National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster pointedly blamed Russia and Iran for committing atrocities against civilians in Syria while reinforcing the United States commitment to help civilians and hold the Assad regime accountable for crimes against humanity.
“If Iran and Russia do not stop enabling the regime atrocities and adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions, all nations must respond more forcibly than simply issuing strong statements,” the three-star general said Thursday, speaking at an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marking seven years since the start of the Syrian Civil War.
“It is time to impose serious political and economic consequences on Moscow and Tehran,” he added. “Assad should not have impunity for his crimes, and neither should his sponsors.”
The general further condemned Russia as responsible for a poisoning attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter that took place in England last week. The U.S. joined the U.K., Germany and France in issuing a joint statement this morning blaming Russia for the attack.
“No nation, Russia, China anybody else, should be using chemical weapons or nerve agents,” General McMaster said.
Thursday’s event was organized by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which has worked over the past years to document human rights violations among the wars in Syria and Iraq and analyze the risks for continued conflict in the region.
The Syrian Civil War has evolved in over half a decade of fighting from a grassroots revolution by civilians to the stage of proxy wars involving international powers — with the Assad regime and its allies the Russians and Iranians fighting against rebels; Turkey fighting the Kurds in the northwest; and the U.S.-led international coalition still battling ISIS scattered in small pockets throughout the country.
Caught in the middle are civilians, of which nearly 500,000 have been killed, six million people displaced and five million refugees.
“The Assad regime has killed indiscriminately, tortured, starved, raped and used chemical weapons on its own people. It has attacked hospitals and schools and countless Syrians have been arrested, or simply disappeared,” Gen. McMaster said.
The U.S. is actively engaged in helping the Syrian people, Gen. McMaster said, providing funding for international committees to document and preserve evidence for war crimes to be used in international criminal proceedings and providing humanitarian assistance.
There are around 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, providing training, support for certain rebel groups and aiding in the fight against ISIS — which despite being routed from its capital Raqqa in the northeast of the country, is still active in certain pockets of territory.
“We are fighting alongside partners such as the Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat terrorist organizations,” the general said, and that the U.S. is committed beyond the mission of defeating ISIS, and will help in stabilizing population centers to allow for the safe return of refugees.
Yet it will not provide reconstruction funding to areas controlled by the “murderous Assad regime, until there is a political transition away from Assad’s rule,” he said.
At the end of February, Syrian troops launched an offensive on eastern Ghouta, a neighborhood of at least 400,000 people that has been under rebel control and besieged for years. The latest fighting has killed an estimated 1,000 civilians as tens of thousands have started to flee the city.
On Thursday, Gen. McMaster reiterated Russia’s involvement in the destruction.
“From February 24 though February 28, Russia conducted 20 bombing missions every day in the eastern Ghouta and Damascus areas in Syria. Russia has also repeatedly thwarted efforts by the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] to hold the Assad regime accountable for using chemical weapons.”
Despite speculation surrounding the security of his position in the administration, Gen. McMaster offered praise for President Trump’s actions and the administration in aiding the Syrian people against the regime of President Bashar Assad. He highlighted the president’s action last year to launch a missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack by the regime.
Also, he credited the president with releasing images last May that are believed to depict a crematorium in one of the regime’s prisons, with the intention of covering up evidence of mass murder.
“On behalf of President Trump, it’s a privilege to be with you and we are committed to remembering and we are committed to acting,” he said.
Following the remarks by the general, a panel discussion featuring a Syrian Civil Defense volunteer, an American-Syrian surgeon and a civil society activist spoke to the desperate situation of Syrians and the feeling of abandonment by the international community.
“This is my third visit to Washington and unfortunately it’s my third time seeing that nothing has changed in terms of policy to actually do something to save Syrian lives,” said Munir Mustafa, a firefighter and volunteer with the White Helmets who work as emergency responders to rescue civilians after bombings.
“We urge the world to stop these crimes so that we don’t have to continue doing this work.”