The Arab League has demonstrated important leadership in this crisis. And for many months, the people of the region and the world have watched in horror as the Assad regime executed a campaign of violence against its own citizens. Civilians gunned down in the streets, women and children tortured and killed. No one is safe, not even officials of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. According to UN estimates, more than 5,400 civilians have already died, and that number is rising fast.
The regime also continues to arbitrarily detain Syrian citizens, such as the activists Yahia al-Shurbaji and Anas al-Shaghri, simply for demanding dignity and universal rights. To date, the evidence is clear that Assad’s forces are initiating nearly all of the attacks that kill civilians, but as more citizens take up arms to resist the regime’s brutality, violence is increasingly likely to spiral out of control. Already, the challenges ahead for the Syrian people are daunting – a crumbling economy, rising sectarian tensions, a cauldron of instability in the heart of the Middle East.
Now, fears about what follows Assad, especially among Syria’s minority communities, are understandable. Indeed, it appears as though Assad and his cronies are working hard to pit Syria’s ethnic and religious groups against each other, risking greater sectarian violence and even descent into civil war.
So in response to this violent crackdown on peaceful dissent and protest, the Arab League launched an unprecedented diplomatic intervention, sending monitors into Syria’s beleaguered cities and towns and offering President Assad many chances to change course. These observers were greeted by thousands of protestors eager to share their aspirations for their universal rights and also the stories of what had befallen them and their families. But as the Arab League report makes clear if you read the entire report, the regime did not respect its pledges or the presence of the monitors, and instead responded with excessive and escalating violence.
Now, in the past few days, the regime’s security forces have intensified their assault, shelling civilian areas in Homs and other cities. And this weekend, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission, pointing to the regime’s intransigence and the mounting civilian casualties.
So why is the Arab League here before this Security Council? Because they are seeking the support of the international community for a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria. And we all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there.
The United States urges the Security Council to back the Arab League’s demand that the Syrian Government immediately stop all attacks against civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations. In accordance with the Arab League’s plan, Syria must also release all arbitrarily detained citizens, return its military and security forces to their barracks, allow full and unhindered access for monitors, humanitarian workers, and journalists.
And we urge the Security Council to back the Arab League’s call for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process to effectively address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria’s people, conducted in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation, and extremism.
Now, I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council could be headed toward another Libya. That is a false analogy. Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances occurring there. And that is exactly what the Arab League has proposed – a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.
Now, this may not be exactly the plan that any of us ourselves would have designed. I know that many nations feel that way. But it represents the best effects and efforts of Syria’s neighbors to chart a way forward, and it deserves a chance to work.
I think it would be a mistake to minimize or understate the magnitude of the challenge that Syrians face in trying to build the rule of law and civil society on the ruins of a brutal and failed dictatorship. This will be hard. The results are far from certain. Success is far from guaranteed. But the alternative – more of Assad’s brutal rule – is no alternative at all.
We all know that change is coming to Syria. Despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime’s reign of terror will end and the people of Syria will have the chance to chart their own destiny. The question for us is: How many more innocent civilians will die before this country is able to move forward toward the kind of future it deserves? Unfortunately, it appears as though the longer this continues, the harder it will be to rebuild once President Assad and his regime is transitioned and something new and better takes its place.
Citizens inside and outside Syria have begun planning for a democratic transition, from the Syrian National Council to the courageous grassroots local councils across the country who are organizing under the most dangerous and difficult circumstances. But every day that goes by, their task grows more difficult.
The future of Syria as a strong and unified nation depends on thwarting a cynical divide-and-conquer strategy. It will take all Syrians working together – Alawis and Christians hand-in-hand with Sunni and Druze, side-by-side Arabs and Kurds – to ensure that the new Syria is governed by the rule of law, respects and protects the universal rights of every citizen, regardless of ethnicity or sect, and takes on the widespread corruption that has marked the Assad regime.
For this to work, Syria’s minorities will have to join in shaping Syria’s future, and their rights and their voices will have to be heard, protected, and respected. And let me say directly to them today: We do hear your fears and we do honor your aspirations. Do not let the current regime exploit them to extend this crisis.
And leaders of Syria’s business community, military, and other institutions will have to recognize that their futures lie with the state and not the regime. Syria belongs to its 23 million citizens, not to one man or his family. And change can still be accomplished without dismantling the state or producing new tyranny.
It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria. The alternative – spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator – would compound this tragedy, and would mark a failure of our shared responsibility, and shake the credibility of the United Nations Security Council.
The United States stands ready to work with every member in this chamber to pass a resolution that supports the Arab League’s efforts, because those are the efforts that are well thought out, and focused on ending this crisis, upholds the rights of the Syrian people, and restores peace to Syria.
That is the goal of the Arab League, that should be the goal of this Council, to help the Syrian people realize the goal of the future that they seek. Thank you.