Thank you, Under-Secretary-General O’Brien, for your briefing and for your special attention to the 250,000 to 275,000 Syrians trapped in Eastern Aleppo.
Let’s put Eastern Aleppo in some context. For years, this Council has called on the Assad regime to end the brutal sieges that have inflicted suffering on hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been deprived of the food and medicine needed to survive. The community of Darayya outside Damascus, besieged by the regime, received no UN aid for more than three years; communities in eastern Ghouta received no UN deliveries for more than two years. After long and painful negotiations – negotiations that should have never been necessary in the first place – the UN and its partners barely managed to reach Syria’s 18 besieged areas this year. Often, the UN was only able to send a single convoy. And often – more often than not – the Assad regime removed supplies from these convoys before they could reach civilians. It was actually hard to imagine how Syria’s humanitarian situation could get worse.
And yet, Assad’s military advances around Aleppo – undertaken with Russia’s support – now threaten to bring the suffering of the Syrian people to a new low. We have spoken repeatedly, and in great detail, over the last six months about the horrific starvation of Syrians in the besieged areas of Madaya and Darayya. Eastern Aleppo, by comparison, has up to seven times as many people as those trapped in Madaya, and up to 75 times as many people as in Darayya.
Eastern Aleppo is quickly falling victim to the Assad regime’s typical pattern of starve and surrender tactics. Over the last month, the Assad regime flagrantly violated the cessation of hostilities by attacking Aleppo. The regime and its supporters have cut off Castello Road, the only remaining supply route for more than 250,000 Syrians living in the eastern part of the city, severing their access to food, fuel, medicine, clean water, and other essential supplies. Brave and courageous humanitarian workers – such as those you described, Stephen – continue trying to deliver medical supplies and aid on smaller roads at great, great risk. But, alternative options for delivering humanitarian aid are diminishing rapidly; airstrikes by the Assad regime and by Russia are making the use of other roads totally precarious.
Russia, as a co-sponsor of the cessation of hostilities, must halt these attacks and persuade the regime to do the same. And they must ensure the reopening of the Castello Road. Russia, the Assad regime, and other groups fighting around Aleppo should heed the UN’s call for a weekly 48 hour pause to allow for deliveries of essential supplies.
Look at what people are going through. A doctor, Samer Attar, who recently returned to the United States from volunteering in Aleppo, described the scene in clinics after attacks by the Assad regime: “Patient after patient nonstop was wheeled into the small emergency room. I saw mutilated limbs, dismembered bodies, dead children, screaming patients. People literally bleed to death in front of you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Imagine being a doctor in that circumstance. Aleppo’s residents are not even safe when they get to a hospital. According to the UN, the Omar Ibd Abdel Aziz hospital in eastern Aleppo has been hit three times since June. Airstrikes reportedly struck yet another hospital in the Jebel Saman district of eastern Aleppo on July 19, killing at least six civilians and injuring 17. And as we’ve heard – just in the last 48 hours – we’ve seen reports that the regime has bombed four more hospitals, including one that cared for children.
Feras Bedawi, a journalist in eastern Aleppo, told Human Rights Watch, “We haven’t seen vegetables in weeks, and airstrikes are not giving us a break.” Ibrahim Al-Laith, a volunteer first responder with the Syrian Civil Defense, described the long lines forming at shops because “we are really expecting a famine in a few days.”
In another deeply alarming development, a video circulated last week that showed rebel fighters beheading a young boy in Aleppo. The brutal killing of this boy, reported to be 12 year-old Abdullah Issa, is appalling. The United States condemns in the strongest terms this unconscionable act, as well as the unlawful targeting of children and the use of child soldiers by all parties in this conflict. We note that the opposition has condemned this crime and promised to bring those responsible for Abdullah Issa’s death to justice in a transparent manner – something we have never heard the Assad regime do when faced with similar allegations of atrocities. Instead, despite countless videos, reams and reams of elaborate photographic evidence, hundreds of thousands of eyewitness reports gathered by credible independent actors, we get from the Syrian regime time and again only blithe, uncurious, but always dogmatic denials. A cold, cruel indifference to the fate of the Syrian people. I would also note that the Russian Federation has also never once acknowledged even a possible involvement of the Russian air force in horrific strikes that have resulted in significant civilian casualties. Nor has Russia acknowledged the huge number of Russian strikes against opposition groups that signed up for the cessation of hostilities, the very groups, in fact, mentioned by the representative of the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is in an extremely weak position to point fingers at the United States in this Council. We look forward to Russia opening just a single investigation into strikes that have killed civilians.
The situation in Syria’s other besieged areas remains dire. Even excluding Aleppo, 196,500 more Syrians are living in besieged areas than there were in January of this year. These Syrians depend on sporadic aid deliveries disrupted all too often by the regime’s bureaucratic pretexts or by fighting on the ground. In no single month this year has the UN been allowed to reach even half of Syrians living in besieged areas. UN Special Adviser Jan Egeland recently warned that Madaya is on the brink of starvation. And the regime continues to dispute the numbers in the UN’s beneficiary lists – a cynical attempt to further reduce how much aid gets delivered in the rare instances aid gets delivered at all. The UN should be determining what is needed, how much, and where – not the regime that has long practiced collective punishment and indiscriminately branded civilians as “terrorists.”
The regime’s actions also continue to take a severe toll on the health sector. This month alone, forces loyal to Assad twice removed medical supplies from convoys bound for the besieged community of Al-Wa’er in Homs. What exactly did the regime take? Midwifery kits to help deliver healthy babies and treatments for diarrhea. It is obscene.
In May, this Council unanimously adopted resolution 2286 calling for the protection of medical personnel and facilities. Yet, hospitals, clinics, and medical personnel are still being struck regularly by the regime and by Russian forces.
In recent days, it has been reported that airstrikes conducted by the Counter-ISIL Coalition may have caused a large number of civilian casualties in Manbij. The United States will carefully and thoroughly review any and all credible information we can gather about the incident, including information from organizations within Syria that document harm to civilians and that are also trying now to investigate these events. This is a process that is complicated by the extremely limited access of Syrian civil society groups and others to ISIL-controlled areas. We are determined to do whatever we can to understand what took place. The United States goes to extraordinary lengths to reduce the risk of noncombatant casualties and complies with the law of armed conflict in our operations, and we will continue to do so. And if we determine that civilians were harmed in Manbij by our strikes, we will acknowledge it and look at what steps can be taken, consistent with the policies that President Obama announced in his July 1 executive order on pre- and post-strike measures to address civilian casualties in U.S. operations. This is an extremely important issue.
Let me conclude. Last week, Secretary Kerry traveled to Moscow in an attempt to address the two main forces undermining the cessation of hostilities: first and foremost, the rampant violations by the Assad regime, including the targeting of both civilians and groups that are supposed to be protected, as well as offensives led by the al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, al-Nusrah Front, which increasingly poses a threat to our interests.
In Moscow, the United States and Russia agreed on a series of concrete steps that, if fully implemented, could restore the cessation of hostilities and create space for Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s efforts to launch a genuine political transition process. Our technical experts have been working on the details for implementing such steps. Ultimate success is, of course, far from assured but we know that we have a responsibility to try and to exhaust all diplomatic options.
Moving forward requires a period of reduced violence. And if Aleppo remains under siege, it is hard to see how this is going to work.
As we speak, Aleppo’s residents are struggling to find food and medicine for their families. Maher Abu Al-Walid, a 25-year-old, said in an interview, “We’re not starving yet, but we’re all panicking now.” He has to support his wife and seven-month-old daughter, Sham, as food supplies are running out and prices are rising. Imagine, for just one moment, what it must feel like to realize that within a few days, every shelf at your local market will be bare, that you may have no place to go or no way to afford the food your infant, your seven-month-old infant, desperately needs.
All of us here must do our utmost to ensure that Maher’s fear does not become a reality – a reality that far too many in Syria are already enduring.
I thank you, Mr. President.