for an investigation for what has happened. But more broadly, we have made clear our position on the issues in Tigray. We have asked for a ceasefire; we’ve demanded a ceasefire. We’ve asked that the Ethiopian government allow for humanitarian assistance to be brought in to all areas of the country. Human rights violations that are being committed – people be held accountable for. And that Eritrean troops who are currently inside of Ethiopia should be asked to leave. We have a special envoy who is working on this issue full-time. Secretary Blinken has also engaged on what is happening in Ethiopia. And as you know, we have addressed it in the Council – I am disappointed that we have not had an open Council meeting on the situation in Ethiopia, and I will continue to push for that. It needs to be discussed. We are in a situation where the UN has indicated that close to 400 people – 400,000 people – are on the brink of famine conditions, so this is an issue that we need to confront completely and wholeheartedly.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Sorry to bring you back to Syria. My name is Ibtisam Azem from the Daily Arabic al-Araby al-Jadeed Newspaper. So, when listening to you, you seem to be optimistic that you will get to agreement on the resolution. Where do you have – what makes you optimistic, if I’m reading you right? And then the second question, on the same subject: Do you have a plan B in case the Russians veto the resolution? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Optimism is my – always my approach. We have to – if I don’t believe in it, I can’t work on it – and so I believe what we are doing to extend the mandate is important. It’s going to save lives. And if we don’t get the mandate extended, thousands of people may lose their lives. So, I’m going to work on this every single day until it’s accomplished. And there is no plan B. The plan B is to continue to push for the extension of the mandate. Plan B means that we have failed, and hopefully we don’t fail.
QUESTION: Just talk about – Stefano Vaccara, La Voce di New York –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREEFIELD: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Stefano Vaccara, La Voce di New York. Is a question about Libya. See that we can ask also a question about something else, about optimism. After today in Berlin, how much optimism about Libya? What do you think? It’s going to be easy now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: How much optimism about Syria?
QUESTION: No, Libya.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Libya. You know I – again – It’s an issue that we’re concerned about. We have engaged on Libya diplomatically. I have to remain hopeful, but other than that I can’t comment on Libya, we’re focusing on Syria today, and hopefully we can get passed this situation. But again, we have people working on Libya full-time, and I’m hopeful – again – that we can address the situation. We’ve called for foreign troops to leave Libya. We think that’s an important action to be taken as the Libyan people move toward, hopefully, a successful election and get passed this current situation that they’re in.