Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on the Middle East

Ambassador Samantha Power

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations

U.S. Mission to the United Nations

New York City

October 22, 2015 

AS DELIVEREDThank you, Foreign Minister García-Margallo, for chairing this session. Thank you, Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson, for your thorough briefing. Distinguished Foreign Ministers, thank you for joining us today.

Across Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, clouds of fear have settled in. In the context of recent violence, one Israeli told a reporter, “I just don’t feel safe anymore. I watch to see who the people are around me. I want to know who is behind me.” A young Palestinian said, “You are worried someone will shout – this is an Arab, this is an Arab – and someone will shoot without you doing anything.” An Israeli tenth grader said, “I’m petrified. Children are scared to leave the house. They won’t go to the shop or walk around the neighborhood.” Across the city, a Palestinian father said, “I don’t feel safe. The best strategy for me was to keep the children home from school.” In Jerusalem, shoppers and merchants are on edge. An Israeli shopkeeper said customers “came, bought and fled. People are afraid.” Said an Arab shopkeeper in the old city, “When I prepare the juice, I am scared to cut the oranges in case someone sees me with the knife and shoots me.”

This mutual fear risks worsening the already dangerous cycle of violence. The United States is deeply concerned and condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the terrorist attacks and the recent and ongoing violence. The human suffering inflicted by these acts have been grave and continues to deepen. We mourn the loss of all life and continue to stress the importance of both parties condemning the violence and avoiding provocative statements that can further inflame tensions. Both sides must exercise restraint.

There is growing frustration on all sides as the prospect of reaching a two-state solution appears to be diminishing. But that frustration is not a justification for reprehensible acts of violence against civilians, stabbing innocent people as they go about their day is not an acceptable way of expressing anything. It is, as the Deputy Secretary-General just said, attempted “murder, full stop.” These attacks must be unequivocally condemned in Israel as they would be in any of our countries. We support Israel’s right to defend its citizens and we mourn the senseless and deliberate taking of innocent lives. We’ve also expressed our deep concern over the deaths and injuries of Palestinians due to live fire from Israeli security forces and urged Israel to take steps to prevent an escalation of violence. As always, it is critical that every possible effort be taken to guard against unnecessary loss of life, protect innocents, reduce tensions, and restore calm. We also have raised our heightened concern about increased Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and their property in the West Bank.

Most immediately, we urge all sides to take affirmative steps to restore calm and reduce tensions. We welcome in this regard Israel and Jordan’s commitment to maintaining the status quo at the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and we strongly support efforts by all sides to ensure that this status quo is maintained. Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly committed to this point.

In the longer term, we remain concerned that the trends on the ground – including violence and settlement and outpost activity – are dangerously imperiling the viability of a two-state solution. As expressed in the Quartet statement on September 30th, the United States and our partners support concrete steps to help stabilize the situation, show meaningful progress toward a two-state solution, and restore hope. Together, we must continue to press for meaningful steps that will lay the groundwork for achieving a negotiated two-state solution. Significant policy advancements, particularly in Area C, will be critical to increasing the Palestinian Authority’s ability to address key economic and institutional challenges. These can be pursued while respecting Israel’s legitimate security needs. Indeed, they will enhance stability and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. We continue to believe that the best way to reduce tension is to work toward a political solution that will result in two states living side-by-side in peace and security. Only through a solution negotiated by the two sides will true peace and security be achieved.

Secretary Kerry had a constructive meeting earlier today with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They discussed the security situation in Israel and the West Bank and the region, as well as the situation on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. A number of constructive proposals were suggested‎, including steps Israel could take to reaffirm its continued commitment to maintaining the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Both agreed on the need to stop incitement, to reduce tension, and to restore calm. The Secretary will discuss this further when the Quartet Ministers meet in Vienna tomorrow, and he will then travel to Jordan where he will meet separately with President Abbas and King Abdullah on Saturday. In his meetings, the Secretary will be encouraging efforts to restore calm and bring an end to the violence.

We cannot discuss peace and security in the Middle East and not address the horrific situation in Syria, which has escalated dramatically since we gathered for our last quarterly Middle East open debate. The repercussions of events there also reverberate well beyond the region.

After four and a half years of war, Syrian civilians continue to endure barrel bombs, extremist violence, and widespread deprivations. In September alone, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that the Assad regime dropped 1,715 barrel bombs on its own people – hitting mosques, hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. The death toll over the course of the conflict has surpassed 250,000 people. And that figure does not include the tens of thousands of missing Syrians. In addition, more than 10 million Syrians are displaced.

The new Russian military offensive has worsened an already dire situation. Around Aleppo and Homs, Russian air strikes are providing cover for an offensive by Assad’s forces, supplemented by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. According to the UN, the new offensive has forced as many as 50,000 more Syrians from their homes in the southwestern districts of Aleppo city and another 35,000 people from Hama. That’s 85,000 newly displaced in a relatively short period of time.

Returning from south Aleppo earlier this week, Dr Zaidoun al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, said “People are scared to death, everyone is on the move.”

Russia says it is defending Syrians, but according to credible Syrian observer groups, Russian strikes around Aleppo city have primarily struck critical civilian infrastructure, including schools and markets. At least 100 civilians have been killed by these strikes to date, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The Russian offensive has also been profoundly counterproductive in relation to its stated goals, as it concentrates its fire power not on ISIL, but on groups that had in many cases taken huge casualties fighting ISIL. Russia says it is targeting terrorists, but Russia is in fact targeting groups and individuals opposed to Assad’s violent rule.

Just yesterday, Reuters reported a very credible study of Russian strikes, which showed that 80 percent of the targets that Russia has hit are located outside of ISIL control. By attacking non-extremist groups Russia has boosted – perversely – the relative strength of ISIL, which has taken advantage of this campaign by seizing new territory in rural Aleppo.

Since Russia began its strikes, the Syrian map has shifted in ISIL’s favor: civilians are on the move in terror and ISIL is on the move gaining ground.

Let me be clear: aiding and abetting Assad’s military as it targets the very groups that we need to bring to the negotiating table will only prolong the conflict and push a political solution further from reach. This conflict will not end until Syria is free of Assad. Supporting him now only ensures that by the time a political transition is negotiated, ISIL will only be stronger; its recruitment having been bolstered by the actions of Russia, Iran, and the regime; and the Syrian state will only be weaker, the country more fragmented, and the heartbreak for families across the country, more widespread.

Peace in Syria cannot be secured overnight any more than the fear that clouds Jerusalem today will immediately dissipate.

We hope that tomorrow’s meeting between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Ministry Lavrov will result in Russia recommitting – in words and in action – to a political solution for Syria based on the Geneva Communique.

At the same time, we call on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take every possible measure to reduce tension and restore calm on the ground. Throughout the region, a return to political dialogue represents the only real path through these dark days of terror and fear.

Thank you.