Russia, China Blocking Syria Aid Is 'Stain on Humanity' Says UN Ambassador

Russia and China cast vetoes on Tuesday to block the 15-member U.N. Security Council from extending its approval for 12 months of humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria from Turkey through two border crossings.

Russia then put forward its own text that would only approve one of those crossings for aid access for six months. It also failed to win the necessary support for adoption on Wednesday.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, who has taken this veto by Russia and China personally, calls it "a stain on humanity" in an exclusive interview with Newsweek.

Kelly Craft United States Ambassador United Nations
Kelly Craft, Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations Presser at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, January 21, 2020. EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

Russia and China vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution that would have extended authorization for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access into Syria for 12 months. How do you feel about it?
First of all, that vote was an affront to the American people, to the world and for me personally. After traveling to Turkey and being there at Bab al-Hawa at the border, experiencing the plight of the refugees first-hand, I have to tell you I'm disgusted.

If there is not an example of geopolitics being on display, it is now and it's an affront to humanity.

This is such a stain on humanity and to tell you I am so embarrassed. This is a ruthless action. And where is their empathy? Where is empathy for those people that are suffering?

We are supposed to be a Council that looks for the goodness, for the safety and security of others. And I think they let the world down. They let the very people that we are supposed to be serving down.

Back in January 2020, under the threat of a Russian veto that would have ended all aid, the Council re-authorized two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa on the Syria/Turkey border) for six months, but did not re-authorize two other crossings that had previously been in the mandate; al-Ramtha (Syria/Jordan border) and Al Yarubiyah (Syria/Iraq border). Today the Russians want to re-authorize only one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for a period of six months. It seems like the Russians have the upper hand. Are there any signs that the Russians are willing to compromise or is it just an endgame for them?
It is an endgame for them. But I think it's also good versus evil. It shows you that there were thirteen members of this Council that truly believe of doing the right thing. And I'm trying to focus on the unity and multilateralism that we experienced because we were doing the right thing.

There is such clarity on this issue and we can't allow this to pass just as a bureaucratic dispute among nations. That's not what this is at all. Not at all. It's abuse of veto power to blackmail Council members. I mean, that's ruthless. The dishonesty to me, it just takes my breath away.

Are the Russians willing to negotiate?
No, they have not been willing to negotiate. They've been very clear in their position from day one. So we have anticipated this position and that's why we have spent many months working daily on just being very discreet and talking to the other members. To be quite honest with you, I have really made it an effort to talk to other member states not in the Security Council, because they do have influence on some of the members in the Council and I think it always helps to engage all member states that this would serve in their best interests, especially in that area.

I just focus on the fact that we do have thirteen Council members that have proudly joined all of us together in support of the Syrian people. So what now we're trying to do, is the Russians have put in blue their latest text and we've been working on just making certain that we still have the unity because there's a lot of pressure coming from Russia and China to some of these countries that specifically depend on China. Or at least they think they have to depend on China for a lot of their resources.

The Russian ambassador accused the West of using the cross-border aid delivery mechanism as a "political tool" for dividing Syrians. What's your view on this?
Well I can say, I have been there. I mean this is good and evil. These are people that deserve human dignity.

If you look at the way that Turkey's President Erdogan has treated them with human dignity, the ones on the side of the Turkish border, there's just such a clear example of when you give someone human dignity and you treat them with decency. You just have to look over the border and it's there: good and evil.

You see millions of people and thousands have to shelter in a very small contained area. And during [the COVID-19 pandemic] you're trying to explain to families or to people that you need to shelter in place—when they don't have a place to shelter—and use social distancing. How can you tell someone to social distance when they are shoulder to shoulder at times with people?

And not only do we have COVID-19, we have children not being inoculated properly at specific times for just measles and mumps. Just the basics of life. This is coming down to the basics. You live or you die and that's how I look at this vote.

Syria Turkey Bab al-Hawa
Syria Turkey Bab al-Hawa
Syria Turkey Bab al-Hawa
Syria Turkey Bab al-Hawa

Do you think the Security Council has failed the Syrian people?
No. There's just two countries that have failed them and that's Russia and China.

The Security Council—[13 members out of 15]—have basically been working very closely. Can you imagine the pressure that some of them feel?

When I first arrived to the U.N. in September of 2019, I reached out first to the smaller country; it was a piece of advice that George W. Bush gave me.

And I have to tell you that you have no idea, when you have these little discreet chats with people, how that's going to affect an outcome later on. I would have never dreamed we would be having this situation, and it happened with Niger. I became very close friends with the ambassador; an African country that never votes the way that he's been helping me, he's abstaining. They normally would have voted for a Russian text. He has voted with me every step of the way so far. And I think that just shows you, it's diplomacy.

Just to go back to that point, there was a South Sudan arms embargo. They [Niger] would never vote for sanctions on arms embargo. But he did; he voted that way with me. So it just shows you when you spend time, and the personal chemistry that you develop between all of us diplomats, that cannot be underestimated.

We are very unified. The thirteen of us. And there may be some differences. They're getting a lot of pressure right now. A lot of pressure from China and Russia and we're trying to be very understanding and just figure out all the tools in our tool box that we can use to talk to them and help them and guide them through such a decision, that you know they're receiving threats.

Ambassador, how far are you willing to go to make sure the Syrian people get the aid they desperately need?
I'm going to call out China and Russia. I am going to make certain that we isolate them because this is right or wrong. It's a choice and they've made the choice to allow the destiny of humanitarian aid to go into the hands of a rogue, cruel leader [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.] Our choice is the destiny of humanitarian aid and protecting frontline workers to go to the people that are most deserving.

I'm not going to stop. Just because there's a vote, it doesn't mean we can't continue. There will be ways because I know Americans never let anyone down and we will figure it out. But at this very moment, we're focused on allowing the two borders, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam to remain open.

Iran is another country that worries you as well…
We've got a hegemonic regime there. A government that is nothing but fomenting chaos. This is a regime that calls for bloodshed. Can you imagine on October 18th [when the United Nations arms embargo on Iran expires], if we were to allow them to be weaponized?

If you think about waking up on October 19th and knowing that Russia and China and others are providing, selling them weapons, and then Iran would take those weapons, transferring those to their proxies and then taking templates of actual weapons themselves and manufacturing them.

They continue to defy the Security Council by providing prohibited arms to groups of their proxies and to terrorist organizations. This is a bigger issue than just Iran. This is a much bigger issue than this rogue regime. We're talking about innocent Iranians.

We're talking about the Middle East. We have to look after these groups in the Middle East that are going to be directly affected by Iran and their behavior.

They're already propping up Houthi rebels in Yemen. They're already trying to destroy Iraq. They are in Syria, in Lebanon. We have to protect the Middle East. We have to protect our American military.

We have to protect our frontline workers because Iran has a decades-long track record of supporting terrorism and that terrorism is mainly supported through its provision of arms and other support with organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad.

We have to all keep in mind that we're going to wake up on October 19 and we cannot allow for the Middle East to be in turmoil because Iran is now able to purchase weapons from Russia and China and other bad actors.

syria Refugee
syria Refugee
syria Refugee
syria Refugee

What has surprised you about the U.N. experience?
I think what has surprised me is old-fashioned diplomacy is what's really needed. I've chosen to approach diplomacy with an old-school mentality. Just with decency and treating everyone truly as if they are part, no matter what country it is, that they are the most important country in my eyes.

That has really served me well. Like I told you, that advice I took from George W. Bush, and then I've built upon all of my predecessors. I've built upon the letters that they wrote to one another, and I built upon the conversations when reaching out to Ambassador John Negroponte or Ambassador Susan Rice or Ambassador Nikki Haley... all of my predecessors and taking up their ideas that were successful.

I think that's something that people have appreciated, because some of the ambassadors at the U.N. have been there for many years so they're still working on the niceties and the guidelines and what my predecessors put in place.

I think that's been very helpful. I grew up on a farm. My father was a veterinarian, and he would treat the cattle exactly the same as he treated the people that own their own ranches, and that really taught me well that it's multilateralism also on a farm. It worked beautifully with people and with the different areas that they were employed, and that's helped me to understand that every single person counts at the U.N., because at the U.N, it is the global center of diplomacy.

So we're not just talking about 15 countries, we're talking about 193. That's where it happens and I have to take advantage of having an opportunity to be able to reach out and have that personal chemistry with the other diplomats.

Something that has really surprised me is how they've been so receptive during COVID-19. I was a little worried because you want to have that person-to-person relationship.

So I just started reaching out to them via the phone and we had lovely conversations because people had time. They were in their homes, sheltering in place. And I felt that, yes, it was a different form of diplomacy but at the end of the day it was my phone call that allowed them to maybe talk about issues that I normally wouldn't have the time for.

Because if you think about it, I go into the U.N., I go straight to the Security Council and then I leave. Well, I don't necessarily pass some of the other member states… So this has been a real bonus. I think I'm the beneficiary of the phone calls but they think they are. It's been very helpful. To me it's been one of the silver linings in having the opportunity to have the time to be able to really get to know people.

All you need to do is get people's attention and show that you care about an issue. There is not a country that cares more about that bettering of the world than the United States of America.

The Trump administration has just given me that runway to run with it and show that American taxpayers care. As you know we're the largest donors for humanitarian. We're the largest donors at the U.N.

American taxpayers should be very proud of where their dollars are being spent because I've been there. I've been to south Sudan, I've been to Turkey on the border of Syria, to Haiti, to Colombia. I went to the places where I know the American taxpayers need to know that they're saving lives.

We're the first ones to arrive, and we're the last ones to leave. And unlike China when we leave, we leave them with sustainability, we leave them with tools to be able to continue on communities, community centers, community services.

China leaves them basically with buildings that they have built with no employees. And really empty handed. Lots of promises, a lot of big ideas, a lot of high visibility projects. But what we leave them with is a lot of pride and a lot of human dignity.

Do you see yourself more as a humanitarian activist than a politician?
No, I'm not a politician. I'm a person. I'm only Kelly Craft and this role is what provides me access. It's up to me to reach out my hand to others and show them that I'm an American and I care. This role gives me a bigger stage. And so I don't consider myself a politician.

I think diplomacy in times like this is very important. Diplomacy is not about borders. It doesn't see borders. I don't see borders. I don't see colors of people. All I see is the person in need. It's a moral responsibility as an American to help those people.

One last question: Is there anything that you would like to see change at the United Nations?
Everyone needs to sit back, especially during this pandemic, and we need to unlearn bad habits.

We need to re-learn the old style of diplomacy, because I am telling you, had I not had those moments to spend with the other ambassadors at the U.N. before COVID-19, can you imagine trying to negotiate when I had not had any personal chemistry?

One of my goals that I'm building upon, all of my predecessors no matter the party, is we've all tried to bring forth a little bit more transparency, more accountability, so with each of us we've built upon this.

I see a lot of hope at the U.N. It is the only platform for some countries who otherwise wouldn't have a voice. So I look at it from a positive standpoint.

Portions of this Q&A were edited for brevity.