It’s been just three weeks since the world was horrified by the pictures of poisoned children in Syria, the result of deadly nerve agents dropped from the sky. Those images of suffering and dying children will never be forgotten.
But there is a quieter, slower kind of death occurring in Syria today. It is even more deliberate, more labor-intensive, and more widespread than dropping chemical weapons from thousands of feet in the air. The Syrian regime is engaged in a purposeful strategy of siege and surrender. Civilians stranded inside are literally kept as prisoners until they die or kneel before the government. They are denied food. They are also denied life-saving medical supplies.
This campaign of holding humanitarian relief hostage to Assad’s political goals is not new, but it is worsening. More humanitarian assistance is being denied to besieged areas today than at this time last year. More Syrian men, women, and children are suffering and dying because aid isn’t being allowed through. This is what the Syrian dictator means when he says his “only option is victory.” Assad will tighten the noose around the necks of his own people until they give in.
The Syrian government’s slow strangulation of its people happens so frequently and so similarly that it has almost become textbook. First, government forces or their allies surround a city, town, or village. They cut off all commercial routes inside and out. Then the UN requests access to bring relief to the people as food and medical supplies vanish. The UN’s mission is a humanitarian mission: they don’t care who the people are, whether they are pro-government or pro-opposition. They just want to save human lives. But the Syrian regime doesn’t let them. They hide behind bureaucracy and deny requests for humanitarian access. This is permission the government could easily give if it actually wanted to.
The few convoys that manage to get approvals are often held up at checkpoints. They are stopped by Assad’s soldiers or by rogue militias that the Assad regime can’t or won’t control. The aid they carry doesn’t reach those who need it. And month after month, we sit in this Council and talk about these very issues and nothing changes.
Even more bone chilling is the fact that convoys that do get through are increasingly looted of medical supplies – items that have no military purpose, but are essential to saving the lives of civilians who don’t bow to the regime.
Syrian government forces and pro-government militias remove baby formula, vaccines, and forceps from midwifery kits. They raid pediatric kits of antibiotics, needles, and gauze. They remove dialysis equipment, family hygiene, and burn kits from trucks. There is no reason I can conceivably think of this to happen.
Maybe my colleagues from Russia and other allies of the Syrian regime can help me out: What possible definition of humanitarian relief does not include antibiotics and dialysis equipment? What possible justification is there for preventing malnourished women and their children from receiving baby formula from the UN and its partners?
Of course there is no justification. But there is a reason. With impunity, Syrian regime troops on the ground work to prevent UN aid from going to the men, women, and children who need it. At the same time, they operate black markets, and they sell many of the same products. Medical supplies that desperate people should be getting for free are instead sold at inflated prices or extorted through bribes at checkpoints. This is a major business in Syria – yet another reason why the sieges have not been lifted.
People are profiting off the suffering and dying of the Syrian people. And none of this is prevented or even opposed by Russia. According to the UN’s latest report, medical items that would have provided 36,000 life-saving and life-sustaining treatments were removed from humanitarian convoys in March.
As we speak, 450,000 people in the Damascus suburbs are being slowly squeezed by the Syrian regime. These areas have been under siege since 2012, but recently, government forces closed the last routes for even black markets to get into the city. They have blocked all humanitarian aid deliveries since last October. The people in the Damascus suburbs, just like in other besieged areas of Syria, are slowly dying. Cancer patients are dying from lack of chemotherapy. Kidney patients are dying from lack of dialysis.
And children are suffering most of all. Nearly one-third of all war-related injuries are to children under the age of 15. But because the Syrian military has bombed all the hospitals in the area, they cannot receive professional treatment for their injuries.
These are the atrocities occurring in Syria every day that don’t make the headlines. A resident doctor in one of the only cancer centers serving the besieged areas summed up the condition of her patients tragically well when she said, “Death is coming at them from every direction.” When death surrounds you, words mean very, very little.
Assad has proven he will act only to increase the suffering of his people, not ease it. And so it falls to others to do what basic human decency requires. Russia must live up to its promise to deliver real peace talks and a real political solution. The sieges of the Syrian people must be lifted. The war profiteering and the theft of medical supplies must be stopped. The Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian assistance must receive it. Bashar al-Assad clearly believes that it is necessary to starve hundreds of thousands of people in order to remain in power.
And I ask this Council that as we talk about everything that is happening here – I heard from each and every one of you somewhat of desperation and somewhat of defeat because we talk about this so much. And every time we talk about it, more people continue to die.
And I listened to my Russian colleague, and he talked about taskforces and diplomacy and less criticism of the Syrian regime. Where has that gotten us? It hasn’t gotten us anywhere. And then the times where we could actually do something as a Security Council, who’s the one Member State that continues to protect the regime that’s keeping this humanitarian assistance from going through?
So I will tell you, many of you said we need to put pressure on the Syrian regime. That’s actually not the case. We need to put pressure on Russia, because Russia continues to cover for the Syria regime. Russia continues to allow them to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it. Russia continues to cover for a leader who uses chemical weapons against his own people. Russia continues to veto and Assad continues to do these things because they know Russia will continue to cover for them.
So I will tell you, sitting in this chamber, I appreciate all the comments that you made, but all eyes and all pressure now need to go to Russia because they are the ones that could stop this if they wanted to. So don’t listen to the distractions of what they’re trying to say, pointing to other conflicts. Don’t listen to the fact that they claim the reports now are wrong. So now – first, it was the Security Council that was wrong. Now it’s Mr. O’Brien’s report that’s wrong. But the images don’t lie. The humanitarian workers don’t lie. The fact that they can’t get the assistance they need – that’s not lying. What is, is to continue to give Russia a pass for allowing this terrible situation to occur.
So with that, I will continue to press the Security Council to act, to do something, regardless of if the Russians continue to veto it, because it is our voice that needs to be heard. Because I can tell you the Syrian people don’t care about diplomacy. The Syrian people don’t care about any sort of task forces. Syrian people don’t care about any of the things we said today. They’re just trying to live their very last day.