Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
September 17, 2016
Good evening, everybody. We are still gathering information at this time, but we have been able to confirm that, earlier today, the United States struck what we believed to be an ISIL target. We halted the attack when we were informed by Russia that it was possible that we were striking Syrian regime military personnel and vehicles. We are investigating the incident. If we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention, and we, of course, regret the loss of life.
This said, even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt – a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding – is uniquely cynical and hypocritical. Since 2011, the Assad regime has been intentionally striking civilian targets with horrifying, predictable regularity. They have besieged civilian areas, prevented life-saving humanitarian aid from reaching people who are starving to death and dying of illnesses that could be treated with basic medicine – which is ripped out of trucks and pocketed by Syrian regime forces. The Syrian government has patented the practice of double-tap strikes – hitting a civilian target, waiting for heroically brave individuals to run into collapsing buildings – burning buildings – and then striking again so they can hit the rescue personnel. The regime has routinely used chemical weapons against its own people. It has tortured tens of thousands of people in its prisons, which now double as torture chambers. And indeed, in those prisons, it documents systematically what it’s doing to the people in its custody: serial numbers, written notes carefully documenting the torture of people with such savagery – meticulous detail.
And yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for a Saturday night emergency consultation in the Security Council – or a Monday day; or a Tuesday day; or a Wednesday day; Thursday day; Friday day, Saturday, Sunday – you name it. If there’s a day of the week, they have never called an emergency consultation on any of these practices.
These are some of the most systematic atrocities that we have seen in a generation. And not only are they not interested in seeing these crimes investigated, they’ve used their veto on the Security Council to block meaningful action, even though this is the most obvious threat to international peace and security that we’ve seen in a very long time. And a year ago, at the UN General Assembly, Russia decided to join the Assad regime, escalating the conflict, and – perhaps worst of all – itself adopting some of the regime’s worst practices: hitting hospitals, hitting refugee camps, hitting markets without a single public expression of remorse. Seriously? They’re calling this emergency meeting? Really?
Now, because of a single airstrike – a strike that, if it struck regime forces, did so in error; a strike that we have swiftly acknowledged and committed to investigating – again, none of which the Assad regime or Russia have done in their airstrikes on innocent civilians. Now, of all times, Russia calls the entire UN Security Council to convene urgently so that it can stand up here and express outrage. Imagine how often this Council would be meeting if we were to gather every time the regime or Russia struck a hospital, or a school, or a bread line. Imagine if we gathered every time they blocked vital aid from reaching children who are eating leaves – leaves – so that they do not starve to death, or who block medicine from reaching people who are dying every single day because they are forced to drink foul water and because they have no antibiotics. There is so much to be justifiably outraged by in Syria – so much civilian suffering, civilian suffering – civilian suffering that could be prevented – lives that could have been saved, if only the real perpetrators were made to stop. So, if we could, this Saturday night – and every day and night henceforth – if we could focus out outrage on that, that would be appropriate.
We also are trying to focus on the present, and the future – on the desperate need for peace in Syria. And let me just state for the record that we believe that Russia should be convening an emergency meeting this evening; an emergency meeting with the Assad regime, which is bombing in defiance of the Cessation of Hostilities, which is continuing its practice of death by a thousand paper cuts, and starving Syria’s civilians. The regime has to stop bombing those who have signed up for the Cessation of Hostilities. And Russia has to deliver the Assad regime, as in the course of the negotiations it assured us it would. Russia is not delivering on its end of the deal that we spent months negotiating in extremely technical detail.
The United States is extremely serious about making this agreement work. In the last 36 hours, Secretary Kerry has spoken with UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, the foreign ministers of Turkey, of Qatar, Saudi Arabia. Of course, he has spoken also with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, including today. And Secretary Kerry told Foreign Minister Lavrov that the regime is bombing groups who are party to the Cessation of Hostilities. Even though violence is down in many parts of Syria, the regime is acting against groups that want to be part of this peace process. Secretary Kerry made clear that the aid is not flowing even though we were assured again and again that permissions would be forthcoming; even though UN trucks have been idling filled with precious food, as mothers can’t feed their kids. So Secretary Kerry shared all of this with Mr. Lavrov, but he didn’t have to, because Russia is fighting alongside the Assad regime. Russia knows exactly what is happening in Syria. They know exactly which groups are terrorists and which groups are opposition groups who want to be part of a political transition and who want a multiconfessional, pluralistic Syrian society on the backend. They know the difference.
So why are we having this meeting tonight? It’s a diversion from what is happening on the ground in Syria. When you don’t like the facts, you try to create attention somewhere else. It’s the classic magician’s sleight of hand. Get the world and the media to focus here, so they will take their eye a little bit off what is happening over there. What’s happening over there is so important. It is jeopardizing something that gives the Syrian people a chance. So again, we encourage the Russian Federation to call emergency meetings with the Assad regime and to deliver the Assad regime to this agreement that we so want to work.
I want to make one last point before I head into the consultations. Russia has billed itself as the world’s defender against terrorism. And part of what it is alleging tonight is that somehow the United States is undermining the fight against ISIL. Indeed, the Russian spokesperson, I believe, came out and thought somehow that we were complicit and that we were even trying to protect ISIL. Really? American citizens have been beheaded by this group. We are leading a 67-country coalition to destroy this group. ISIL has lost 40 percent of its territory. This is serious for us; it is not a game. And that spokesperson who suggested complicity really should be embarrassed.
We are trying to be serious about ensuring that Syrians can wake up in the morning and imagine that they can also go to sleep at the end of the day; that there can be a political transition so this war ends and everything that goes along with it.
Syria – the Syrian government, which also bills itself as a fighter against terrorists, allows ISIL to grow and grow and grow. It’s busy hitting markets and refugee camps – displaced camps, using chemical weapons that ISIL took root and prospered, right beside the Syrian regime. The best way to contribute to the fight against ISIL and against al-Nusrah – as Russia says it wants – is to stop bombing civilians and opposition groups who have signed up to the Cessation of Hostilities and deliver the Assad regime to implement what has been agreed.
Assad’s antics – his tactics, his strategy – have been a gift to terrorists in Syria and well beyond. And these are terrorists who threaten us all. On that we agree. There is a better way forward but Russia really needs to stop the cheap point-scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something that we negotiated in good faith with them which has shown it can reduce violence, and shown it can save lives. But it needs to be implemented. And a meeting like this – a stunt like this – isn’t helping anybody. Thank you.