I thank High Representative Nakamitsu for her briefing.
History’s verdict on the conflict in Syria is not yet written. There have been plenty of missteps, miscalculations, and willful negligence over the course of the war. There has been evil. There has been honor. And many things in between. I would say it should be a cause of deep shame for the members of the Council who have fought relentlessly to shield the Assad regime from accountability. Instead, those members have made a clear display of their cynicism, their penchant for brutality, and their lack of capacity for shame. Still, the competition for how the Syrian war will be remembered – as an example of humanity at its worst or humanity at its best – goes on.
Today’s Security Council session is devoted to chemical weapons; but make no mistake, an Assad regime offensive on Idlib would be a reckless escalation even if chemical weapons were not used. It is up to Russia to keep this from happening, and we will discuss the humanitarian consequences of the Idlib offensive in greater detail tomorrow.
In the meantime, the Russian Federation has recently been building up its naval forces off the coast of Syria – signaling that Moscow is pre-positioning itself to once more abet the murder and mayhem of the Assad regime. And, as has happened numerous times in the past, there are signs that the Assad regime is planning to use chemical weapons to finish off the siege of Idlib.
As in the past, the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are spreading lies about who is behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Their claims are baseless. They are the definition of fake news. In fact, if the past is any guide, the Syrian and Russian attempts to blame others for the use of chemical agents is an indication that the Syrian regime still believes it can use these horrific weapons with impunity and an indication that the Syrian regime may be preparing to use these horrific weapons in future attacks. No one – I repeat – no one is fooled.
Here are the terrible facts of the war in Syria. Five years ago, the Assad regime launched missiles containing a cocktail of deadly gas at the people of Ghouta. One thousand, four hundred, twenty-nine people were killed. On April 4, 2017, the Assad regime dropped sarin gas from the sky on the people of Khan Sheikhoun. The attack killed over 70 innocent Syrians – including dozens of children. An independent investigative group, the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, found the Assad regime responsible for the attack. The fact that the Russians later succeeded in killing the JIM doesn’t change its conclusions. Their finding was credible, and it was definitive: Assad killed his own people with chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun. Then, in April 2018, over 40 people died, and hundreds received treatment for exposure to chemical weapons in Douma.
In all, the United States estimates – conservatively – that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own people at least 50 times since the war began. That’s easily – conservatively – 1,500 innocent children, women, and men killed by the Syrian regime with chemical weapons. Fifteen hundred murders covered up by the Russian regime. And 1,500 reasons to disbelieve the claims that others are responsible for the atrocities.
As these ridiculous claims are repeated again and again, I ask everyone listening to remember this: the Syrians’ and Russians’ lies do not exonerate them. The Syrians’ and Russians’ lies only reveal Assad’s guilt. The United States will not stop pushing back forcefully on these lies. We will not abandon the Syrian people.
Along with France, the United States has announced new sanctions against individuals and entities that support Assad’s chemical and conventional weapons program.
In June, the Special Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention decided that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. Even though the United States believes the primary responsibility for addressing the use of chemical weapons belongs to the Security Council, we welcome this decision. Anything that brings us closer to bringing the Assad regime to account for its crimes enhances the security, not just of the Syrian people, but all of us.
In referencing accountability, we have a message for the Assad regime and anyone contemplating using chemical weapons in Syria. In the past 18 months, I have stood on this floor twice, promising that the United States would respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Both times, this administration followed through. The United States and its allies forced the Assad regime to pay its price for its crimes. So we want to take this opportunity to remind Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners: you don’t want to bet against the United States responding again.
The story of the war in Syria is still being written. There is still time for those who believe in human dignity to shape history. There is still time for the nations of the world to come to their aid. And there is still time for those who would commit additional acts of human savagery to reconsider their actions. The choice is theirs – and it will dictate our response, in the time and the manner of our choosing.