68th Session of the UN General Assembly
Thank you, Mr. President, for convening this important session on the first day of the 68th Session of the General Assembly, and thank you, Mr. Secretary-General, for your briefing. I would like to thank Dr. Sellstrom and his team for their important work, carried out with bravery and great care. What is happening in Syria demands the world’s attention and it demands urgent action.
More than 100,000 people have been killed, a generation of Syrians scarred, and a country and region forever changed.
As we have just heard, Dr. Sellstrom’s report confirms unmistakably that chemical weapons were used in Syria on August 21. We’ve seen the videos. We’ve heard from humanitarian workers. And yesterday we heard from the UN’s own experts. The stories are haunting – hospitals packed with people suffocating from poison gas. The images and testimonies are a call to all of us to action. As Assad waged war on his own people with the full force of his military– including chemical weapons on multiple previous occasions – the United Nations was not able to come together on a meaningful response.
The United States offered in-depth briefings by our leading intelligence officials, who shared with many of you the evidence that they had collected, and they responded to your questions. The evidence of the events of August 21 is clear: in the days before the attack, Assad’s chemical weapons experts prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to regime troops. They then fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 12 neighborhoods that the regime had been trying to clear of opposition forces. It defies logic to think that the opposition infiltrated this regime-controlled territory to fire rockets on its own opposition-controlled areas—and only into opposition-controlled areas—on a massive scale.
After the chemical weapons attack, senior regime military officers reviewed the results, and the regime increased its shelling of these same neighborhoods in the days that followed. The United States has studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site, and our samples tested positive for sarin gas, just as Dr. Sellstrom’s samples did. And let’s remember here today that every reference to a “biomedical sample” refers to a person, a flesh and blood human being who suffered a monstrous attack. The 1,400 people killed in the attack are not here to testify today about what happened. The more than 400 children will never wake up to tell us their dreams for their futures.
For a crime of this magnitude, it is not enough to say “chemical weapons were used,” anymore than it would have been enough to say that “machetes were used” in Rwanda in 1994. We must condemn the user, and here we must acknowledge what the technical details of the UN report make clear: only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack, the largest attack in 25 years.
The 12-centimeter rockets that the UN says were used in the attack and that tested positive for sarin are the same rockets used by the regime in previous attacks. We have reviewed thousands of open source videos related to the current conflict in Syria and have never once observed the opposition manufacturing or using this style of rocket. We also learned yesterday in the Security Council that the quality of the sarin was higher than that of the sarin used in Saddam Hussein’s program. And the rockets found on the site were professionally made and, according to Dr. Sellstrom, they bore none of the characteristics of jerry-rigged, improvised weapons. They had sophisticated barometric fuses to disperse the nerve agent in the air and not on impact. This was a professionally executed massacre by the regime, which is known to possess one of the world’s largest undeclared stockpiles of sarin. To think otherwise is to willfully blind oneself to the facts that have been presented.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons crossed the world’s redline and the international community has a responsibility not to stand by while Assad uses weapons that the world long ago agreed should never be used. And we all must recognize that the price of failing to hold Assad accountable is just too steep. The risks could extend well beyond Syria to the region and beyond. The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is a colossal threat to the security of people everywhere.
The progress made last Saturday in discussions between the United States and Russia marks an important step toward moving Syria's chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed. This framework seeks the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons, which could end the threat that these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and to the world. In order for the framework to be implemented in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner, the Security Council must be prepared to back up the agreement reached and to enforce it through a robust, binding resolution. There must be consequences for non-compliance and for any obstruction or any delay. We must be willing to hold the Assad regime to account to live up to its public commitments, and that requires meaningful action in New York in order to ensure that the officials we send to carry out the destruction and removal of Syria’s chemical weapons have the mandate and the tools that they need to do so, and do not themselves become unwitting bystanders to continued obstruction or further chemical weapons use by Assad’s forces.
Mr. Secretary-General, the UN has a crucial role to play here, supporting and working alongside the OPCW and member states. We know that the OPCW will be asked to take special steps to enable the quick destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program, including a stringent verification process. As I said earlier today in the Security Council, the degree of difficulty here, on a scale of 1 to 10, is an 11. We need to maximize the chances for success by giving the mission our strong backing. We must reinforce this effort through the Security Council to ensure verification and effective implementation. We hope that states will also step forward — as my government has committed to do — to support the OPCW and the UN in their efforts.
Finally, whether by chemical weapons or by conventional weapons, the violence against civilians in Syria has gone on too long and it must stop. An agreement on the destruction and removal of chemical weapons is not a substitute for a political solution. The 100,000 or more dead Syrians makes it gravely clear that a political transition is urgently needed to end the violence. We, in the United States, remain committed to convening a Geneva conference as soon as possible and practicable.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General and thank you. Mr. President.
- Cross posted on U.S. Mission to the UN