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Transcript of press conference by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

8 April 2016

Staffan de Mistura (SdM): The main reason for meeting you today is actually to give you a little bit the overall scenario in what direction we are going, because you have the right to know how this will proceed and what is happening.

Since you have been so much involved already in the past, let me just do a little bit of a sum up of the context, and then we go into the next steps.

Timing of the talks: I have seen lots of reports and messaging about: are the talks postponed? Are they taking place before, after, whatever.

Remember the background concept is very clear: the creative formula of these talks has been the proximity aspect, and the proximity does not only apply to the location, the physical location, where and how we meet people, but also to the timing.

So let me again calibrate it by telling you that the concept and idea has been, and is, that starting from the week of the 11th we are planning to resume the talks. So, there is not postponement if they take place on the 12th or the 13th, but it would be an anticipation if it will be on the 10th, let’s put it like this.

Second point I need, and you will agree with me I am sure, before the next round of talks, because I did make some statement at the end of the first round which indicated that, we have been talking now about the general principles – there were twelve points, you remember. But frankly the next round of the talks need to be quite concrete in the direction of a political process leading to a real beginning of a political transition – political process leading to a concrete or real beginning of a political transition.

Now since this is real stuff, I need to verify the international and regional stakeholders’ position in order to see how is the level of critical positive mass leading to concrete results in the next round of talks.

That's why I have decided – which I would have done anyway, but I’ve decided the timing was now, because talks are taking place everywhere – that I verify this by going on the spot in some locations, such as I did in Moscow, and I am planning to go to Damascus, Teheran, and thanks to the fact that there are so many other meetings taking place elsewhere, I am meeting for instance the Turkish authorities and senior officials in Europe. And I am planning to meet the Saudi authorities – I am in touch with them – either during the talks or while going there or even here.

In other words, touching base with everyone, wherever they can, within a limited period of time, because we need to start the talks as well.

So I am expecting the return, God willing as we always say, around the early morning of the 13th or the evening of the 12th, which means that the talks, as far as I am concerned, are planned to start on the 13th.

Yes I do know that there are elections being planned in Syria on the 13th, but you do know also that we have decided that we go beyond that. In other words, we will have the talks in spite of that, and that's why delegations are likely to arrive on the 11th or the 12th in order to be ready for starting on the 13th. And from what I understand, and I will hear more when I am in Damascus, the delegation of the Government is likely to come on the 15th or the 14th – fair enough, fair enough, after all we are on proximity talks – but we start on the 13th.

I would say that the first visit which I needed to do was to go to Moscow. As you know that Moscow, the Russian Federation, and frankly their own very special type of relationship that they have been able to develop between them and the other co-chair of the International Support Group, the United States of America, have, in my opinion, contributed quite a lot in clarifying some of the frameworks that have been useful for me to actually proceed not only with the talks, but also with the Cessation of Hostilities Task Force, with the operations center on this, on the cessation of hostilities, and on the Humanitarian Task Force. And therefore it was – and is – important for me to verify where Moscow is, and to meet also the American officials and remind them, as I did Moscow, that as for the case of the cessation of hostilities, an understanding on a possible framework with the US and the regional players would certainly make me more comfortable in pushing through meaningful talks soon.

And therefore, following Moscow, Damascus, Tehran, Riyadh in one form or the other, by the way, I have sent two of my colleagues to Riyadh to have meetings with the HNC, and I myself am going to meet Turkish and other authorities of the region.

That is where we are at the moment, and that's basically the framework I am working myself between now and let’s say the 13th. Things might change, thanks to this remarkable flexibility of proximity.

Q. You just said you want to focus this round on political transition, so I would like to ask you a question about comments that have been made by your senior political advisor, Mr. Vitaly Naumkin. On Monday, he made a comment to a media saying that in fact the constitutional amendments could not or will not be implemented if Mr. Assad leaves. It means that Mr. Assad has to stay. Do you agree with what your senior political advisor said to the media on Monday?

SdeM: Professor Vitaly Naumkin has just recently been nominated by me as a senior advisor, and therefore probably he is not totally familiar with what are the UN rules and I did notice those remarks and I asked him about it and his comments to me were that they were taken 1) out of context, and 2) when I discussed it with him, he told me that they were not reflecting his personal opinion, but it was his understanding of the Russian Federation’s position.

We agreed that a UN advisor can only make public comments on UN position and he actually assured me that this will be the case in the future. So I would not make any comments on what he said, because that was not reflecting the UN position, it was reflecting a position of a member country. I think in the future, like all of us, I have done it many times, and I suddenly expressed personal opinions, and when you work for the UN you express the neutral, the objective position of the UN. But thank you for asking because I myself had noticed that point.

Q. First of all, are you meeting with President al-Assad in Damascus? And second, as you embark on all these trips, I guess I am seeking some clarity on what the goal is. You are looking to put together some common understanding of what a transitional government in Syria can and should look like? And to see if you can bring that back to the two parties here or could you tell me a little bit on what are you striving for in travelling around? What is the actual concrete purpose of those meetings?

SdeM: First of all I did not ask for an appointment with President al-Assad. I am planning to meet the Foreign Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister. The main purpose of this mini-rush-tour, I would say a verification tour more than anything else, plus meetings wherever I meet interlocutors who are of the influence in the region and beyond, is to see whether there is a critical understanding – or mass if you want – of what could be a framework of a political transition, yes.

But at the end of the day that is something that the Syrians need to be deciding. But we all know, and they themselves know, that unless there is not an international plus a regional sort of understanding in a certain direction, they may find it difficult to come to an understanding themselves. You want an example, the cessation of hostilities. That took place because there was at a certain point a critical mass on which we could work on and actually have on board, I would say most of them if not all, of those in Syria who have been involved in the conflict.

Q. I just want to clarify one thing about the ceasefire. If I understood you said you are looking for a deeper understanding or better understanding. Are you looking for something qualitatively stronger to cement the ceasefire? And about your trip to Moscow, did you get any concrete new ideas from the Russians that you think could contribute on such a broad understanding on political transition which you think could be attractive to other countries and the Syrians themselves?

SdeM: Regarding the first point, I do not think I did say that I wanted to go deeper on the cessation of hostilities, but that doesn't mean that whatever we do, every week actually, is an attempt to increase the holding of the cessation of hostilities and actually increase its own validity geographically and frankly in depth.

The same applies to the humanitarian aspect of it. So all meetings that I have while we are focusing on the political track, in other words, the Intra-Syrian talks, I also discuss the other two aspects because they are all interconnected.

The more the cessation of hostilities holds, the more it gives a chance for credible discussions. The more the humanitarian access holds or goes beyond that it needs to go beyond and it will be an issue I will discuss, because as you heard from Jan Egeland today we are not today happy about how progress has been taking place in the last week. Every week we need to see an incremental move.

Regarding discussions in Moscow I hope you will understand if I refrain from presenting what has been the Russian comments, because there have been some useful, interesting points that they made, but I am holding them with me until I understand what everyone else thinks and how we can make use of the position of stakeholder to make sure we have a critical mass, I am referring to, in order to have serious concrete talks of political transition.

Q. Without asking you of the Russian views on the political process, did you hear any concerns in Moscow about this regression on the humanitarian front that you have been referring to? And has anything emerged that will bring forward the process of prisoner release? Is there a mechanism emerging on that?

SdeM: Regarding the regression or non-advancement, it is regression, you are right, because any step that does not go towards the full, unimpeded access to all areas which are besieged, or difficult to be reached, is a day lost or a week lost. And in all fairness the Russian Federation representatives shared my concern and indicated that they wanted to work hard, as we should all, in order to influence those who we can influence in order to make sure this does not become a pattern, because people have been dying recently as you know in various locations, and there has been terrible images, and we should not have that at a time when we entirely should be progressing in the positive direction.

Regarding the detainees issue, I am determined to pursue what we had promised to do, which is to constantly push for some type of movement on the detainees and the kidnapped people. That applies also to the people who are in cages on the roofs of eastern Ghouta, and the thousands and thousands of people who apparently are, because we do not have clear figures [on how many] are still detained. I am coming up with some type of mechanism, and I will elaborate on that when we are ready in order to make sure it is not something we do not talk about once a month but in fact to follow up on every day until something moves.

Q. I have a question regarding your future trips. Can you please tell us your schedule, when are you going to be in Turkey for example, when you will be Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh? And regarding your visit to Riyadh, are you going to meet with the HNC, because they told us that they are going to meet with you eventually, so please confirm?

SdeM: You should know that due to my sort of unusual job I am being a little bit discrete about my movements, so the actual timing and location I give sort of general comments about it. Also because the schedule changes quite quickly. So far it is Damascus, Tehran, perhaps Amman, Beirut on the way. And regarding Turkey… no, I am not going there because, as I said, I am planning to have the opportunity, which is saving time and travel, as you know I travel always by regular airlines, to meet some Turkish authorities in Europe. And I may be doing the same with the Saudi authorities who happen to be in Geneva or even in Europe. I am not going to Riyadh to meet the HNC because I do not have the time at the moment, and I have sent two of my senior colleagues, who, actually while we are talking, are already in Riyadh. They will be bringing forward my own position and listening to the HNC. So that's basically where we are. I may change all that quickly depending on circumstances.

Q. Mr. de Mistura, you are putting a lot of emphasis on your visits or meetings with the regional powers, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Are you concerned that they are not lifting their weight in supporting you here?

SdeM: Not necessarily. What I am concerned [about is] that they should not feel excluded at all, certainly not by me, in what is a crisis in which they have a stake. They have an influence, and they have been very much involved in.

And there is certainly no solution or political transition or political process taking place without them being heard and being involved. So from that point of view I am doing exactly what I believe I should be doing, while being fully aware that this unique interaction which started a few months ago between the Russian Federation and the US, which led to the International Support Group, has been of great help in getting things moving. No-one can deny that, and I am very much supportive of that of course.

Q. A follow up: one of the three regional players has been practically silent in the Geneva meetings. How do you explain this?

SdeM: Sometimes you are publically silent but you can be quite interactive privately. I think that whoever you are referring to, I am in touch with all of them and I am hearing quite a lot of comments, so don't judge only by public statements.

Q. Since you are going to Damascus, why did you not ask to meet Mr. Assad? Is there any particular reason?

SdeM: No, there is no particular reason.

Q. Are you concerned that the Syrian government or President Assad might try to use the elections next week, on the eve of the talks, to present you with some kind of fait accompli or some kind of insistence that they have solved the puzzle and they are coming with their own ideas and you have to accept it? Maybe a unity government or something like that… are you going to tell the Syrians this week that you are not going to accept something like that in case they try?

SdeM: I hope you will agree again with me that I am not going to reveal, although we do have a friendly relationship, that in advance what I am going to say to the Syrian authorities. What I have been saying publicly, and I will continue saying, that the only elections that we are, and I am commenting on, and therefore interested in, are the ones which have been sanctioned by the resolution 2254, which are the ones taking place in less than 18 months now, which are the ones that would be supervised by the UN and will include also refugees.

Q. I know that you do not like forecasting too far into the future, but is it fair to say that if the regime delegation comes here and again refuses to commit to any concrete plan for political transition, there will be no third round? You need that plan to come at the second round in order for this process to continue.

SdeM: You should never exclude the possibility of creative formulas by a mediator so I would never be too dogmatic. Those who are dogmatic stand to be the ones who are not willing for mediation. But what you can be saying is that I will be very much insisting and pushing for that to be a serious discussion on political transition.

Q. Are you overall satisfied by how the ceasefire is holding?

SdeM: It is a difficult question because, you see, when I look at – and perhaps you can help me in looking at it – what Syria looked like every day and every night before the cessation of hostilities, you are definitely amazed by the fact that almost overnight, within 24 or 48 hours, what used to be a constant massacre, bombing, shelling, rockets and so on, producing more than 120, 130 victims, mostly civilians, and often, and suddenly has become a series of serious, grave sometimes, worrisome incidents with some type of military activity which anyway is contained, not becoming a snow ball and is monitored effectively by this operations center, which is quite an unusual historical event in this Palace – Russian and American military in touch with everyone day and night, day and night, which has avoided what happened in Lebanon, for instance. I was referring during the conflict when every 20 minutes there was a breakdown of the whole. So from that point of view I am impressed. Satisfied is a big word, because every day one person is killed, and every day that we have some infringement, I am obviously not happy. That's why we need to do more about it.


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