John Kerry Secretary of State has said that I don’t think I have to elaborate, but I’m going to certainly focus on the anger and the anguish that everybody feels – or most people feel – about the continued relentless and inexcusable attacks that have been directed at the civilian population in Aleppo, including women, children, humanitarian workers, and medical personnel. And there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the indiscriminate and savage brutality against civilians shown by the regime and by its Russian and Iranian allies over the past few weeks, or indeed for the past five years.
Now, the position of the United States remains clear, and I have personally reiterated that position in conversations over the past weeks and especially over the past 24 hours, with the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who I talked with earlier today who was in Paris meeting now with Jean-Marc Ayrault, and with senior officials from Russia, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region.
What the United States is working toward, and has been working towards for some period of time now, under difficult circumstances, where, if some parties do not want to move in that direction, it remains very difficult to secure, obviously, a ceasefire; but what we want in Aleppo right now, which is the precursor to any ability to move to other things, is an immediate and verifiable, durable cessation of hostilities, and that includes all attacks by the regime, its allies, and other combatants in Aleppo – all combatants in Aleppo.
And we’ve been working very hard on that. We worked on that in Hamburg, in my meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov, where we reached some measure of agreement – in fact, a considerable measure of agreement – but weren’t able to secure every component of what was needed in order to move forward. We want safe passage, corridors of evacuation, which we’re beginning today to see perhaps take shape. But we want to see those for both civilians and fighters who choose to evacuate the city. We want full access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to people in need throughout Syria. And with these steps, we are convinced that the killing and the suffering in Syria could stop, and it could stop very, very quickly, if Russia and the regime made the decision to do so.
This morning, I was encouraged by reports that, after a number of fits and starts, what we worked on in Paris and then got picked up on in continued conversations – which, by the way, we were informed of by Russia and Turkey were going to take place – to build out on what we’d talked about, actually using the same template that we had created. There are individual ceasefires being worked out, individual arrangements with armed opposition group commanders. And it appears, for some period of time at least – we don’t know yet if it will hold or where it is – that airstrikes and shelling have stopped and that the ceasefire may – I emphasize may – be taking hold.
Buses, some of them in convoys, are beginning to move. And my understanding is that the first group of 21 buses and 19 ambulances reached its checkpoint at Khan al-Assal. Now, this convoy includes more than 1,000 people who are on their way to the Turkish border. However – and this is a big however – we also heard reports that a convoy of injured people was fired on by forces from the regime or its allies. And we remain deeply concerned as well that we are hearing reports of Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 40 who have apparently been detained or conscripted into military service when trying to pass through government checkpoints and that some who – of these actually went missing days or even weeks ago, and we still don’t have, the families don’t have, their loved ones don’t have accountability for what has happened to them. Obviously, these actions are despicable and they’re contrary to the laws of war and to basic human decency.
Now, more positively, we have finally received pledges from Russia that it will assist in the monitoring of evacuations, that the International Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Crescent, Red Arab Crescent, will also be allowed access in order to be able to try to help with the monitoring. The UN is prepared to receive evacuees in numerous sites, and emergency relief kits have been pre-positioned to try to help people. Medical assistance is also going to be available. The Government of Turkey is prepared to accept more evacuees for aid and treatment. So it appears that the necessary preparations have been made for the evacuation process that will eventually save lives, but the implementation of that process continues to be dependent on the actions of the regime and its allies on the ground.
Let me emphasize, we’re going to continue to do our part. The United States of America is going to continue to try to push the parties towards a resolution. As President Obama said the other day, in giving us all both his impressions as well as instructions about these next days, we’re going to be trying every way we can to try to save lives and push this to where it needs to get to. To date, we’ve provided more than $6 billion in food, water, medicine, and other supplies to people who’ve been affected by the violence in the region.
And let me be clear – I said it once; I’m going to say it again – what has happened already in Aleppo is unconscionable, but there remains tens of thousands of lives that are now concentrated into a very small area of Aleppo, and the last thing anybody wants to see – and the world will be watching – is that that small area turns into another Srebrenica. It is imperative that key actors step up and do their part, and I call on the entire international community to join in exerting pressure on all parties to go forward with the process that has been laid out for some period of time now, to abide by the cessation of hostilities, and to bring the killing and the cruelty, particularly starting with Aleppo, which lays the groundwork to be able to take the next steps particularly in Aleppo.
Now, all of you know that we’ve been engaged in a lot of talks over the period of – an extended period of time now. And all of those talks have been geared towards trying to end the war in – the civil war in Syria. In September, after months of very tough negotiation, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I were able to stand up late at night and make an announcement in Geneva that we had arrived at an agreement, September 9th. And that agreement required a number of days, as everybody knows, of calm in order to indicate the seriousness of purpose, and then we were going to have joint cooperation in order to move forward.
Regrettably, for a number of different reasons – Syrian troops that were accidentally bombed, and a humanitarian convoy that was not accidentally but purposefully destroyed by Assad regime to start with and then by others who joined in – it fell apart. And everybody feels the pain of the lost moment, of a lost opportunity, for externalities that we did not have, apparently, control over.
More than a year ago, we agreed on a series of steps that could have and should have produced a lasting ceasefire and direct negotiations. But the process has not succeeded mostly, in my judgment, because of the continued, constant unwillingness of the Assad regime to live by those agreements, to always press it, to always break out, to always try to gain more territory, and to go out publicly not reaffirming its willingness to go to Geneva and negotiate but always affirming publicly in one brash statement after another its readiness to take back the whole country, to crush the opposition, and to do everything without regard to the real underlying concerns of many people who want to be part of a legitimate government, part of a legitimate process, but fear that Assad is not going to be their leader and that he will never be able to unite the country. That’s what’s fueled this and kept it going.
So we have arrived now at another critical point, another critical juncture. If Aleppo falls completely and people are slaughtered in that small area, it will be even harder to be able to bring people around. And it will not end the war. The fall of Aleppo, should it happen, does not end the war. It will continue. There still is the challenge of governing and the challenge of reuniting the country and the challenge of rebuilding the country. And how many countries will step up and rebuild it for the policies that are being executed today?
So provided we are able to stabilize the situation in Aleppo, it is essential that we move forward at the earliest possible moment with a Syrian-led political process aimed at ending the war and transitioning to a new and more representative government. And without that meaningful transition of power in which the voices of the Syrian people are heard, the opposition will continue to fight, terrorists will continue to be drawn to the country, and millions of Syrians will continue to be forced to flee their homes.
So here I want to emphasize that every single party I’ve spoken to in recent days – in Paris last week and from here in Washington this week, as recently as this morning – every stakeholder tells me they are ready and willing to get back on the path to Geneva – and that includes the legitimate Syrian opposition, it includes Turkey and Qatar and the Arab states. The only remaining question is whether the Syrian regime, with Russia’s support, is willing to go to Geneva, prepared to negotiate constructively, and whether or not they’re willing to stop this slaughter of their own people.
So let’s be crystal clear about who bears responsibility for what we have seen and what we are seeing, and continue to see in Syria. We are seeing the unleashing of a sectarian passion, allowing the Assad regime – not allowing; the Assad regime is allowing, and the Assad regime is aiding and abetting, and the Assad regime is actually carrying out nothing short of a massacre. And we have witnessed indiscriminate slaughter – not accidents of war, not collateral damage, but frankly, purposeful, a cynical policy of terrorizing civilians.
So we believe this is a moment where the Syrian regime and the Russian military have an opportunity to make the decision to – a strategic decision, I might add – for peace – one that will make it possible for a cessation of hostilities all across Syria which could flow right out of this. Every minister I’ve talked to said, “We’re for a ceasefire countrywide.” But you have to be able to deal with Aleppo to legitimize getting to a countrywide effort. In addition to that, everyone has reconfirmed to me their readiness to go to Geneva for discussions aimed at putting an end to this horrific war.
So that’s the only way that anybody I’ve talked to with any common sense and with any strategic vision says you can end this war. It will take negotiations, and they haven’t taken place in all of these years – any real negotiations. But all of the parties have now told me, with the exception of what we haven’t heard from Assad himself and his willingness to go out and actually negotiate in good faith and try to bring Syria back together. That is the only way to make progress towards a united and peaceful Syria that is reflected in Resolution 2254 as well as in the ISSG statements, which include Russia and Iran. So hopefully people will put actions where the words have been.