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ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe

Near-verbatim transcript of press stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

9 June 2016

My apologies but I just finished a long and intense discussion at the Humanitarian Taskforce and in view of the fact that there are so many issues coming up and being discussed, I had to stay until the end, of course, so my apologies for keeping you waiting.

One or two general comments and then of course I will also address some issues related not only to the humanitarian aspect because it is only fair that we do so, since I am wearing today both hats, since Jan Egeland is abroad.

One general thing is that being this the holy month of Ramadan, we were, we are and we will continue hoping that this may be a month in which humanitarian access would be particularly an element of attention.

Now let me address the humanitarian aspect first of all and the discussion we just had at the Humanitarian Taskforce. We were informed by our team in Damascus that basically there’s been permission - an approval, that terminology for it - by the government of Syria, for all 19 besieged areas. That's good news, by the end of June. [Clarification: There are currently 19 besieged locations in Syria. The UN has not received approvals for 19 besieged locations as mentioned during today's stake-out. Of the 19 locations, 17 were requested as part of the June plan. The UN has now received written approvals for 15 of 17 besieged locations. Two other besieged locations were not requested as they are being covered by UNRWA and WFP air drops respectively. The only besieged locations where we have not received written approvals is Al Wa'er in Homs and Zabadani in Rural Damascus.]

Of course, you know very well that approval, and we know very well, does not mean delivery. So there are a lot of actions that need to take place between an approval and delivery, including the possibility of not being stopped at the last moment at a road block; including the fact that medicines are not being pulled out; including the fact that at a certain point there will not be an indication that the quantity that was meant is not what will be allowed. But let’s be honest and frank. The information that 19 besieged locations [Note: see clarification above], during the Holy Ramadan, will be an opportunity for the approval and therefore, hopefully, delivery, is something that was acknowledged by the taskforce.

In the next few hours, we hope to see some of that approval to actually become concrete. That is the test, of course, as always. And particularly for Darayya and Douma and we hope also some movement on Kefraya and Fouah, in terms of the mission that the UN is expected for a long time to do on that location.

Now the bad news is that we did have information, and you must have seen it too, that just when we are looking so carefully on approval and delivery to Darayya, the very place Darayya, according to many reports and we are asking for even further information, was heavily shelled. In particular the mosque on the month of Ramadan. That has made some of the members of the taskforce make the following comment: is it then true that whenever there is an approval, there is also a punishment? Because it is not the first time that there has been this type of incident.

We feel, I feel, that that should be one more reason for increasing the pace of assistance to places like Darayya and if there is a pattern of coincidence with approvals and shelling, then that should be addressed by the ISSG.

The other element that was extremely concerning and I want to refer to it is the heavy bombing of hospitals. Not just any kind of hospitals, but children’s hospitals and children hospitals in Aleppo. And that has been raised publicly, strongly, and fairly by UNICEF and that is a bad signal.

So, one good signal, [the possible] 19 locations approval, of course the proof is in concrete facts, that is delivery. Bad signal and bad moment, bombing and shelling of Darayya and heavy shelling of pediatric hospitals in Aleppo.

So far 270,250 people in besieged areas have been reached, so let me show you the latest table. Here it is, you can see, it does indicate some facts, and those facts have to be acknowledged, and much of this is due, first of all, to the intense work of our team in Damascus and certainly of the influence of the ISSG which does have an impact. As Yacoub el Hillo was reminding us last year there was 50 [inter-agency convoys], the year before 30 convoys, here there are 80. Is that enough? No. Should we be pushing more? Yes. Should we be making sure that approval becomes reality? Definitely so.

Now let me move to another element which came up at the Humanitarian Taskforce: vaccinations. There has been a lot of very good work done by UNICEF, WHO and all the partners in Syria including the Ministry of Health who have been actively involved. The action has been taking place in many places. Now the coverage in those places have reached almost 70 percent. It used to be down to 40 percent, which is terribly dangerous as you know. I used to work for UNICEF. The coverage now has reached 900,000 children below five. Now, who is still not covered? And here, you know, we go back to the reality of Syria. About the same number of 900,000 children and where are they? In besieged areas or in areas which are currently affected by conflict. And if you look at the map here, you will see those circles, those are actually areas where we are having humanitarian concerns, but they do coincide also with areas of non-cessation of hostilities activities.

My concern for vaccination is also eastern Aleppo and no surprise for that, and then areas that we cannot reach because they are under the control of people like ISIS or Daesh, like Raqaa or some areas around Deir ez-Zor.

Now let me address two other points which are linked to humanitarian subjects, and then go to some of the political aspect. We are, as you know, very actively, constantly monitoring the aspect of detainees, and those who have been abducted. We did get the information today from one main source but we would like to have more information that some substantial number of fighters appeared to have been released and we are waiting for those details. They may coincide with the Holy month of Ramadan or as a unilateral decision and gesture by the government to want to show intention of addressing, or beginning to address what is a huge concern and huge problem. We are talking about thousands and thousands, you heard.

And we have also been informed by the Russian Federation that they have been ending the demining of about 26 square kilometers of Palmyra, which means that people entirely could or should start coming back. We have information that up to 1500 people have actually returned and we are obviously looking forward to be able to assist anyone who does return to a place which has been devastated by Daesh.

Now talks. I have informed the Security Council just a few days ago, it was an internal meeting but that was something that I can reveal, that time is not yet mature for official third round of the Intra-Syrian talks. We are intending and we want to do it as soon as possible. No doubt about that. The stressing word is “as soon as possible” but particularly the world “possible.” Why? Because we are award that a third round needs to be a concrete one. I have been told by my own predecessors that anything we should do, we should to do avoid the Geneva 3 with no concluding points.

We want to give maximum chances for a concrete outcome. And what is concrete outcome? A beginning of a political transition. That means to have this type of critical mass, which has been discussed, is being prepared, in terms of discussion, not only by us, but by major countries. But in my opinion, based on my assessment, this is not yet the moment.

So what do we do? Well, we continue preparing for that. And how to do that? By having instead a further type of approach, which is what we call “technical meetings.” Technical meetings, which are not going to take place in Geneva [so you can take your leave, at least during these coming very few days], because we want to keep them low profile. We want to have them at a very technical level. I will not be involved. It will be members of my team who will be actually moving to various locations in order to be able to have those technical discussions with anyone who has been mentioned in the resolution 2254 or anyone who we feel are usefully contributing to preparing the talks.

Meanwhile, we will be also waiting for more progress on other type of discussions that are taking place and the aim is still and I maintain this word: first of August. First of August is attainable. Should be attainable, and we should be aiming at that one because at the end of the day, that's a date which has been put as a target date, but not just for anything but for beginning of a serious concrete message in terms of political transition.

I have not raised with you the issue of air drops, air lifts, and I think I owe it to you. So let me qualify something because it was discussed. [On] the fifth of June there was an official request to the government for air bridges, air drops and air lifts. Each of them are meant to be responding to one form or the other of access when land access is not possible. To give an example, air lifts for Qamishli. Air drops are taking place to Deir ez-Zor, we already had several, and air lifts were requested. By air lifts we mean helicopters landing, because you can’t do it elsewhere, to Darayya, Mouadhimiyeh, and Al-Waer, just to mention some. The UN has not backtracked, I heard some reports about it and that's really unfair.

The UN and myself, and I said it to the Security Council, have not backtracked on any of those options. We heard today, Ertharin Cousin the Executive Director of the World Food Programme. She was very clear in indicating that they have a plan and they have prepared a plan for all three options: air bridges, air drops and air lifts. She reminded everyone that of course in order to do that safely and properly, you need government permission. But that is obvious. We need if for land transport. You think the trucks don't need government permission? We just go like that? So it is clear. But what you need to know and I want to state, that what we are seeing is, at the moment, that through this strong and clear option based on the Vienna decision, we have seen approval of land access, 19 of them [see clarification above]. And that the issue of air lifts, air bridges and air drops is still an option, remains an option, must remain an option because all options must be on the table in order to make sure that one way or the other of course we prefer land, cheaper, quicker, faster - Darayya is 10 Kilometers - but it remains on the table. So, we do not have any interpretation about backtracking.

I am ready for some questions.

Questions and Answers

Q. Could you elaborate a little bit more on this permission that had been given by the government. Do you have a date? When you say by the end of June, is there a precise date or precise week? And is permission not only for access by land but also for access by air? Does it include all the options?

Special Envoy: Thank you. What we call the permission or the authorization (let’s see what the real word that has been used, because it can become bureaucratic at some point) because one thing is getting the actual permission and the other thing is actually getting a letter authorizing the actual delivery. The first step is an approval of a permission, and that approval of the permission, which needs then to be followed by a letter of authorization, which needs then to be followed by a group of government officials to go to the hangar and verify what is in the trucks which then needs to be verified through the check points when they try to get into Darayya and elsewhere where there are people that should not stop it again. But the first one is permission and that has been granted to 19 besieged locations [see clarification above]. That is for land access.

Now as I said the issue and aim has been said by everyone including Ertharin Cousin, is to aim at land access, because if we can get it by land we can do what can be done with 200 air drops in one simple, long convoy.

Now the second point is June, within June. That is where we will be watching very carefully so also the Humanitarian Taskforce on how this becomes concretely delivery during the month of June. If that doesn't take place then as we said all options are and should and will be on the table.

Q. Can I ask for more elaboration and clarification on the detainees situation. You mentioned a large number of fighters, by whom, which side, when ,where, that kind of things. Secondly on the question of air drops. We heard, I think Jan Egeland said several times that he expects the ISSG to force the issue somehow. Reading between the lines, is anyone talking about a Chapter 7 here? Have you heard this phrase used among the members of the ISSG?

Special Envoy: The short answer to the second point is No. The ISSG and I have not heard the word chapter 7. What I do know because I was there through video conference, is that the Security Council had addressed the issue and we had a long intense debate on it.

Now, regarding the fact that in Vienna there was a decision agreed by everyone that the option of air lifting, air dropping or air bridging should be on the table and actively kept on the table is still valid. But if that one, by being valid and being prepared and being an option and being even a plan for it produced land access, I repeat, that obviously is the best option even for the people because they get much more.

Now, regarding your first point, the detainees. I learned it from the Russian side. You may want to ask them for more information. There was something issued by the Syrian side. We have asked like you for more information in order to be able to assess if these people are genuine fighters, political prisoners, (inaudible) and what were they doing and where were they before. But as a matter of intellectual honesty, I am quoting this information. If you learn more, let me know too.

Q. I just have a question on air drops. I think when we spoke a month ago the notion behind it had to do with leverage to an extent, and it still seems to be the case. But if air drops require government permission as well, what kind of leverage do you have and is there any air drops scenario involving some besieged areas that doesn't require government permission, where the ISSG unilaterally can say we are doing this without the Assad government giving us the green light?

Special Envoy: the answer is, to my knowledge, there is no place inside Syria that does not require the permission, because as you know the air space is an area which can be controlled quite effectively. You may do cross border sometimes and not have the same level of control but needs to have a benign blessing from the government in charge of that country.

Regarding the fact that of what happens if there is no permission. I think we should leave it to the ISSG who actually did decide particularly the two co-chairs and frankly if that means that they will have to take up their own decision and see what to do about it. So far, it has, at least on face value, produced the approval for land delivery to 19 locations [see clarification above]. Then we don't speculate, we work on facts.

Special Envoy [comment before next journalist asked a question]: Before you ask a question, you should be aware – because of where you come from – that at the ISSG, myself and every member around the delegations there – even those that don’t always agree with Turkey – did express deep condolences and I felt that it was correct towards the tragic events that took place in Istanbul.

Q. Thank you very much. You talked about “technical talks” when are going to start, and you mentioned in various places, could you could also tell us where are these places, and I also wonder are those for both sides, the government and the opposition and some other parties will join those technical talks, as you mentioned at a lower level. Thank you.

Special Envoy: Well the advantage, as you know, of proximity talks is that you have proximity opportunities. The advantage that they can start later, earlier and we don't have a catastrophe in Geneva with suddenly the conference is failing. And the advantage of technical talks is that they are much lower level, they are not really official, so there is a lot more flexibility but it will go into substantive aspects that may be not the core of the issue, that can only be discussed at the official talks, but going to more technical details. What could happen with the Syrian army one day if and when we hope we would be having a peaceful solution? What will happen with the local institutions, which we do not want them to end up like in Libya or Iraq? This type of technical discussions.

They will be taking place not in Geneva. They will be moving in locations where we will be finding those technicians on the other side. And they are, you can guess, some are probably in Riyadh, some others are most likely also in Damascus, the government, and perhaps some people in Cairo, Moscow or elsewhere. The good thing about technical teams is that they can meet anywhere and that doesn't give any political signal or any political conclusion.

Q. I just wondered if you could clarify a little bit the threshold you are setting for bringing talks here in August. You are asking specifically for a commitment to what? And to the extent that people participated in the proximity talks on the basis of discussion of a political solution, what are you doing to make this a more concrete prospect?

Special Envoy: I will not go too much into details I hope you will understand that. What I can tell you is that the parameters for making sure that the next round of talks, which needs to take place, which I want them to take place as soon as possible, but in order to be effective, need to also give me the perception that there is some concrete intentions and critical mass for producing this time political transition steps. Second, the atmospherics in order to have successful talks need to be as you know, accompanied by an improvement on the security environment and on the humanitarian environment because now it is recognized by everyone including Vienna, which not by accident addressed those two points first, that if we are having further deterioration of the cessation of hostilities and we have a non-improvement or even worse going backwards on the humanitarian side, that will not contribute for the talks to be successful.

Thank you and good bye.

Geneva, 9 June 2016