Ambassador Power: Good Afternoon. The Council, as you know, has just heard from the Joint Mission Coordinator Sigrid Kaag regarding progress on the OPCW-UN mission in Syria. We are grateful for her report and appreciative of her leadership. We are also especially appreciative of those who are risking their lives in Syria to carry out this mission. It’s a war zone and they’re showing tremendous persistence and courage.
It’s worth taking a step back, we think, today, and taking stock of where we are since the Assad regime’s August 21 chemical weapons attack, which killed 1,400 Syrians, including more than 400 children. In the wake of that horrendous crime, our credible threat to use force proved a catalyst in focusing the international community on a diplomatic solution. The redoubled diplomatic efforts by the United States and our partners led directly to Security Council Resolution 2118, legally requiring Syria to give up its chemical weapons. And the Syrian government acceded to this Chemical Weapons Convention, an action that will legally bind future Syrian governments. Through these actions and accomplishments, the international community reaffirmed that chemical weapons should have no place in our world.
Since operations began on October 1st, as you’ve just heard, the Joint OPCW-UN Mission has inspected 21 of 23 sites declared by Syria, and 39 of 41 facilities located at these sites. By October 31st, the Joint Mission was able to publicly confirm that the Syrian government had completed functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing and filling plans, rendering them inoperable. More work, of course, remains to be done to ensure that the Syrian government’s list of declared sites is comprehensive, and that the process remains on track, particularly as we enter into the destruction phase, which will be very complicated.
I want to stress that the onus remains on the Assad regime to fulfill all of its obligations under the OPCW-UN agreement to fully and verifiably eliminate its chemical weapons program. There is nothing yet to celebrate, but it is significant that we have made significant progress toward taking away a potent weapon of war and terror from Assad and his forces.
In speaking to you today, I also want to address a myth associated with the chemical weapons elimination. The chemical weapons agreement and implementation have not changed the U.S. position on Assad. A man who gasses his people – and who uses Scuds and all other forms of terror against his people – is not fit to govern those people. This deal takes away a weapon that Assad and his forces have used for tactical military advantage. This is not something he wanted, and it is not something that helps him.
Having said that, it remains the United States’ commitment – one that I know is shared by my Council colleagues – to ensure that a red light for one type of weapon does not become a green light for others. Eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons is not a substitute for ending the violence engulfing the country.
Yesterday, this council heard from Valerie Amos, who provided us with updates on the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria. It was a very different kind of briefing. As you know, on October 2, the Council spoke with one voice, issuing a strong Presidential Statement condemning the appalling levels of violence committed against all Syrians, including children; she described the assaults on schools and hospitals. The Council urged Syrian authorities to facilitate the rapid expansion of humanitarian relief operations, including by lifting bureaucratic impediments to such operations. Unfortunately, the Assad regime has failed to comply with the requests of this Council.
The Council asked that visas and permits be issued to humanitarian groups in an expeditious manner, but the Syrian government thus far has refused to issue many of them. It is outrageous that the Syrian government, which has granted visas and facilitated the work of the chemical weapons inspectors, has not lifted a finger to allow relief workers into the country to assist those citizens who are in desperate need. In fact, UN security officials assigned to the chemical weapons mission easily obtained their visas, but then the Syrian authorities refused the UN’s request to reassign these same individuals to the UN Country Team mission. At present, 55 visas for UN personnel remain pending, and international non-governmental organizations continue to wait for their visas as well.
An immediate expansion of humanitarian assistance is absolutely critical. Two years of war have devastated Syria’s health care system. According to WHO, up to 70 percent of the country’s hospitals and health care centers in some areas have been badly damaged or closed, and the deliberate targeting of hospitals and medical personnel remains a daily problem. An independent International Commission of Inquiry reported to the UN Human Rights Council in September, that for the last two years, doctors operating in the field hospitals in Homs were allegedly declared wanted persons by Assad regime security forces for providing support to the opposition. This is just for treating patients. I will also repeat what I think now has become an iconic fact, an iconic statistic out of this war, which is that out of the 5,000 doctors who worked in the city of Aleppo in advance of this war, 36 remain.
In the absence of a functioning health care system, we are seeing signs that the control of infectious diseases has been undermined. We are extremely concerned by apparent outbreaks of diseases including measles, meningitis, and polio. We call on all parties to allow for medical treatment to children and others in need, no matter where they reside in the country.
This Council, and like-minded countries around the world, have to exert influence on all parties to end preventable suffering and the deaths of innocent civilians. For this to happen, each of us has to use the leverage that we have over those that would deny aid or reject the terms of last month’s Presidential Statement. We have seen what the Assad regime can do when it is held accountable, and indeed what this Council can do when it is united, as it was on the question of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. We must work with a similar sense of urgency to address the devastating, deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground.
Thank you, and with that I’ll take your questions.
Reporter: Thanks, Ambassador. You said that more work needs to be done to ensure that the Syrian chemical weapons declaration was comprehensive. Does this mean that there is not full confidence on the US part that the declaration was comprehensive and accurate; that there may be facilities or materials that are being held out?
Ambassador Power: As you know, the Syria submission was a 700 page document with extremely technical details, so we are still reviewing that document. We obviously bring skepticism born of years of dealing with this regime, years of obfuscation in other contexts, and of course a lot of broken promises in the context of this current war. But again, I think it’s important today to focus on the fact that the declared sites have been visited, there has been cooperation, and the equipment used for filling, et cetera, associated with those declared sites has been destroyed. You’ll certainly hear from us in the event that we detect non-compliance or we detect significant discrepancies in their declaration.
Reporter: Ambassador, do you believe that Iran should or should not attend Geneva II? Do you think Iran has any role to do in the peace talks in Geneva?
Ambassador Power: Well, as you heard me discuss even today on the humanitarian situation, every country that has leverage over any party on the ground should be using that leverage to save lives. That includes Iran, that includes all member states, that includes all individuals who know people who know people. That’s how urgent the humanitarian situation is and how devastating the circumstances are. In the context of Geneva, our message has been very consistent, which is in order to be part of the solution here—the Geneva-based solution—one has to embrace the terms of Geneva. And so, it is very important that Iran do that; they have not done that up to this point. The terms are very clear in making transparent that what is needed is a transitional governing body, decided upon by mutual consent. So we call upon Iran to embrace the terms of Geneva.
Reporter: What about the humanitarian situation in areas held by the armed opposition like Raqqa and Jarablus? Do you have anything to say on that? And also there are reports now of the al-Qaeda-type groups either targeting Turkey, or in some way looking to—there’s a report yesterday of bombs going over the border. What can you say about that northern area, and how can the UN system address humanitarian needs there?
Ambassador Power: Well, you know, in talking both to the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and to other organizations active on the ground, it is clear that there are a lot of ‘no-go’ areas. And as desperate as conditions are in the ‘go’ areas, you can imagine what circumstances are likely like behind the lines, places that have not been visited, accessed, in some cases for more than a year by the United Nations or by other international non-governmental organizations. So, that just underscores the importance of your question. Every country, every individual should be using its leverage over those actors that it has influence over. When it comes to al-Qaeda affiliated groups, this of course presents a significant challenge, because these are groups that do not have the support of any right-thinking, decent, humane member of the international community. So, we push for access, we push on those who are supporting groups of that nature—that would target civilians, that would violate the laws of war—whether they’re on the regime’s side or whether they call themselves affiliated with the opposition, everyone should use their leverage in order to try to cut off supplies to those actors, and to deter the kinds of horrors that they’ve inflicted on civilians across the region. In addition, all actors should be encouraged to allow access to people in need.
Reporter: Based on the discussions in Geneva today, do you feel that Geneva II can happen, and if so, how soon?
Ambassador Power: I’ve been in the Security Council for the last couple hours so I’m not plugged in, in terms of the content of today’s discussion. We are working with our colleagues—with Mr. Brahimi, with our other partners on the Security Council and people outside who have influence on the parties—to try to push for a peace gathering and peace negotiations at the earliest possible point. The devil is in the details, and has been in the details for some time. But, again, the kinds of statistics that I’ve given today, which are just, you know, a small…I mean, don’t even do justice to what we heard from Valerie Amos, and what any of us would hear if we were actually in touch with people on the ground in Syria—underscores just how urgent it is to get those political talks underway. So we continue to push and try to create an alignment of moons that makes the circumstances right for people to come, recognizing that the function of those talks is to end up with a transitional governing body agreed upon by mutual consent.
Thanks so much.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN