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Samantha Power: Assad’s Backers Need to Be Serious About a Political Solution

US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power talks to Asharq Al-Awsat about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and the UN's inability to address the crisis
Samantha Power: Assad’s Backers Need to Be Serious About a Political Solution

As the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power does not hide the extent of her frustration regarding the UN Security Council’s failure to address the ongoing crisis. She is audibly angry as she describes the Security Council’s inability to address the most destructive international crisis that has emerged since she took office. Power laid blame at Russia for supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with its strategic veto at the UN Security Council.

Power spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat en route to Kuwait to attend the third international conference for Syrian donors, held on March 31, where she led the United States delegation. The conference was attended by a total of 78 representatives of donor countries and discussed the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria. International donors pledged a total of $3.8 billion to tackle the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced this week. The US pledged $507 million to Syria—the largest aid package from a single donor.

Power sought to focus her remarks on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, preferring not to address the political situation or developments in other parts of the Middle East like Iran and Yemen. However, she could not help but touch on the political conditions surrounding the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria, as the failure of a political solution exacerbates the humanitarian suffering on the ground.

Asharq Al-Awsat: There has been concern that despite the donations made at the Kuwait conference, there are difficulties in getting aid to the most needy Syrians inside the country. What can be done after UN Security Council resolution 2139 failed to make a substantial difference on the ground?

Samantha Power: This is one of the greatest catastrophes of our time, so raising funds is a really important function of this conference. And I say that because in the 2015 appeal, which is for $2.9 billion, only 9 percent is funded. This figure is not plucked from the sky; that is the figure that is about keeping families clothed and fed and with some access to medicine and so forth. If you take it to another level to the region and the regional response plan, which is for $4.5 billion, that is only 6 percent funded. So, it is extremely important that countries step up and everybody digs deep, and whatever they gave last year, they think about finding more and that we do not diminish the importance of food and medicine and shelter for families who are so desperate for it.

Then the second issue relates to your point. So, say you have the food and medicine, but how do you get it to the people, particularly when you have a regime that consistently ignores UN requests, strips UN convoys of surgical equipment, denies any access to certain besieged areas and now the UN has just increased its estimate of the number of people living in the so-called besieged areas to 440,000, which is up from the figure of 200,000 that we were using one year ago. So it is essential that those countries who have supported this regime through thick and thin—and this is a regime that has carried out gas attacks against its own people, tortured tens of thousands of people in its prisons and killed at least 200,000 people over all—to press the regime far more than they have up to this point, because there have not been consequences to the regime’s bilateral relationships with its supporters to its ignoring the will of the international community. And the international community includes Russia; UN Security Council resolution 2139 is a resolution that Russia helped negotiate as a way at getting at the cross border issue but also had very important provisions on cross-line access, barrel bombs etc. So it is really about serious sponsors and patrons pressing the regime and the rest of the international community increasing the spotlight on all these populations that either have been reached too rarely or have not been reached at all.

Q: Aid agencies were very critical of the UN Security Council at the start of the month, saying the Council had failed in facilitating cross border aid and securing access. How much more failure can the Security Council handle on this issue?

The Security Council has five permanent members. The United States is privileged to be one of those permanent members. Russia and China have vetoed four resolutions that could have really increased the pressure on Assad to heed the will of the international community and to heed the provisions of the UN Charter. Russia has been Syria’s protector at the UN and that has meant that the Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, by any means, to the Syrian people. You cannot look at four vetoes and then some very important humanitarian resolutions that have gone without consequences for those who violate those resolutions and consider that a successful record. Without referring to any specific criticism but certainly no-one is more critical of the record of the UN Security Council than the United States and other countries who put forward resolutions in the hopes of making a constructive difference on the ground and showing the international community’s unity in the face of mass torture, gas attacks etc. With the exception of the destruction and removal of Assad’s declared chemical weapons program, the UN Security Council has been blocked by one of Assad’s main backers.

Q: Regarding the conference in Kuwait, how do you assess the US’ pledge? And how can we be sure that pledges are actually delivered?

The number last year was substantial, standing at $380 million. This year we have pledged a very good increase on top of that, standing at $507 million. Our overall humanitarian contribution is now higher than any other donor. You have mentioned a very important issue which is the fulfillment of the pledges and I will say that thanks to the Kuwaiti leadership 80 percent of the nearly $2 billion that were pledged at last year’s conference were fulfilled so actually Syria has done better, at least in seeing a fulfillment of pledges.

We (the UN and the Kuwaitis and others) will continue to do a diplomatic full-court press to ensure that any figures that are announced are followed through on. While we are pushing very hard on the political track and are likely to see a surge in energy on that track, no one can say at this moment that we are close to a political deal. So you are looking at families who are going to be living in very difficult conditions over the course of the next year and so getting a substantial pledge, increasing the political pressure on the regime and particularly ensuring the pledges are fulfilled so that aid agencies are able to move into more places than they have been able to is the key element of the humanitarian part of the plan.

Q: However, as we enter the fifth year of this crisis, there are many people who are saying that to really have humanitarian relief what you’ll need is to have safe zones for Syrians that are within their own country. That will also relieve the pressure on neighboring countries that are overwhelmed by a mass influx of refugees from Syria. Is this something that you support or can envision happening at any point in the future?

Given the state of affairs on the ground and at the direction of President Obama, the US is constantly evaluating and re-elevating what else we could be doing and examining every option, and that is something that the president is pressing us on. I think the idea of a safe zone or no fly zone requires a preparedness to use military force against anyone who would threaten that zone. The US is already engaged militarily in the air against ISIS and that is already weakening one of the forces on the ground which has wreaked such havoc against civilians and terrorized so many. So that is important piece of offering some humanitarian relief to Syrian civilians. We are also training and equipping moderate opposition groups which should give them an increasing ability to defend themselves and their communities. So that is another way of creating safer spaces than they have been able to enjoy until this point.

So it is certainly true that humanitarian aid alone cannot offer protection to the community and civilians—therefore communities need to able to protect themselves. Assad’s backers need to be serious about perusing a political solution and we think over time that the momentum of the regime will be blunted, in the same way that we have seen with ISIS which has suffered very significant setbacks. Over time, that will mean more relief for Syrian civilians.

Q: UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has been working on his plan over the possibility of ceasefires in Aleppo, although at the moment it seems increasingly difficult to push through this plan. Do you see de Mistura’s plan as one way of eleviating suffering? He always says if you can’t stop the disease at least try to relieve the pain. Is there anything on the horizon that could come into play to relieve some of the suffering?

I think that approach of relieving suffering where you can is extremely important, but the challenge though is that the regime and ISIS—but specifically the regime which has carried out the vast majority of atrocities, seemingly used chlorine against its own civilians and dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods—is not serious fundamentally about relieving humanitarian suffering. They have never been serious about this. In fact, over the last few days we have seen Assad make preposterous claims about how his regime has never used chlorine or barrel bombs and how they have never carried out any of the atrocities ascribed to them. So when that same regime that blatantly and brazenly lies about everything it is doing day to day, offers a public announcement that it is prepared to freeze abuses against civilians and attacks on civilians in Aleppo, its credibility is in question. This has been de Mistura’s challenge; we have encouraged him to keep working the issue. But we can’t see how any freeze could encapsulate what is in essence Assad’s war plan, which is to starve and surrender, deny communities and families food until they are willing to give up their communities and neighborhoods. One of the reasons why the efforts have not yet progressed in a manner that will relieve civilian suffering is that there has not been a demonstrable seriousness on the part of the regime. One can understand that there is significant skepticism on the part of the opposition particularly when they hear the Assad regime saying “We are not dropping barrel bombs in Aleppo.”

It is a very difficult foundation, but the approach—particularly while we are not on the brink of a political solution—that looks at whether there are ways to relieve suffering and are tactical agreements that abide by humanitarian principles that are again not just euphemisms for bombing communities into surrendering—all of those approaches should be considered.

Q: You saw the former head of the Syrian National Oppositions Coalition Moaz Al-Khatib recently while he was visiting the US, could he be part of the solution? He one of the first to say that he was willing to consider a negotiated settlement with the regime at a time when that was close to blasphemy in some opposition circles. So is he someone who could help to bring Syrians together?

At the end of the day it won’t be the US dictating or picking favorites or choosing individuals one way or the other; ultimately it is about what are the parameters of political transition for the moderate opposition and the people of Syria who want nothing more than to exercise their democratic voice . . .The parameters of the political transition must be agreed among Syrians. I have met with Mr. Khatib and with many other individuals from Syria whether they are chemical weapons attack survivors, representatives of different opposition groups, military figures or various leaders of different Syrian opposition groups. There are many people inside and outside Syria who articulate an inclusive vision for a democratic and stable Syria, the problem is that it takes two to tango. The Assad regime continues to act as though it can achieve a military solution to what began as a political protest movement but that is just not the case. The issue is not that there are too few individuals who could comprise a political transition; the issue is that there is not the necessary willingness to compromise yet on the part of the regime.

And I should say obviously there are terrorist groups that fall outside the political transition process and negotiated solution, in terms of ISIS who the US and our coalition partners are fighting, and Syrian opposition groups are also fighting on the ground. That is a separate issue but it needs to be dealt with in order for us to arrive at a day in which Syria offers the stability for families to return home. However so long as Assad is in power he and his regime are a magnet for foreign fighters coming from all over the world. His insistence on putting his own self-sustainment above the need for comprise on a political solution that is very much creating the reserve effect whereby extremist and terrorist groups are being strengthened and are taking advantage of his presence to increase their ranks and appeal.

Q: You mentioned ISIS as one of the terrorist groups that the US is dealing with, but is Nusra Front becoming a groups that needs to be dealt with, especially following their latest advance in Idlib?

The Nusra Front is absolutely still a designated foreign terrorist organisation; it is the stated Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They still proclaim allegiance to the organization that has staged multiple attacks on the United States and US installations around the world. We are very careful in terms of vetting those groups we are supporting, but people who have in mind an exclusionary caliphate that only makes room for those who hold extremist and violent ideologies does not present for Syria any more of a stable path than the regime.

Q: There are many people in the region who believe that fighting ISIS has now become the number one issue for the US, because of its strategic implications, and that almost makes people think that Assad is no longer seen as a direct priority, or dealing with the suffering of the Syrian people. So what can you say to convince people that the US’ strategy hasn’t changed?

Well first ISIS, above all, is hurting the people of Syria and Iraq, whether we are talking about the Shia, Sunni, Yazidi or Christian communities. While there are nominal distinctions being drawn, the fact of the matter is that if you are Iraqi or Syria and find yourself in ISIS’ path you either adopt a murderous ideology or bow before it. Many women have found themselves sexually enslaved, children are being forcibly deposited in “cub” camps where they are trained in this murderous ideology and mass excursions and mass graves now litter the countryside of Syria and Iraq. So I think it is very important to understand that yes ISIS poses a threat to the region and to US national security, but wherever ISIS is, it is the civilians who suffer most. So it is in all of our interest, irrespective of how long we are wishing to see the day that Assad goes, it is in everyone’s interest that ISIS be degraded and destroyed and stop polluting the landscape where Syrian families were able to live over many generations. This is something that Syrian families of all religious and ethnic identities have faced.

Equally, Assad cannot be a part of a Syrian future that is peaceful and democratic. Assad has been a gift to these terrorist groups, his actions are just as brutal as those of the terrorist he claims he is seeking to defeat. This has created the fertile ground for ISIS to grow initially in Syria then spread forcefully [through] Iraq last summer.

Because of the horrors Assad has inflicted on to his people and the destabilizing effect of his rule and the ways in which terrorists will take advantage of the horrors he has inflicted in order to strengthen their hand, President Obama has been very clear that there cannot be peace and stability in Syria while Assad is there. There is no question about that. A political solution, which everyone has been very open towards, is going to require politically ending the Assad regime. When the last Geneva talks took place, representatives of the Assad regime showed up and they were not sincere or serious and they very much reflected the indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people that Assad has shown. But nonetheless if the institutions of the state are to be kept intact there is going to be a need for a political solution that involves all the parties and one of the parties is the regime. But this is a very different issue, in terms of how you get to a political transition than the question of whether Assad can be a part of a stable and peaceful Syria that is in the interest of the Syrian people. Also acutely in the interest of the United States and the region as well.

Q: There have been renewed reports on the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in Syria. What action can be taken, especially as previous UN condemnations have not yielded results?

The Security Council has been very clear . . .because some were claiming that because some people have chlorine in their homes or use chlorine for other reason that it is not a chemical weapon. If chlorine is being used, it is a chemical weapon attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is in the process of investigating another set of allegations of chlorine attacks. The OPCW fact finding mission previously found out, with a high degree of confidence, that is has been used in a systemic way. It gathered the testimony of dozens of witnesses in various different geographic locations that the symptoms associated with the use of a toxic chemical arose when bombs were dropped from helicopters on civilians. And only the Assad regime has helicopters, not even his supporters deny that fact.

So evidence in terms of past use is extremely clear cut, we have pushed in New York for there to be consequences. We are now going back to the OPCW and another fact finding mission has been dispatched to the region. There has to be consequences for those who use chemical weapons, and chlorine use in a chemical weapons’ use. It is every bit the same violation of the chemical weapons convention, UN Security Council resolutions, and international law. So we come back to the same issue we raised before when the US put forward, with our friends, a referral of the crimes being carried out in Syria to the ICC that was vetoed by Russia and China. The ICC is an ideal venue for the perpetrators of attacks like this to be held accountable. So now we have to look and think about other ways that attribution can be established so it moves beyond “chlorine was used as a chemical weapon” which the OPCW has found, to the next stage. That is identifying who has used it and being more specific and again pushing for serious consequences for those who have used it.

We just saw a few weeks ago in Serbia seven people arrested for their involvement in the Srebrenica massacre 20 years ago, and so while there are people dropping chlorine bombs in Syria who may feel that they have a protector in the UN Security Council, the reach of international justice is long and those who are determined to ensure accountability are not prepared to let crimes like this go unanswered. Right now, we do not have a mechanism in place where they are being held accountable. But we will not stop pushing until those mechanisms are put in place, and again those individuals who are carrying and ordering attacks like this will be punished.

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