Remarks at a UN Security Council High-Level Briefing on Syria

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City
September 21, 2016

AS DELIVERED

Mr. President, good morning, and good morning to all of our colleagues here on the United Nations Security Council. I want to thank my colleague from New Zealand particularly for hosting this very important session on the crisis in Syria. And I think it’s appropriate that we are gathering here a couple of rooms over from where yesterday so many heads of state came together in what I thought was a remarkably moving and eloquent statement of the consequence of this war in Syria.

I listened to King Abdullah particularly talk about the impact on his country of these millions of people who are distorting their economy, putting huge pressures on the social structure of their country, living under the worst circumstances, and in some areas, presenting a threat because of the ability of Daesh/ISIS to – or Nusrah to slip people in and present a security threat to a country. We listened to the young Olympian tell us about her dreams and how she was able to compete this year because of a refugee Olympic team. And we saw the images in a beautifully Bono-narrated video that really made us think about the consequences of this.

And I hope everybody will come here today really focused on these consequences and not engage in word games that duck responsibility or avoid the choices that this great institution has in front of it with respect to war and peace, life and death.

I listened to my colleague from Russia, and I sort of felt a little bit like they’re sort of in a parallel universe here. He said that nobody should have any preconditions to come to the table. Well, we met in Vienna twice. We met here in New York and embraced a United Nations Security Council resolution. We met again in Munich. And in each place, the International Syria Support Group, and here in the Security Council, the Security Council embraced a ceasefire applicable to all parties. That’s not a precondition. That’s an international agreement, four times arrived at. Four times, countries have said, “We will do this,” and four times, it’s been shredded by independent actors, by spoilers who don’t want a ceasefire.

So this is not a precondition. How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again, and acts with impunity? Are you supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva under those circumstances when you’ve signed up to a ceasefire and you don’t adhere to it? What kind of credibility do you have with any of your people?

It’s not a precondition; it’s something we all agreed on in the United Nations and in the International Syria Support Group. And I have to say the documents which we’re prepared to release – we’ve told people, we announced that yesterday at the International Syria Support Group, people in the support group have the documents – but you don’t need to read these documents to understand it’s against international law to bomb hospitals. You don’t need these documents to understand that you don’t drop barrel bombs on children. These are flagrant violations of international law.

So I don’t want to obfuscate this process, folks. I didn’t come here this morning to do that. Supposedly we all want the same goal. I’ve heard that again and again. Russia, Iran, the United States, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, everybody sits there and says we want a united Syria – secular, respecting the rights of all people, in which the people of Syria can choose their leadership. But we are proving woefully inadequate in our ability to be able to get to the table and have that conversation and make it happen.

And let’s face it: Everybody in this room understands that there are proxies at this table and proxies outside of this room – and we know who they are – who have the ability to have an impact on the players in this conflict that has provided the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.

So let’s just review the bidding a bit. I was privileged to serve in the United States Senate with a fellow who spent a lot of time here. He was the ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And he would famously remind us that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. And as President John Adams once said, facts are stubborn things.

So I don’t think we can let anybody here, if we’re going to deal with this situation, have their own set of facts about Syria. Everybody here understands the depth of human tragedy. Everybody – I mean, the words are getting – you wonder why people in various parts of the world are so angry about governance. It’s because all they hear are words and we know how many times we’ve demanded action and it doesn’t take place.

So I want to share some facts with you this morning – facts. Last night, we have reports of airstrikes that hit a medical facility near Aleppo, and four aid workers were killed – despite the fact there’s supposed to be a cessation. There are only two countries that have airplanes that are flying during the night or flying at all in that particular area – Russia and Syria.

On Monday – and Sergey just said, well, let’s examine the facts and see what happened – on Monday, 20 aid workers were killed in an outrageous, sustained, two-hour attack directed at a fully authorized humanitarian mission near Aleppo – fully authorized. All of the permits had been given. Everybody was on notice.

Now, this attack has dealt a very heavy blow to our efforts to bring peace to Syria and it raises a profound doubt about whether Russia and the Assad regime can or will live up to the obligations that they agreed to in Geneva. It also raises questions – not this attack, but other events raise questions about some of the opposition. Those are facts.

And the simple reality is we cannot resolve this crisis if the major parties who come to the table and agree to do something are unwilling to do what’s necessary to avoid escalation. But we don’t get anywhere by ignoring the facts and denying common sense. Yes, the coalition did hit people on Saturday. We did it, a terrible accident. And within moments of it happening, we acknowledged it. We didn’t put out a bunch of obfuscating facts. We said, yeah, it’s a terrible thing, it happened. Defense Department apologized and we tried to find out how that happened. But I got to tell you, people running around with guns on the ground, from the air, is a very different thing from trucks in a convoy with big UN markings all over them.

Now I am saying this and I want to lay out these facts because it underscores why at this moment we just can’t do business as usual. We can’t walk out of this room and say, okay, we’re going to try to continue or we’ll have a ceasefire that everybody knows can’t work. The facts require countries to restore credibility to this process. That’s what’s critical.

And just think about what happened in the last couple of days. First, President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, claims that the attack on the humanitarian convoy was somehow a necessary response to an alleged offensive by al-Nusrah elsewhere in the country. That’s the first claim.

Then a Russian ambassador said that Russian and Syrian forces were not bombing the area but they were targeting Khan Tuman.

Then we heard a completely different story. The defense ministry said that the aid convoy had been accompanied by militants in a pickup truck with a mortar. We’ve seen no evidence of that. But that, in any case, would not justify a violation of the cessation of hostilities. And by the way, that mortar could never have inflicted the damage that has been caused on those trucks.

Then the defense ministry switched completely and it denied Russia’s involvement. It said, according to spokesman Igor Konashenkov, I quote, “Neither Russia nor Syria conducted airstrikes on the UN humanitarian convoy in the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo.” That’s a quote.

Then Konashenkov went further and he said the damage to the convoy was the direct result of the cargo catching fire. The trucks and the food and the medicine just spontaneously combusted. Anybody here believe that? I mean, this is not a joke. We’re in serious business here. If we can stand up and say, yes, accidentally, we had a strike, we should have some responsibility – maybe it’s an attempt to distract attention or to somehow deflect this, but I think what it underscores is that we have a responsibility here to find a way forward.

And guess what? Everything I just said is contradicted by public information, by conclusions already reached by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross, the Red Crescent Societies, the Syrian Arab Crescent, independent journalists, and aid workers on the ground, eyewitnesses.

The eyewitnesses will tell you what happened. One of them said that he was standing on the ground and all of a sudden the place became hell, and the fighter jets were in the sky. That’s an eyewitness report – the place turned into hell and fighter jets were in the sky. There’s a lot more. I’m not going to go into it all because I really want the key here to be an acceptance of responsibility to change this equation by everybody here.

The primary question is no longer: What do we know? The primary question is: Collectively, what are we going to do about it? In other words, this is a moment of truth. It’s a moment of truth for President Putin and Russia; it’s a moment of truth also for the opposition; and it’s a moment of truth for the people who support the opposition. And for too long, some elements of the opposition have relied on an unholy alliance with al-Nusrah, and al-Nusrah is al-Qaida – al-Qaida’s branch in Syria – and we can’t look the other way if groups are on the ground fighting alongside al-Nusrah, an organization that overtly rejects a political solution to this crisis and is an enemy of all of us in this room. So it’s a moment of truth for the international community too. Okay?

If we allow spoilers to choose the path for us – the path of escalation – if we decide not to do what it takes to make this work, this cessation of hostilities, then make no mistake, my friends, the next time we convene here, we’re going to be facing a Middle East with even more refugees, with more dead, with more displaced, with more extremists, and more suffering on an even greater scale. That is a certainty.

There is only one choice, and it’s to get to that table with Staffan de Mistura and it is get to a negotiation and get a ceasefire so we stop the flow of refugees, stop the suffering, and provide the people of Syria with a chance to breathe, to live.

When this ceasefire first began a few weeks ago, guess what, it worked. People actually – months ago, people actually were out in the streets, they went to cafes again. Some people even demonstrated and felt their political rights. Other people were able to walk from one place to another with a sense of safety. And all of that dissipated.

So I want to emphasize this, and I emphasize this to Russia: The United States continues to believe there is a way forward that, although rocky and difficult and uncertain, can provide the most viable path out of the carnage. Our shared task here is to find a way to use the tools of diplomacy to make that happen, and that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to accomplish.

For weeks over the summer, experts from my government worked with our counterparts from Russia in good efforts to develop a plan that would take into account the lessons learned from the original cessation, and the key elements of that plan launched in Geneva two weeks ago include the renewal of a cessation of hostilities, excluding only Daesh and al-Nusrah.

Importantly, it included arrangements for the unfettered delivery – unfettered delivery – of humanitarian aid to people in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country, and it envisioned the possibility – providing humanitarian assistance was unimpeded and sustained, and provided there were at least seven days of consecutive adherence to the cessation – that the United States and Russia would begin to coordinate their efforts against Daesh and al-Nusrah. And I want to make it clear, under President Obama’s orders, all preparations were being made in order to achieve that cooperation in terms of our military and intelligence community and the work we would do. So we’re committed to that.

It was also very importantly part of the plan that when those efforts of cooperation commenced, Syrian war planes would be prohibited from flying over areas where the legitimate opposition and al-Nusrah were present in order to give us the opportunity to work at the separation. Now, I have said to Russia many times it's very hard to separate people when they are being bombed indiscriminately and when Assad has the right to determine who he’s going to bomb, because he can, quote, “go after Nusrah” but go after the opposition at the same time because he wants to. You create a confusion that is impossible to separate out, and therefore preserve the ceasefire.

So we need to get to the prohibition on flying, my friends. That would prevent Syria from doing what it has done so often in the past, which is to attack civilian targets with the excuse that it is just going after Nusrah. Our purpose in this negotiation was to put an end to the kind of horrific and indiscriminate attacks that have been the primary cause of fear, of suffering, of displacement. And under our plan, all of this could be quickly accompanied by serious negotiations between the parties aimed at a political transition and a conclusion to the conflict.

So, my colleagues, I want you to know the United States remains convinced that the objectives outlined in the Geneva agreement are the right objectives, and the tools – many of them are the right tools but it may not be complete. Our hope was that the renewal of cessation of hostilities and the resumption of aid deliveries, the isolation of al-Nusrah and Daesh, and the beginning of a Syrian-led negotiating process could provide a pathway out of the conflict and make possible the restoration of a peaceful Syria.

Now, clearly, there are some people – it includes Assad and his allies, and al-Nusrah and Daesh on the other side – who fear this very outcome. Assad is a spoiler – he doesn’t believe in the ceasefire; and al-Nusrah and Daesh are spoilers – they don’t want a ceasefire, they want to keep fighting Assad. So the question for us here today is whether we bend to their will or continue to pursue our agenda – as best we can and in every way that we can – a diplomatic solution to this conflict.

Now, those who believe the crisis in Syria cannot become even worse are dead wrong, as are those who believe that a military victory is possible. This could be like Carthage with the Romans, if you call that a victory. The plan announced in Geneva is far from perfect, but I have yet to hear an alternative that is remotely realistic that will lead to a better outcome. And if we could get monitoring on the ground, that would be ideal. We’d love to have monitoring on the ground, but most countries you talk to and say, “Would you go in and monitor?” are very, very quick to say, “Not on my life.”

Now, as my colleagues from the International Syria Support Group will attest, yesterday we had a meeting and there was near unanimity in that room that this process, the ceasefire, as troubled as it is, gives us the best chance available to bring relief to the people of Syria. Now, here’s the nub of it: We have said for days that it will take significant and immediate steps now to try to get things back on track. How do we get things back on track? How do we restore the concept of the ceasefire? How do we give people who have again and again seen this fall apart some sense of credibility? Believe me, there are a lot of people who believe it can’t happen, and there are some people who believe that major parties don’t want it done.

So I believe that to restore credibility to the process, we must move forward to try to immediately ground all aircraft flying in those key areas in order to de-escalate the situation and give a chance for humanitarian assistance to flow unimpeded. And if that happens, there is a chance of giving credibility back to this process.

In Geneva, Russia related that Assad was prepared to live by the cessation of hostilities and would accept the idea of not flying over agreed-upon areas. But because of what’s happened in the last few days, my friends, we have no choice but to try to do that sooner, not later, move immediately to restore confidence, and demonstrate the readiness to implement a genuine ceasefire now. The future of Syria is hanging by a thread and I urge this council not to give up, but instead to support the steps outlined by the United States and Russia in Geneva. And I call on every party in Syria and those who support them, I call on all members of the opposition, to cooperate and revive this plan. And I call on every country to cease providing support of any kind to any party that is trying to sabotage this plan. I call on the international community to support UN efforts to begin a real negotiation in Geneva on a political transition that can provide the only durable route to peace. And I urge the entire international community to get behind the best chance that we have yet had to reduce the violence, to provide humanitarian assistance, and to open up the space for negotiations. I thank you for your patience.

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