Amb. Power on Syria at U.N. Briefing on Situation in Middle East

U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Office of Press and Public Diplomacy
New York, New York
April 24, 2015

As Delivered

Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East, April 24, 2015

Thank you, Minister Judeh, for dedicating today’s meeting to a crisis that so urgently demands the world’s attention. And thank you to our briefers – Under Secretary-General Amos, High Commissioner Guterres, Executive Director Cousin, and Special Envoy Jolie – for your appropriately stark, firm, and extremely moving briefings.

The United States would also like to recognize the dedicated humanitarian workers serving in UN agencies and other organizations who are putting their lives on the line to get assistance to people in the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. People like the two Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers who were killed on April 3rd while retrieving bodies of the deceased and preparing shelters for the displaced in Idlib. And people who are constantly looking for ways around seemingly endless obstacles to delivering vital aid, like WHO staffers who took advantage of a six-hour ceasefire last month in Aleppo to deliver medical supplies across lines. They reached 5,000 people – using pull-carts.

In Deir ez-Zour, approximately 228,000 residents are caught between ISIL, which has circled the city and systematically cut off humanitarian access, and regime forces, which prevent people from leaving. On April 13th, a one-year-old reportedly starved to death, and NGOs are receiving reports of young girls trading sexual acts for bread. While the ICRC was able to reach Deir ez-Zour with three airlifts in recent days – the first aid deliveries to the besieged city in nearly a year – residents of all ages remain on the brink of starvation.

Ghastly as it is, the situation in Deir ez-Zour is not an outlier. We are all well aware of the ongoing crisis in Yarmouk, where many thousands of Palestinians are still trapped and cut off from vital assistance. In Yarmouk, it is regime forces that are doing the blockading, as they have for more than two years. And since moving into Yarmouk weeks ago, ISIL and other armed groups have only exacerbated the suffering of residents by further limiting their movements.

As several of the briefers noted, the UN estimates that 440,000 civilians in Syria are living in besieged areas where most aid cannot get in and most people cannot get out. Only four percent of people living in besieged areas received food deliveries last month. Four percent. Health assistance reached less than one-third of one percent – 0.3 percent – of civilians living in besieged areas.

Siege is just one tactic used to prevent vital humanitarian aid from reaching people in need. According to the UN’s most recent report, nine WHO requests to deliver health assistance to locations in Aleppo, Daraa, Idlib and other governorates have gone unanswered by the regime. While life-saving medical supplies sit in warehouses, people die on operating tables; in crowded, ill-equipped field hospitals; and even in their homes – all from wounds and illnesses that would be treated with adequate resources. Meanwhile, nineteen requests for interagency convoys, which aim to reach the hardest-hit areas, are pending approval by the regime. Many have been stuck in limbo for months, exacerbating suffering and even causing death by bureaucratic delay. What possible excuse is there to not respond to a UN request? There is no excuse.

These tactics demonstrate the immense gap between the demands of this Council and the actions on the ground by parties in this conflict, particularly the Assad regime. Security Council resolutions 2165 and 2191 direct all Syrian parties to enable the immediate and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance by the UN and their implementing partners, yet the regime and ISIL are deliberately blocking such aid. And rather than fulfill their obligation to protect civilians, each – ISIL and the regime – deliberately targets civilians to advance their aims. We are past the point of highlighting or lamenting this enduring gap; we must come together to close it. The survival of millions of Syrians demands it – not to mention the credibility of this Council’s word. Our resolutions are currently being ridiculed by the Syrian regime. In the immediate term, aid must be allowed to reach besieged areas, and people must be allowed to leave besieged areas. Imagine being trapped – just imagine being a parent and being trapped.

International monitoring is crucial to ensuring that civilians leaving such areas are not arbitrarily detained, separated from their families, or harmed in any way – as happened in February 2014, when hundreds of people disappeared as they passed through government-controlled areas while leaving the besieged city of Homs.

Syria’s neighbors have shown remarkable generosity in helping those trapped in Syria as well as those who have managed to escape. Of the nearly four million people who have fled Syria, Turkey has taken in a staggering 1.7 million refugees. One in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. And this unprecedented influx has demanded countries take robust measures to accommodate the new populations. In Jordan, for example, where the population of some northern cities has doubled since the arrival of more than 620,000 Syrian refugees, the government worked with development and humanitarian groups to come up with a comprehensive plan to respond to refugees’ diverse needs – from health and education, to security and drinking water.

While Syria’s neighbors have already welcomed unprecedented numbers of refugees, we strongly urge these countries to keep their borders open and ease restrictions that prevent the most vulnerable from reaching refuge. If the international community is going to ask more of Syria’s neighbors, who have already done so much, we cannot allow them to shoulder the impact of sheltering millions of refugees alone. And that is why, in addition to the $556 million that the U.S. has provided Jordan to support refugee programs and host communities since the start of the Syrian conflict, we announced our intention in February to increase annual bilateral assistance from $660 million to $1 billion over the next three years, given the extraordinary needs generated by this crisis and the extraordinary generosity of Syria’s neighbors.

In addition to helping Syria’s neighbors, all countries, including the United States, must welcome displaced Syrians in greater numbers. As the recent catastrophes involving refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean demonstrate – many of the victims of which have been Syrians – people are willing to take tremendous risks to escape their country’s brutal violence. Just this week, Turkey’s coast guard rescued thirty Syrians aboard a sinking boat trying to reach Greece.

The disparity between what the international community is providing and what the Syrian people need is growing. At the end of last month, the Secretary-General convened a conference, together with the government of Kuwait, to raise funds toward the $8.4 billion that the UN needs to respond to the crisis. Only $3.6 billion has been pledged toward that goal. It is critically important that all countries, including members of this Council, make more substantive contributions. And it’s important that those countries that have pledged actually deliver promptly. The United States announced a new $507 million pledge in Kuwait last month, which brought our total contributions to Syria since the crisis began to $3.2 billion.

Today, in response to the devastating crisis in Yarmouk, we are announcing an additional $6 million in aid to UNRWA, to provide urgent assistance, both for the many thousands still trapped in Yarmouk and for other Palestinians and Syrians receiving a lifeline from the agency.

But even as we seek to fill these gaps, we must not lose sight of the foundational reason that Syria’s population needs humanitarian assistance, and that is the Assad regime. A regime that continues to torture, gas, barrel-bomb, and starve its own people. A regime whose brutality fed the rise of ISIL and other violent extremist groups in Syria. A regime that, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, killed an average of five children per day last month alone.

Let us be clear, ISIL could disappear tomorrow and the regime would still block UN convoys, ignore UN appeals and UN Security Council resolutions, torture detainees in its prisons, and use barrel bombs and chlorine chemical weapons to attack civilians. Partnering with a regime like this would not help us defeat violent extremist groups – it would only strengthen their appeal. The only viable political solution to this crisis is one without Assad in power; a political push at the highest levels, and a sincere and united effort to secure a political transition, is urgently needed and, of course, long overdue.

Let me conclude. National Geographic recently organized a photography camp in Jordan for teenage refugees from Syria. Twenty kids, ages 13 to 15, spent a week using cameras and words to tell their stories. A slideshow of some of their photos is online and I urge you all to look at it. A common thread cuts across the testimonies of the young Syrians: they want to go home. One participant, fourteen year-old Abdullah, fled to Jordan from Daraa three years ago. For an assignment to take a self-portrait, he took one with his face covered – a way, he said, to make himself anonymous. Speaking about his future, Abdullah said: “I hope to become an engineer and rebuild Syria, house by house, and build the biggest hospitals, the biggest mosques, the biggest schools, build bakeries, and rebuild our home…Insha’Allah, we will rebuild Syria the best we can. We are going to make Syria the most beautiful country and restore the life in it.”

Abdullah and so many young people from his generation are waiting to go home and rebuild. Who would deny them that opportunity? And who better than Syria’s young to motivate and unite us, the members of this Security Council, to work relentlessly to enforce our own resolutions so as to mitigate the suffering of the Syrian people and to find a political solution to this devastating conflict.

Thank you.