7 min read  | Damascus, Politics, Reports

American ambassador: ‘We recognize we need to do more’


January 14, 2014

January 14, 2014

Kuwait City will host the Second Pledging Conference for Syria on January 15th, an event that “aims to rally international financial support to meet the basic humanitarian needs” of 2.2 million Syrian refugees and 6.5 internally displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The conference’s predecessor, held in January 2013, saw participating states pledge $1.5 billion in aid—of which some 70 percent was delivered—and that number is expected to increase this year as nations seek to meet the United Nations’ record-breaking appeal for $6.5 billion dollars to assist people in Syria and neighboring states.

Secretary of State John Kerry will head the US delegation to the 2014 conference. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard visited Jordan on January 13 en route to the Kuwait conference.

Richard held a press roundtable with the Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues, Zeenat Rahman, at the residence of US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones to discuss what she called “the top displacement crisis” in the world. Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri attended the event. The transcript of the question-and-answer segment is included below.

Al-Rai: Last time you were here, you said something about the crisis in Syria as one of the most dangerous crises around the world. What is your appeal that you will make in Kuwait (to help end the crisis)?

Richard: I think Kuwait is an important piece in the work of our secretary [of State John Kerry] with other countries to try and bring peace. He’s looking at this crisis from lots of different directions, and we’re trying to be supportive of his involvement in the humanitarian piece. And that involves making sure he’s informed about the extent to which humanitarian operations are able to reach people inside Syria—we’re very frustrated that we haven’t been able to get aid to everyone in Syria who needs it.

There are hard-to-reach areas in Syria with about two million people and then there’s the besieged part of Syria, where there are 250,000 people that just are not getting helped.

Part of my job is to fund UNRWA, UNHCR, ICRC…UNRWA plays a big role in Yarmouk camp, so I’m concerned about what’s happening there. I’m also concerned about the way so many people have lost their lives, including aid workers. So it’s, you know—I have my staff make a list for me of the biggest displacement crises in the world, and Syria’s number one. It’s not a good position to be in, you don’t want to be number one.

Ambassador Jones: Secretary of State [John] Kerry got a question very similar to the one you just asked yesterday in Paris. He said, look—of course we want to be responsive on the humanitarian challenge, and we will do more than our share, but the main goal is a political solution, which will be achieved through the Geneva process. As you know, on January 22nd the parties will meet on Geneva, and they’ll start the work towards establishing a political transition that will satisfy the requirements of both parties—mutually agreed transition, is what the language of Geneva I says—and for that process to achieve a settlement that will put a stop to the killing, allow people to return to their homes. Nobody thinks that’s going to happen on January 23, but that’s the process.

Abdulrahman al-Masri – Syria Direct – Texas Senator Ted Cruz said Tuesday that he’s concerned about Christian Syrians around the region. Are we going to see new efforts from Washington to get Christian Syrians more visas? Last year 31 Syrian refugees were allowed to go to the United States.

Richard: In a certain sense, he’s mirroring the strong interest of Christian communities in the US that Christians not be persecuted and discriminated against around the world, and that we make sure we don’t neglect Christian minorities in the Middle East who sometimes suffer. As the Assistant Sec for PRM, I care about all refugees. Of course I don’t want to neglect that group, but I don’t want to neglect any group. We don’t take refugees based on religion.

If you qualify as a refugee, we don’t pick and choose based on religion—we try to bring the most vulnerable people to the US for resettlement. There’s no way we can take all the refugees to the US, there’s some 42 million displaced people around the world, there’s over 11 million people of concern to UNHCR plus the Palestinians that are the UNRWA responsibility, so we take every year only a fraction of the world’s displaced.

However, we are the leader in the world of resettling refugees. So last year we took 70,000 from around the world, the top populations were Burmese, Bhutanese, and Iraqis. So I anticipate that in the next year or two we will start taking more and more Syrians, because it’s the top displacement crisis.

Abdulrahman al-Mari – Syria Direct – Washington doesn’t want to let terrorism spread from refugees to the US. So the issue is to get more humanitarian aid to the people in the region. We know that $1.3 billion is not a small number. So what about the Syrians inside Syria—I don’t think that the US really sponsors the agencies inside Syria. I notice you’re like, in and around Syria.

Richard: We fund all the humanitarian aid, including inside Syria. Because UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP are bringing most of the aid inside Syria, and we’re they’re top donors—

Abdulrahman al-Mari – Syria Direct – As you know, there are areas inside Syria not allowed any help. As an example, the East Ghouta town of Moadimiyat a-Sham.

Richard: We have a list of a dozen besieged cities that we’re most concerned about because aid is not getting in. As you probably know, we are the top funders of the UN agencies and the ICRC, but we also look at other ways to get aid in. Whatever channels can be found to get aid in is what we want to support, so long as it’s delivered based on need. But we’re finding that we can’t reach every place we need to. And this is a top concern of Valerie Amos, the emergency response coordinator for the UN. Since October 2, we’ve been focused on these access issues, because that was the day that the UN Security Council issued the presidential statement that called for more access and respect for international humanitarian law and respect for civilians.

So these things that are based on humanitarian principles are not being observed inside Syria. This is sort of where the humanitarian and diplomatic track start to rub up against each other, is trying to make the case very strongly that everybody who has influence inside Syria should be using that influence to try to get respect for humanitarian principles, and to let the aid reach innocent people who are being harmed.

Al-Ghad: What are you planning to do to save the people who are dying from starvation in Yarmouk camp?

Richard: There are about a dozen places that are completely besieged, and they’re at the top of the list in trying to get attention. It’s a list that is shared through a group of countries that Valerie Amos has convened twice, called the High Level Group—we’ve met twice in Geneva, the next meeting will be in Rome. They have seven different sub-themes based on the presidential statement of October 2nd of things that need to be done to get aid in. So we’re working through this multilateral conversation.

For me personally it’s different from what I’ve done before, because normally I’m talking to the other major donors—the EU, UK, northern Europeans, etc—all of a sudden we’re in a room with the Russians, the Chinese, the Saudis, some of the Gulf states. So it changes the whole tenor of the conversation, but the purpose is to get everyone trying to work together to stop this complete breakdown in humanitarian response in those areas that are hard to reach.

The Jordan Times: (inaudible).

Richard: Our goal is to aid and protect people. And when people get outside Syria, we can aid and protect them. We, collectively—with the government of Jordan, with the NGOs, with multilateral support. But inside, even if we succeed in aid, we’re not protecting people. People are dying every day, innocent civilians. We talked about trying to get aid to the besieged areas, but there’s also the fact that people are being killed, barrel bombs dropped from the sky.

The Jordan Times: Can there be a way to get a UN resolution to allow aid to reach people?

Richard: Some countries do call for having a UNSC resolution, and that’s the kind of conversation that takes place in New York. I feel, personally, that we know what to do. The presidential statement provides exactly what the steps are, that if the regime wanted to do the right thing, it’s got the document that tells it how to do it.

So maybe a resolution would improve the situation, but I think we have everything we need to call on the regime to change right now. So I defer to UN experts about whether a resolution would make a difference. I’m impatient, and I would like to see change now—I would like to see change a year ago. But if something will work, I think it’s worth a try.

Ambassador, quoting the American president: The United States is very very (inaudible) for what Jordan has done to support the refugee community here in Jordan. We also recognize the tremendous burden this has put on Jordanians, Jordanian communities, and the government of Jordan, and we recognize that we have a responsibility to help, and that’s why Anne is going to Kuwait this week, and that’s why we are continuing to increase our assistance programs, both directly with the government and working in partnership with the government to support communities that have been impacted by the refugees, and support the refugees themselves through these programs.

So we’re trying to get at this, we recognize that we need to do more, and we will do more. And that’s what the president has committed us to doing, so we’ll stay at it.

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