Syria has become a pariah state under the government of President Bashar al-Assad. He’s been accused of gassing his own civilians, and bombing hospitals and schools.
But the catastrophic earthquake that hit northwestern Syria last week is opening some doors.
Arab leaders who once shunned him are reaching out with aid, and assistance from the United Nations is trickling in. It took seven days for the UN to strike a deal with Syria to open two additional border crossings into the region.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed the United Nations’ reasoning behind the delay in a conversation with The World’s host Marco Werman.
“I wouldn’t put the blame on the UN,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
“The US made very clear on day one that we would provide assistance directly to the Syrian people through any means possible. Where the blame lies [is] with the Syrian government. They took seven days to reopen the border. NGOs, the UN, donors were all working desperately to get assistance to the people of Syria. It is the Syrian government, the Assad regime, that let the Syrian people down.”
Marco Werman: How nimble is the UN, though, when it comes to dealing with the Assad government and really pushing to deal directly with civilians who are in harm’s way?
Linda Thomas-Greenfield: They clearly are not as nimble as we would have wanted them to be. But I know that they were making every effort possible to get through to the government and to try to provide assistance to the Syrian people. And NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] were there, local NGOs, I spoke to, on probably day two. I started a series of conversations with NGOs on the ground. I spoke to the White Helmets, I spoke to several international NGOs, and they were working around the clock to get support directly into Syria. But it was hard. It was absolutely very, very hard. And I welcome the delayed Syrian decision to open the border, and we’re monitoring that situation very closely. The UN briefed us yesterday that trucks are moving through the border. But I actually still think we need a resolution, because we can’t rely on on Assad’s whims. He may decide to close the border tomorrow. So, we need the confidence that the border can remain open through a UN resolution that allows for the UN to continue to work directly with the Syrian people.
Ambassador, is there a scenario here where Bashar al-Assad can use this crisis to start to shed his pariah status? Because there are some analysts who say sanctions might be eased and the international community might begin supporting Syria’s reconstruction. How concerned are you by that scenario?
What Assad has done in Syria can never, ever be forgotten. And while we have, on day one, made sure that we issued licenses that would allow for humanitarian assistance to go in, for humanitarian agencies to continue to work in Syria, we’re not removing Assad and the people who supported his terror off of sanctions — he cannot use this disaster to clean up his horrible reputation as it relates to the Syrian people.
What will be done to keep that from happening?
Well, first and foremost, we’re not going to allow that to happen. And I don’t think the Syrian people will allow it to happen. The Syrian people are not going to forget what Assad did. He killed his own people. He used chemical weapons against his own people. That said, we’re going to do everything we can to support all Syrian people who’ve been affected by this horrific earthquake to ensure that they get the assistance that they need. Assad can’t clean up his act with a natural disaster.
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.