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Transcript of press encounter by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

21 March 2016

SdeM: Good evening. First of all some logistics. Today the meetings took place both with the government, and I think you had the opportunity of listening to Ambassador Jaafari about his own take on the meeting with us, and then with civil society. Tomorrow will be the HNC in particular and others, but in particular the HNC.

Of course I intend to meet again the government and the HNC, in particular both Wednesday and Thursday morning, before we conclude this first phase of our Intra-Syrian Talks.

There are moments frankly when I am not going to go too much into details about what we have been really discussing because otherwise we will have a sort of constant debriefing about the issues that need to be going into – waht could be a possible common understanding before the end of the week.

We went anyway through a long discussion related to the government paper. I know that the government is constantly saying that they did not get any reply to it; they are right, they didn’t. Because that paper has been shared with the opposition, but at the end of the day if we start having an exchange of papers we will just have a public exchange of papers. What we need here is a common understanding.

That’s exactly what negotiations are all about, talks are all about, and what a mediator is supposed to do. That’s why I have been informing the other side, the opposition; they will be providing us with some ideas, we will use those in order to contribute to the mediator, with his own guiding ideas in order to find whether there is or not – but I hope yes – some common ground for the guiding principles for negotiations. You may be thinking that this is just procedural. No, it is important because those are also the framework for what Syria could be looking like, so we go far beyond just procedures.

We then interacted together on the concept of terrorism, because the issue of terrorism is definitely a matter which is coming up in any of the guiding principles. The government has its own very elaborate analysis, its own concept of terrorism. We have a very simple one. As far as the UN is concerned, it is what has been applicable and applied so far into the cessation of hostilities agreement. Those organizations which are listed by the Security Council as terrorists are terrorists. The rest is a personal opinion, or a government opinion, but not the UN opinion. We are certainly also working on all the aspects for the preparation for Thursday, but I am not going to go into those details.

I have been reminding everyone that there is no plan “B”, so the plan “B” is basically getting through this.

The next point is – some are, and we all are obviously looking with great interest, and it was not accidental that they are taking place in coincidence with the ending of this session of the Geneva Intra-Syrian Talks – the visit to Moscow by Secretary of State John Kerry and meeting with Sergey Lavrov. Nothing in this situation is purely coincidental, everything is interconnected. And therefore we will have to look at the whole picture in connection with what we are doing here and what, I hope and certainly believe, can be done in Moscow and beyond.

We met civil society today. I know you may be less interested in civil society because they are less politicized, and they are probably less vocal from the political point of view, but we find them essential. They give us the voice of the Syrian people; we don’t hear it, I don’t hear the voice of the Syrian people. I hear only political positioning, or strengthening, or winning or losing. What we need to hear is the voice of the Syrian people, and 25 of them were with me today. We listened to them, they gave us quite a strong message, we hope that it can be conveying that too, about detainees, about how to reach the besieged areas, how to reach also the less easy-to-reach areas and so on.

That’s basically where we are today, and I am ready for three questions.

Q: Do you have any sense of what Ambassador Jaafari understands by the phrase “political transition”?

SdeM: That’s a very good question that I raised to him today, believe it or not, I did actually. And he said it was, I am not revealing a secret, “premature” at the moment to talk about it. My message was “premature” means “imminent” as far as we are concerned. It is important to start addressing their own understanding. It is clear that the political transition is the “mother of all issues”; no one has questioned that, neither in the Security Council, nor in Vienna, nor in Munich, nor in the ISSG. So we will have to be realistic on that.

Q: The developments have been accelerating on all fronts, in Syria, in Turkey, in the neighboring countries, on the military front in Syria. Are you not concerned that things are not moving quickly enough in this process compared to the developments outside?

SdeM: I am. That’s why we are in a hurry, and I know very well, and it is not a secret, and I think I said it and I think everyone more or less agrees, the cessation of hostilities is still holding, and frankly – by and large – holding. The same is more or less with the movement on humanitarian aid, but neither of these two can be sustained if we don’t get progress on the political transition, so you are quite right.

Q: Russia today warned the United States today that it will start responding unilaterally to the ceasefire violations in Syria if the US does not coordinate the rules of engagement against violators. How concerned are you about whether or not the United States and Russia together can manage that process?

SdeM: Let’s put it like this: I am more than concerned. I have been extremely supportive of the fact that both the Russian Federation and the US are talking, have been talking and continue talking, I know it, in a substantive way about how to get the political process moving. The proof is that we have been doing this “innovative” I would say – never did the UN do it before – operations centre, in order to allow Russian military and civilians and Americans to be able to cooperate in containing the crisis. So I am confident that we will overcome that, there is no alternative. The moment they don’t talk substantively, we go back to the past and we cannot afford it, and they know it too.