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Our Enduring Commitment to Syria

Remarks by Naomi Kikoler, Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, at an event on Syria, held at the British Embassy in Washington DC on June 29. 

It is a great honor to speak here today on behalf of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. As I look around, I am heartened to be in the company of those who have worked tirelessly on the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria. I want to give a particular note of gratitude to our host, Ambassador Karen Pierce, and to our co-hosts, Dr. Ahmani Ballour, the Atlantic Council, and the American Relief Coalition for Syria.

The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide seeks to do for communities at risk of mass atrocities today that which was not done for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. By that measure and as the conflict moves into its twelfth year, we have not succeeded. Today in the Security Council, Omar Alshroge, a survivor of torture at the hands of the Syrian government, confronted not only the regime, Russia, and Iran, but also the Council itself. In a statement which seared the conscience, he decried our collective failure and pleading, through the voices of 14 Syria voices that he shared, for action to save lives.

The Simon-Skjodt Center seeks to shine a light on the crimes committed in Syria, the majority of which have been committed by the government against its own people. We are committed to educating the world about these crimes, highlighting the voices of remarkable Syrians who are heroically saving lives and working toward a better future for their country, informing policy discussions about civilian protection and atrocity response, and advancing the cause of accountability.

Syria no longer dominates headlines, yet crimes continue, unabated and with impunity. After a Bearing Witness trip to the region in 2018, I had noted that “the worst was yet to come.” It is devastating to have seen that come to pass. Even now, more than 11 years after violence first erupted, as we gather here today, tens of thousands remain detained in sites of mass torture, sexual violence, and executions. Their families continue to bear the immeasurable weight of not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones.

For Syrians in areas retaken by the Government, there are rising concerns that those perceived to be insufficiently loyal to the Assad government will be detained and at high risk of torture and death. As more countries show signs of limiting asylum approvals for Syrians who sought refuge overseas, similar fears abound for those who may be forced to return. And tonight, as we are enveloped in the richness of Syrian music, we remember that Syrian cultural heritage and that those who have taken the mantle of upholding them have come under attack.

The conflict has birthed a complex humanitarian and protection emergency inside Syria. The United Nations has estimated that, in 2022, 14.6 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, an increase of 1.2 million from 2021. Next week, the UN Security Council will hold a vote on Resolution 2585, which authorizes the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the only remaining available route for international aid into the besieged region of northern Syria. More than 4.2 million Syrians rely on aid supplied through the crossing, a number that has risen by nearly a million this year alone.

Syrian civil society leaders are tirelessly working to reveal the truth, end the crimes, and pursue justice and accountability. In recent months we are seeing some positive steps toward justice—such as the first conviction for crimes against humanity—but for the large part, impunity remains a feature of the Syrian conflict.

Syrians who are pressing for justice will not turn away from the necessary and urgent work ahead of them. And neither can we. 

Thank you.