Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
June 4, 2021
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good afternoon. Good afternoon. (Laughter.) I’m like, is everybody awake in this room? Anyway, good afternoon again, and thank you all for being here.
I just concluded a very productive three-day visit to Turkey, including a visit to the border region of Hatay. And yesterday I announced that the United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, is providing nearly $240 million in humanitarian funding for the people of Syria and the communities that host them here in Turkey. The United States has now provided over $13 billion in humanitarian support to the Syrian people over the past decade.
After 10 years of conflict under the brutal Assad regime, the Syrian people are the worst off they have ever been. Over 13 million Syrians are displaced, and 13 million Syrians are in desperate need of aid. Four in five people in northwest Syria need humanitarian assistance, and COVID-19 has made dark situation even more dire. So, for millions of Syrian civilians in Idlib, Bab al Hawa transshipment center is their lifeline, and this isn’t a complicated issue.
We want the UN to bring food to starving children and protection to homeless families. We want the UN to be able to deliver vaccines in the middle of a global pandemic. We want the suffering to stop. Right now, Bab al Hawa crossing represents the best of the international community. And I actually saw that with my own eyes yesterday as I watched the extraordinary work being done there by the humanitarian workers there. If this border crossing is closed, it will cause senseless cruelty.
On this trip I met with courageous, intrepid UN humanitarian workers on the front lines delivering aid. They have been working around the clock in dangerous conditions during a global pandemic. What I saw underscored how important it is that President Biden just announced some of the United States’ first donated vaccines in the 25-million-dose tranche announced yesterday will go to frontline UN workers like those I met yesterday.
I met with NGOs, who told me about the severe difficulties they have getting humanitarian supplies to those in need. I met with the White Helmets and heard how they rush toward bombs to rescue those under the rubble. I told them they were superheroes. And I met with Syrian refugees, fortunate to have found safety, protection, and refuge here in Turkey.
At some point we have to ask ourselves: How much longer will the Syrian people be forced to suffer? We have a nuanced strategic relationship with our NATO ally, Turkey. We agree on some areas and we disagree on others. Maintaining humanitarian cross-border access into Syria is one place where our values are completely aligned. And I have seen firsthand how Turkey is generously receiving refugees and working to integrate them effectively into the economy and the country.
At the beginning of this trip, I met with presidential spokesman Kalin, and earlier today I met with the foreign minister. In both meetings, we discussed the Syrian cross-border issue, our points of view, and our shared values. We look forward to our continued collaboration in the days and months ahead.
I’d also like to just take a moment to thank the incredible staff of the U.S. embassy here in Turkey for all of their work in supporting our visit to Turkey and to the border, and for everything they do every single day to support our mission and to advance America’s interest.
The funding we announced yesterday is an important step and will do tremendous good, but there is no alternative to cross-border aid. The cruelty of closing the final humanitarian border crossing into Syria would be incalculable. What I was told by the international NGO community and by the refugees themselves is that without this border crossing, they will die.
So, we call on the rest of the Security Council to renew this mandate so that we can stop the suffering and help those in desperate need. Thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We have a combination of in-room questions and those who are joining us virtually. Those who are joining us virtually have the option of typing questions into the chat, and we can also – if you queue up, we can also unmute your lines. But let’s start in the room with TRT.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name’s Andrew Hopkins from TRT World, and I have two quick questions, if I may. One of them is: How concerned are you that this time in July, this particular remaining crossing could be closed? And if it’s closed, are you making contingency plans, and have you talked to governments about that?
And my second question is related to aid in a way. There’s an economic crisis, it seems, going on in Manbij nearby in Syria. And have you been briefed on the situation there? And have you anything to say about the protests that were there recently in which a number of people were killed?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: In terms of what will – what are the contingency plans and views on what happens should the border close, if that border closes, I’ve said in my remarks that people will die. So, it is my intention to do everything possible in New York to work with colleagues on the Security Council to ensure that the border remains open. We’re also pushing for the reopening of the two borders that were closed last year. I was told by the UN that having one border open has put tremendous pressure on their efforts to get humanitarian assistance across, and that it is really important that we look for opportunities to open a second border.
I did speak with them about contingency plans should the – should we fail, and let’s – I hope that that’s not the case and they don’t have to use their contingency plans. They are stockpiling some supplies across the border right now, but I was told that would probably only last until September. So, stockpiling clearly won’t address the longer-term needs. There will be efforts to bring food in by NGOs, but NGOs can’t match the logistical capacity that the UN brings to the table. So that won’t address the needs, either.
I also worry that once the border is closed, we – the international community and others – will lose the ability to monitor what is going across the border; that things will continue to flow, including those things that we don’t want to see flow across the border, will go without the monitoring capabilities that the UN currently brings to the table.
In terms of the economic crisis that you describe, it’s not surprising. Syria has been shut off and people have been suffering there for almost 10 years. And as I noted earlier, if you add COVID to that equation, it makes life even more difficult. The protests were regrettable. The lives lost were regrettable. And we encourage people to find other ways to express their unhappiness and their dissatisfaction in trying to find a way to get their voices heard from governments. We support people’s ability to peacefully protest, and this situation, unfortunately, turned violent. But again, the right to protest should always be there.
MODERATOR: Another question from the room? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for briefing (inaudible). Do you have any expectations from Turkish authorities related to these border crossings? But – or in general, in internal flow, receiving Syrian refugees? Do you have more expectations?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think Turkey has been extraordinarily generous and hospitable to refugees. There are 6 million refugees in this country, a million in the area that I visited. The Turkish Government provides a way for refugees to integrate. They were very proud of the fact that even on the other side of the border, they were providing housing for refugees. And they are as concerned as we are about the possibility of the border closing.
So, I’m working very closely with my Turkish counterpart in New York to encourage members of the Security Council, including the E10, to support efforts to renew the resolution. And they are on board with that effort.
MODERATOR: We have a question from online, from CNN Turkey, about the plan forward in the Security Council, and whether you’re in touch with your Russian counterparts.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. And the plan in the Security Council right now, the penholders, as they are referred to, the Irish and the Norwegians, have been engaging with members of the Security Council as they proceed to do the first draft of the resolution. We have met with – I’ve met with my P5 as well as with the Norwegians and the Irish on their efforts, and I’ve had quite a bit of contact with my Russian counterpart on this issue and we’ll look forward to briefing him as well as other members of the Security Council when I return back to New York next week.
In my engagement with him, I will share with him what I saw on the border – the concerns that people have, the worry that they have that this one lifeline that they have for humanitarian assistance might be closed off. And we will be raising this not just in New York with the Russians, but Secretary Blinken will raise it with his counterpart as well, and in all our engagements with the Russians moving forward to July 10th we will be pushing them to be accommodating on this issue when it’s brought before the Security Council.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) agency. My question is about the UN’s position – the U.S. position in the UN Security Council. Whatever happens in Israel and Palestine, you guys support Israel, and even when Israel violates the ceasefire. So, will you continue supporting the – Israel in the Security Council, and how right is this when –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: What we support in the Security Council is peace. The President has been very clear on a two-state solution. We don’t support in the Security Council efforts to unfairly target Israel, and we’ve been clear that Israel has a right to defend itself. We’ve also been clear that Palestinians also have a right to safety as well. We have supported humanitarian assistance, including resuming the aid that we provided to UNRWA so that UNRWA can continue to support the Palestinians in their efforts. And Secretary Blinken again was in the region last week. He met with Israeli authorities as well as with Palestinian authorities, and then he also visited Egypt and Jordan.
So, our efforts in the Security Council were to find a diplomatic solution to bring a ceasefire, which we accomplished, and that ceasefire is holding. And now we’re looking for efforts to consolidate a way forward for peace where both the Israelis and the Palestinians can live side by side.
MODERATOR: We have another question online from a Turkish outlet asking: “Before your visit, your mission announced that you’ll meet with senior Turkish officials to discuss opportunities to strengthen the U.S.-Turkey relationship. You met with Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and discussed bilateral and regional issues. You discussed a number of areas of concern. In your meetings, do you see any sign that Turkish-U.S. relations will be better in the near future?”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a great question, and I think that’s very clear. The Deputy Secretary of State was here last week and had some very productive meetings with the Turkish government, and I found my meetings with the Turkish government extraordinarily productive. And while we identified that we have both challenges in our relationships, we also have amazing opportunities in that relationship and we look forward to continuing to build on those opportunities as we move forward. And I was very encouraged by my meetings with Turkish officials.
MODERATOR: I’m not seeing any more questions online. Are there questions in the room? Okay. Thank you all for joining us.