The Initiatives of the United States toward Conflict Resolution in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean at Large

Rotary Club of Nicosia

Thank you so much for today’s invitation, and a particular thanks to your Chairman Dicran Ouzounian and to Ambassador Markides for the warm welcome.

These are troubling times.  Rarely in past decades have we seen so many conflicts splitting apart countries and, leaving in their wake, millions killed and displaced.  This is the region in which we live – the Eastern Mediterranean, The Middle East, Europe – This broad region of which Cyprus is a part.  The challenge of bringing peace and stability to the region is staggering.  But together, we need to address the suffering of millions of people displaced from their homes, their livelihoods.  Together we need to create the conditions for a stable, peaceful future.  As you well know, Europe is in the forefront of the refugee crisis.  How Europeans address the flow of migrants could well determine the future of Europe: whether it stays unified or whether it dissolves to more nationalist concerns and policies.  Just witness the discussions this past week about whether Greece will remain in the Schengen zone or the ongoing conversation about whether the United Kingdom will remain in the EU.

But the issue of refugees is not just for Europeans to address.  In the United States, we intend to accept 85,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017 though like elsewhere, the issue of migration has triggered much domestic political debate.  Still, last year, the United States resettled nearly 70,000 refugees and granted asylum status to 25,000 people.  It is important to remember, not all immigrants are refugees.  The U.S. immigrant population now stands at more than 41 million, or 13 percent, of the total U.S. population.

Beyond accepting refugees, we are also doing what we can to help countries in crisis.  Inside Syria, more than 6.5 million people have been displaced.  We haven’t seen a catastrophe like this since World War II and it’s unfolding before our eyes.  As much as we have been able, we have increased access to water, provided food, and renovated health facilities for these internally displaced peoples.  Within Iraq, 2.8 million are displaced.  We’re working with the Iraqi government and civil society to improve the delivery of basic essential services, and to increase the protection of vulnerable populations.

We also have programs to support refugee integration in Europe – including one program right here in Cyprus.  We are investing funds to teach English to refugees in Kofinou to help them integrate and become productive members of society, wherever their new homes might be.  But on a more important level, we need to address the problems that led to such hopelessness in the region.  Poverty, sectarian division and conflict are driving people to take enormous risks, just looking for safety and economicsecurity.  Many of these migrants are young.  About one quarter of the populations in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen are under 25.  These young people, most of them men, have no prospect for a job, and because they are poor, they have no prospect for marriage. These are the conditions exploited by extremists.

Through U.S. assistance money, the United States is improving basic and higher education, providing job training, and offering help to small businesses.  In Egypt, for example, as a result of U.S. assistance funds, nearly 1.5 million girls improved their reading and comprehension skills through an early-grade reading program.  Through USAID projects, Palestinian farmers increased exports by an amazing $23 million after improving standards and in Lebanon, U.S. education experts are working to further develop vocational training.

Through USAID, we also are helping to address the desperate need for water.  The extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was a major factor in the violent uprising that began in 2011.  The Middle East and North Africa contain 12 of the world’s 15 most water scarce countries.  However, for our wider region to truly be stable and prosperous, citizens’ demands for inclusive, responsive governance must be addressed.

The United States is committed to helping build resilient, democratic societies by working with local partners to improve transparency and accountability of governments, and support expanding participation by civil society, youth, minorities and women, and enhancing respect for human rights.  Taken together, all our assistance programs are designed to improve the day to day lives of ordinary people, to create jobs, to promote greater accountability of officials, to provide a sense of security, and to build a strong foundation for democracy.  These are long term investments in people.

But we also are using traditional diplomatic tools bringing warring parties together in Libya, and pushing ahead with training security personnel to create a safe environment for a government to begin to operate.  And in Tunisia, where the tenuous democratic gains of recent years are increasingly under threat, we are supporting groups that are working hard to strengthen democracy there.  And most importantly, we are also focusing our efforts to fight and degrade DAESH (or ISIL) the greatest threat to the stability and future of this region.

President Obama has defined three main missions or goals in this fight.  The first:  to mobilize partners to accelerate and broaden the campaign against Daesh.  There are now 66 countries in the coalition:  each plays a vital role, from providing military and humanitarian support, to stopping Daesh’s financing and funding, and impeding the flow of foreign fighters.  The United States has put more American Special Forces into the efforts in Syria itself, and expanded training efforts for groups that were effective in fighting Daesh.  Operationally, coalition members have launched almost 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; worked with Iraqi forces to liberate Tikrit and Sinjar, cut terrorists’ supply lines, and removed terrorist commanders from the battlefield.

The coalition also supports the Iraqi government’s efforts at reform, reconciliation, and decentralization to build its credibility and public support.  Today, to an unprecedented degree, we have international consensus that Daesh must be defeated.  And every tragic attack, whether in Beirut, Egypt, Paris, California, or Turkey, makes the international community more resolute.  The second mission: to work diplomatically to bring an end to the Syrian civil war, which we know cannot be ended through military intervention alone;  It also requires a political solution.

Secretary Kerry recently spoke with hope about a new and broad-based diplomatic initiative launched by the United Nations with the goal of reducing violence, Isolating terrorist groups, and creating the basis for an inclusive, peaceful and Pluralistic Syria.  But as you might know, the UN yesterday paused the talks.  In Geneva citing among the reasons, the difficulties that the military activities by Russia and the regime are having in terms of demonstrating a good faith effort to have negotiations and talks. We hope that these negotiations can be restarted soon.  The diplomatic work to help the opposition come together has been extremely challenging and it still may not work. 

But there’s an emerging consensus among members of the international community that there must be a transition in Syria toward a system that all parties say they support –a unified, non-sectarian Syria whose next leader will be chosen through a UN-monitored election.  The Secretary also said something that I think has particular significance to those of us here in Cyprus:  “This conflict could easily engulf the region if left to spiral completely out of control.”  This brings me to the third mission in the fight against Daesh – to ensure that instability in Syria does not spill over into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.  To help alleviate the burden that the chaos and violence in Syria has thrust upon its neighbours, the international community is also providing important military and humanitarian assistance to these countries as well.  The fight against Daesh is a defining challenge for our time, and we are not naïve in thinking it will be easy.

This brings me to Iran, and one of the most important diplomatic initiatives in the region: The recently concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which constrains any Iranian attempt to build a nuclear bomb.  The details of the plan are complex and our time here today will not allow for in-depth discussion of the deal.  However, the key take away is that the Plan of Action provides for unprecedented monitoring and verification provisions as well as dramatic reductions in Iran’s enriched uranium and centrifuges.  Some specific limitations in the plan apply for 10 years; others apply for 20 or 25 years.  However the basic monitoring and verification provisions are in effect for the lifetime of Iran’s nuclear program – that is to say, forever.  Therefore, as a result of the agreement, Iran will be prohibited permanently from pursuing a nuclear weapon.  Our sincere hope is that Iran, by re-joining the international community, will play a more responsible role in regional security writ large.  No discussion of the region would be complete without mention of Israel.

The United States has a historically strong and deep friendship with Israel and we work closely with the Israeli government in many regional issues, while it seeks to resolve the long-run dispute with the Palestinians.  It is long-standing U.S. policy that we support a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution that allows for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security.  As Secretary Kerry recently said in regard to Israel, “now is the time to see beyond the politics and the pressures of the moment and to look to the future.  Both sides need to act in the long-term best interests of their people…”

So these are the main issues that dominate our regional agenda, which leads me to Cyprus and the important role Cyprus plays in this volatile region of the world.  I have often heard that Cyprus described as “an island of stability in a sea of instability.”  And that is true.  The United States sees Cyprus as a valued friend and partner.  As an EU member firmly oriented toward European and American values of democracy, market economics, and respect for human rights, Cyprus occupies a unique spot at the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean.  As such we count on Cyprus’s support in countering the threats and exploiting the opportunities I’ve just discussed.  I firmly believe we are all stronger when we stand together.  Likewise, you know our unwavering support for the island and our long-standing policy of supporting a bizonal, bicommunal federation.  We are convinced that a reunited Cyprus will be better able to withstand future economic troubles and regional instability, by capitalizing on the island’s diversity and securing its borders.  But any solution must be decided by Cypriots.  The commitment, vision, and leadership shown by Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci impress us, and we hope they are able to reach an agreement the Cypriot people can endorse.  We look to Cyprus to lead the region as a model of peace and stability, and as an engine of growth.

I’ve tried today to touch on some key initiatives and policies of the United States in the broader Middle East and North Africa.  Our over-arching goal is supporting the people of the region as they strive for peace and prosperity, and to help build the foundations for inconclusive and responsive governments.

I would be happy to stay for some questions and look forward to our discussion.