Thank you, everybody, for being here – members of the Security Council, permanent representatives, non-governmental organizations, and others, for coming to discuss the situation facing civilians under siege in Aleppo. In particular, I would like to thank the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, and Ukraine for co-hosting this important event.
Today, we will hear from people who have witnessed firsthand the devastating human impact of the fight for Aleppo, and who have been working – in extremely trying circumstances – to mitigate the suffering that it causes.
Joining us from Aleppo by phone is Abdullah Nawhlu – the head of the Aleppo city sector of Syria’s White Helmets, and a first responder who is on the ground, day in and day out, trying to rescue injured civilians. Many of us have seen videos on YouTube of the White Helmets digging through the rubble after airstrikes to save civilians, some of them merely infants; work they pursue with the knowledge that the Assad regime’s helicopters and fighter jets routinely return to strike their targets a second or a third time. Mr. Nawhlu, on behalf of everyone gathered here, let me express how humbled we are by the selfless work that you and your colleagues do every single day. You are real-life heroes.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul and Dr. Sam Attar are two American doctors from the Syrian American Medical Society, SAMS, which coordinates a network of volunteer doctors inside Syria. Both have repeatedly traveled to different parts of Syria – including to eastern Aleppo last month – as the Assad regime was tightening its grip on the city. They and doctors like them leave behind families, esteemed jobs, and safety to sneak into places where hospitals and clinics are routinely being bombed by the regime’s jets and helicopters. To give just one example, from July 23 to July 31, Physicians for Human Rights reported that airstrikes by Assad’s forces struck six hospitals in Aleppo – five of which it had hit before. Think, just for a minute, of the courage and self-sacrifice it takes to venture into places like this. I had the privilege of seeing Dr. Sahloul and his wife shortly before he departed on his most recent trip from the United States. Understandably, his wife feared for her husband’s life, and he barely made it out of Eastern Aleppo before it was completely cut off. We are so grateful to have Dr. Sahloul and Dr. Attar with us here today – as we are so grateful for the work all the volunteers from SAMS and organizations like it do; they continue to risk their lives to help innocent Syrians.
Finally, we welcome CNN Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, who also recently returned from Aleppo, and whose reporting throughout the Syrian conflict has helped the world see the brutality of this war up close.
As many of you know, this Security Council meeting was originally organized to focus attention on the growing crisis caused by the months-long siege of Eastern Aleppo by the Assad regime and the Russian Federation. Both the Assad regime and Russia are, of course, parties to the Cessation of Hostilities, which aims to de-escalate the violence and create space for a political process that as we – and most of us here – have said all along, is the only way to bring an end to this conflict. Instead, after signing onto the cessation, the Assad regime – too often with Russian help – have repeatedly attacked opposition groups that are fellow adherents to the agreement. And two weeks ago, the regime – with the support of its allies – cut off the last remaining access route for humanitarian aid and commercial traffic – Castello Road, which I know we’ll hear a lot more about in today’s session.
It is hard to conceive of a strategy more likely to sabotage the Cessation of Hostilities, or more likely to play into the hands of violent extremist groups, than attacking other parties to the agreement, and cutting off food and medicine to hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. That is why we and others repeatedly called on the Assad regime and its foreign allies to cease their efforts to encircle Eastern Aleppo. They did not listen. Now, we are seeing the predictable result of their campaign.
On Friday, opposition groups – joined by members of the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra – launched a counter-offensive, breaking the Assad regime’s siege of Eastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 130 civilians have been killed since the operation began, mostly in Western Aleppo. As we meet, humanitarian access to Eastern Aleppo remains cut off by fighting; and it is possible that it will become difficult to get humanitarian aid to tens or even hundreds of thousands more people in Western Aleppo. If the fighting continues, it is conceivable that civilians on both sides of Aleppo could be cut off from the basic assistance they need. We cannot allow this to happen.
The fighting of the past few days confirms what we have known for a very long time – despite the overwhelming force of the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah on one side – neither side will be able to win a swift or decisive victory in the battle for Aleppo. Yet the longer the fighting drags on, the more civilians will be caught in the middle, the more that they will pay the highest price. And that is true not only for Aleppo, but for civilians living under siege – with little to no humanitarian access – across Syria.
According to the UN, some 600,000 people live in besieged areas. Six hundred thousand. That includes more than 282,000 civilians besieged on the outskirts of Damascus – in Eastern Harasta, Irbin, Zamalka, Ayn Tarma, Hammurah, Jisrayn, Kafr Batna, and Saqba; 43,000 civilians in Madaya; 45,000 people in Muaddamiyah Al-Sham; and 75,000 individuals in the Al-Wa’er neighborhood of Homs. The vast majority of these innocent civilians are besieged by the regime, using near-identical tactics: they surround a city, cut off humanitarian aid, and give civilians inside three choices: starve, be bombed, or surrender. No UN Member State should do this – and yet the Syrian regime has made this its grotesque trademark.
Of course, it is not just the regime that besieges civilians. Some 110,000 civilians are besieged by ISIL in Deir az Zour, and more than 20,000 people are besieged by opposition groups in Fuaa and Kafraya. It is important to note that, according to the UN, only three of the 18 besieged areas in Syria are being cut off by terrorist groups and the opposition; the remaining 15 – accounting for approximately 78 percent of those besieged – are encircled by the regime.
To civilians living in besieged areas, it matters little who is besieging them, we know. What matters is the hellish suffering it imposes on them and their loved ones, which the eyewitness accounts of today’s guest briefers will paint in searing, indelible detail. To be a parent whose children are so hungry that they cannot sleep at night. To be a doctor who is forced to watch patients die of treatable illnesses and injuries because you don’t have medicine or equipment. To be a first responder who spends day after day picking the bodies of civilians from the rubble of hospitals and apartment buildings.
That is why the Security Council must send a clear, unified message that these sieges must end, and that there’s no justification for cutting innocent people off from basic aid. And it is why we must underscore that the suffering of civilians should never be used as a political bargaining chip or a tactic of war. And it is why we must work with even greater urgency to get the Cessation of Hostilities back on track, and to ensure civilians in Aleppo and across Syria can be reached by humanitarian assistance.
To this end, we once again urge Russia to stop facilitating these sieges, and to use its influence to press the regime to end its sieges across Syria once and for all. And we urge all sides to cease violations of the Cessation of Hostilities, and work with the UN and humanitarian agencies to help aid reach those who need it most.
As the moderator for today’s event, let me offer a quick note on the format. After our panelists and Council members have spoken, and have had the chance to respond to any questions, we will – time-permitting – open the floor for others to deliver short statements, until the event concludes at 1:00 p.m.
Before handing it over to Mr. Nawhlu of the White Helmets, let me close with something that a member of his team in Aleppo – a 29-year-old volunteer named Ismail al-Abdullah – said last week to a reporter. The previous day, Ismail and his colleagues had spent 10 hours searching for survivors in the rubble of a recent airstrike. They found one woman who had miraculously survived the strike. After they dug her out, she was rushed to a nearby hospital – and survived. But they had also found 10 bodies – three of them of small children. Only weeks earlier, two of Ismail’s colleagues had been killed after fighter jets returned to the site of an earlier bombing, where White Helmets were sifting through wreckage – one of whom he described as "more than a father" to him. Asked how he could keep going, Ismail said, "When you see human beings suffering, you need to do something to help them. I consider everyone who is staying in Aleppo – all of them – heroes,” he said.
This is going to be one of the most difficult sessions any of us have ever sat through. We can expect the briefers to share gut-wrenching eyewitness accounts. We will not have plausible deniability. But in listening, I would remind all of you that amidst the immeasurable hardship and suffering in places like Aleppo, there are so many people like Ismail. People who are risking their lives for each other. And not just among White Helmets and doctors like the ones who will speak today, but also among mothers and fathers, neighbors and ordinary citizens. All of them are heroes. In the face of their suffering, we must all ask – like Ismail – what will we do to help?
I would now like to invite Mr. Nawhlu of the White Helmets, joining us by phone from Aleppo.