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

24 March 2016

Moderator: Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for your patience. Here we are at the end of the first round of the Intra-Syrian talks. You’ve heard the UN Special Envoy almost every day since the beginning of these talks and tonight he intends to give you a wrap-up of where we are. A few comments as usual perhaps and then we take questions.

SdeM: Good afternoon. I have been thinking – and you have to forgive me if I tell you things that look more like background before I give you the punch line – but I have been thinking that it would be fair to share with you also a little bit of what is the strategy about the talks, so that you can put it into context when you make your comments, or at least in your analysis.

The first point that I think has been leading our strategy on the Intra-Syrian Talks is: what are the Syrians asking us? Not only what is useful or not useful, but what are the Syrian asking us? They have been asking us for a reduction of violence, you remember, so therefore the priority in mind to protect is the cessation of hostilities. And the second priority to protect – because they have been asking us and continue to ask us, they have even been demonstrating in favor of that – is humanitarian access: not enough, but that is what they have been asking for. Cessation of hostilities: not perfect, but that's what they have been asking for. So that is what we need to protect.

But now comes the next concept in our own strategic approach. You can’t sustain a cessation of hostilities in a conflict like the Syrian one, five years of horror – and you can’t therefore sustain the humanitarian aid, which is linked to access thanks to the reduction of violence, unless there is a political process. And you can’t have a political process that is credible unless there is a vision, a horizon of a political transition, as per 2254.

That is the context in which we are working, and when you look at the Intra-Syrian talks – phase one, phase two, phase three – please, at least understand what is the roadmap that we have in mind in order to make it happen.

At this stage the discussions are and were meant to actually keep the momentum, and at the same time prepare for the real talks about transition, political transition, political process.

Diplomacy is done both in this building and outside, and that's also how the cessation of hostilities took place. You remember – most of you were with me in the evening in the middle of the rain, and I still apologize for that – I felt so embarrassed actually when I came out of the hotel and saw you in the rain – but if you think about it, the suspension of the talks on that occasion, which appeared to be quite dramatic, because normally the UN never suspends talks, you know, we are in favor of continuing talks, did produce a wakeup call, which was the Munich meeting. And the Munich meeting produced two elements: the cessation of hostilities and the humanitarian aspect.

There is diplomacy here, and diplomacy outside the two coincide. The two are supposed to support each other, and in theory they are supposed to produce also further improvement.

And perhaps not by coincidence, that the day when we started this round of talks the Russian Federation announced the reduction or the withdrawal of its own presence. And perhaps it is not by coincidence that while we are closing this round of talks today, there are expectations of important discussions in Moscow between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, which we hope and want believe are going to be helpful to the next phase.

Meanwhile, and now we get into the actual analysis of these talks, I must say, and I don't know whether you felt the same, but I was quite impressed by the fact that both sides behaved very seriously. You must have seen them when they came to be interviewed – very professionally, even I must say, those who we could have expected to be not well prepared because they are a new entity, like the HNC. Particularly I must say, one or two of them when they spoke; today you saw Madam Basma with what focus and professional outlook, everyone too, but she in particular, responding in English, calmly, professionally, statesmanship. So we kept the momentum, waiting for the combination of the two political movements to coincide. The support of this cessation of hostilities kept. I want to remind you that Sunday would be one month – my friends, one month (in Lebanon we had a ceasefire for 25 minutes), so there is something which has been moving. And no breakdowns, no walkouts and no de-legitimization or personal de-legitimization.

True, the government delegation was extremely focused on the issue about principles in order to be able then to talk about everything else. And on the side of the opposition a very serious list of papers as well, but much deeper already on the political process. So the conclusion was we better take this issue about the principles, which are important – we can’t avoid them because they are part of the future constitution, even part of the future discussions about political process – take them and put them quite aside. If we keep them there all the time, the next round of talks will not be about political transition or political process.

Hence my decision to produce a paper myself: that's a standard negotiating, facilitator, mediator technique. And the paper which will be shared with you digitally, both in English and Arabic, while we are talking, or which is already available to you by courtesy of Al-Jazeera, I understand, miraculously, but I am not against it, the UN is very transparent, as long as it is not too early because it’s stops us having buy-in by the various components, which did take place between yesterday and today.

I think by looking at those twelve points you can see that there is a lot of common ground, which can be, according to my interpretation and my colleagues, a listing to both sides, and even to all the stakeholders we have been inviting to be consulted _ as you know civil society, various platforms, even those who came from far away and women’s associations – that those points are, for me, to look for a common ground. I prefaced it with a paragraph to make sure that no one should be feeling that this is a trick or any type of form in trying to push through a new Security Council resolution or any new Security Council discussion related to this. It is what they are; they are an understanding by the facilitator of what could be, and we believe are likely to be, a common ground.

So what are the next steps? Well, first of all, a feeling that we have been able to overcome these two weeks without any walkouts, any drama, any de-legitimization, and potentially a paper that has not been refused by either side on what could be an understanding of principles, which means next time we take the principles aside and we look now on political process. Hopefully, building on what we hope, between now and then, could be the other political and diplomatic discussions, which are mutually supportive.

So the next time, well we have been planning to have obviously sooner or later again an ISSG and a Security Council meeting, the better if itself can build on what has been achieved in both diplomatic arenas and to reconvene, I know that it has become an issue, we will not fall into that. As you know, one of the great things about proximity talks is that they are dramatically flexible. And therefore they have also a so-called a target date.

So the target date starts on the 9th, on the 10th – can become the 11th depending on the arrivals. If people want to come on the 14th or the 13th they are warmly welcomed but we will start talking and meeting at the date that we will be indicating ourselves, which cannot be much later than 9th or 10th in my opinion, but could be perhaps the 11th of April because we do not want too much of a gap. If circumstances will induce us to accelerate or delay it will be basically on objective criteria and not simply because we had fixed a date. We will keep you informed of course so that you can be here.

That's basically where we are. Do I have to add a few more points? Well, let me see. The issue of detainees has become for me a priority, even more than before, obviously maintaining the pressure on the sieges lifting or improvement, and obviously the maintaining of the issue of supporting the cessation of hostilities and expanding it and controlling it, as has been done in the control room or the operation centers remains. We cannot take anything for granted in this conflict, but I think the operation centers has been doing quite a good work in being able to contain – you don't see what has been avoided as often as you see what has been happening, but you don't see how many cases have been contained before they became something much worse. And that has been thanks to the cooperation of the operation centers mainly now in Geneva, but also in Amman, in Moscow and in Washington.

I will stop there and that would be my concluding points.

Q. Unfortunately we don't have your document, but I have nice colleagues who translated elements for me. I am reading the point number four; if it has been well summarized it means something about preparing the return of refugees and IDPs to the country, is that correct? What is the real expression that you are using in your document? And I would like you to elaborate on that.

SdeM: The document is not yet being released. It will be released officially; perhaps what Al-Jazeera and others had has been a preliminary draft. There have been several drafts actually. The one that you should be looking carefully at is the one that should be released while we are talking or in a few minutes from now. Second, I really would not like to go paragraph by paragraph on that because that will also be unfair to those who just departed at the moment. Look at it and then we may be talking about it. And we have it in Arabic also.

Q. The document, as revealed by Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and other channels, does not explain how transition of power is to be achieved, and says nothing about the role to be played by President al-Assad and doesn't mention the Transitional Governing Body. How do you explain the presence of these gaps or the absence of these points?

SdeM: These are guiding principles. We are not getting into the details of what is the mother of all issues, the transition, the political transition, the political process, otherwise we will not call them guiding principles. But if you look carefully, you will start seeing that there is a reference to the Geneva Communiqué in its entirety. And if you look more carefully there is reference to resolution 2254, which includes three elements: governance, constitution and elections. So there are guiding points, which are leading towards helping the next phase.

Q. Syria next month will have parliamentary elections. What are your views, especially that these elections will be part of the political solution at a later stage?

SdeM: The only elections I feel authorized to comment on are the elections that the Security Council resolution 2254 has indicated as the ones that we are waiting for 18 months from the Intra-Syrian political process. And those are the ones that will be, according to the resolution, supervised by the UN according to international standards and including also the diaspora. Any other elections I am not commenting about and I am simply aware of.

Q. Two days after the attacks in Brussels, don’t you think that the participation of certain terrorist organizations, like the Army of Islam or (inaudible) in this conference a infraction in the United Nations’ work to fight terrorism?

SdeM: The reality is that, even in the ceasefire accord, which was accepted by Russia, the USA and other countries, the concept of who is considered terrorists by the UN on the issue of Syria is limited to those that the Security Council has termed terrorists, which is Daesh and Al-Nusra and two other small groups that are marginally relevant. All others are maybe groups that one may like or not, but they are not considered formally as terrorists in our works. Even in the ceasefire context, they are not considered – if they accept the ceasefire – as terrorists.

Q. Special Envoy, the regime told us yesterday that they are going to prepare their response to your document in Damascus and it will be ready when they come back. They seem to be very serious in their willingness to first organize the elections before moving on. What will happen if there is procrastination in moving towards this political transitional phase and if one of the parties still wants to speak about principles when they come back?

SdeM: We need to reach when we come back then. Diplomacy is also made of creativity; we will find creative formulas to avoid exactly what you said.

Q. Last week the scene looked more like a carnival. All the delegations claimed that they were speaking on behalf of the Syrian people, when some of those who spoke on behalf of the Syrian people are known to be agents of the regime, and somebody said that there were five delegations. Is the situation going to continue this way? Or will we be seeing, one day, two sides: the opposition representing those who are asking for freedom, and the other side, which represents the government?

SdeM: The wish of any mediator is to have possibly only two interlocutors; that makes life easy and simpler in analyzing the options and the possible common ground. But I have to admit, in a conflict like this one, which has been lasting five years, and I give an example: when we had the cessation of hostilities discussions, you know how many groups had to sign in? Eighty-six different groups of fighting components. So just to say that the situation in Syria due to these five years have polarized and fragmentized a lot. So it should not be surprising, and I think you should be with me exercising patience on that, that there are different voices, which pretend or want or can bring a voice from Syria. According to the UN mandate I have, I am supposed to actually have as inclusive as possible an ear open, in order to listen to the voices of Syria. So we can manage so far and I don't think it was complicating too much my work.

Q. Special Envoy, do you get the feeling that the main sides, the HNC and the government, will implement the principles that you gave them?

SdeM: The issue is not implementation; the issue is having a common understanding. Because the implementation is referring to what will be new governance, a new constitution and new elections. I give you one example: if the principles that we are referring to are more or less commonly understood, they will have an impact on the debate of the future constitution, which will be an implementation – that yes becomes the implementation of a concept. So it is premature to expect, and I am not expecting, except perhaps comments, but not expecting, we are not doing a vote here.

Q. Do you plan to go straight back into, in a fresh way, the discussion on transition on Day One of the next round of talks. And also a question about the word “justice”, which I haven’t heard mentioned today when Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years. I wonder if you think you have any place in your talks for discussion about justice – because both sides think that the other side is full of murderers, perhaps you can find common ground there?

SdeM: Regarding transition and political transition, yes, I am expecting, and hoping of course. I don't control everything, but this is my expectation and will certainly push in that direction, that the next round of talks will not be focusing on principles again, we have had enough of that, and I think we had many valid common points there, but to start focusing on the political process and to us the political process is based on the Security Council resolution.

Regarding the issue of transitional justice, I presume you heard carefully what Mrs. Basma said when you asked exactly the same question. I think her reply was quite effective.

Q. Security Council resolution 2253 regarding prosecuting all those who support and finance terrorists into Syria. Where is the position of this resolution now with the political action in Geneva?

SdeM: You have seen the 12 points in the document, and the issue of terrorism is mentioned very clearly because it is an issue. We can’t deny it is affecting Syria, inside Syria, but it is also affecting everywhere. And the financing of it is a crucial agreement, which has been done on 2253, so it is very much in our mind, and that is a very important resolution which should not just be the small child of 2254. It has its own life.

Q. You concentrate this time or this press conference about the efforts of the USA by Secretary Kerry and Mr. Lavrov. Do you mean that the efforts by the countries around Syria like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others have no role in the coming period? Or what exactly do you ask from these countries to start the political process?

SdeM: I never said that the countries in the region do not have a role; they have a vital role, a crucial role. Without involving the constructive involvement of the countries in the region there is no possibility of having a lasting sustainable peace in Syria. No, what I am saying is that we have seen that the developments related to the cessation of hostilities have been strongly facilitated by the beginning of talks between the Russian Federation and the US.

Secondly, for some reason, that beginning of talks has produced the ISSG. And I hope you remember how many countries are in the ISSG; all of them that you mentioned are part of it. In other words, whatever the Russian and American sides would be discussing will be brought to the attention and the sharing by the ISSG, where Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and many others are all part of it.

Q. You said that you have a mandate to be as inclusive as you can, and my question is whether we will see in the next round in April here the delegation of Kurds?

SdeM: I have been discussing this issue at the level of the Security Council. I have asked in fact what will be the possibility for us to include. There are Kurds, by the way, who are included in the HNC; you must have met them, some have travelled before, but they are there, I saw them myself, and I think that there are even Kurds in the delegation of the Government.

But you are probably referring to other representatives of the Kurds. There is no question: Syrian Kurds are Syrian. And therefore we must make sure, and I have to make sure, that they are, as inclusively as possible, involved and included. But I am leaving it frankly, since there are diverging positions regarding who should be invited or not last time I spoke to the Security Council. And when I was asked about it, and I was asked also how the Security Council could help me in advising me, I offered an advice on this. So I am waiting for their advice.

Q. I want to ask you about the issue of detainees and the lifting of siege on some areas. Is there any progress on the issue of detainees or hostages taken by Head Negotiator Mohammed Alloush from the Riyadh delegation, those who are locked in cages on rooftops in Douma?

SdeM: I repeat how important it is for all of us and for the Syrian people, and frankly also for additional credibility for the political process, to see what we have not seen yet in Syria on either side, and which I have seen in every other conflict in my life history: a release of detainees or abducted people. And therefore this applies to both sides. And I am not seeing any of those happening yet. That's why we need to continue raising it, as you are, and I will continue raising it, and we are looking into a special mechanism, which may be developed on the basis of the taskforce of the humanitarian issues to maintain a very special focus on the issue of detainees. Because we cannot just pretend that they are not there; they are so many and many families on both sides are actually suffering.

Q. Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that the cessation of hostilities has really underpinned these talks and, as you had mentioned, it has been said by Syrians suffering from this war: what is the challenge that you give or the insistence that you make both on the two Syrian sides and world powers congregated around it, in this interim period before the next talks so that this critical element will hold up amid concerns about violations expressed by both sides?

SdeM: The challenge is that we have been able, altogether, to maintain these three elements together, through the help of the international community, and through the help of the Syrian components. Without them we would not have been able to do it, these three components; look at it, one is the cessation of hostilities that has been holding. We are calculating perhaps 3,000 people are alive today since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities they would not be, based on the statistics that we sadly have been facing every day. Secondly it is true that there have been quite a lot of incidents, but not an epidemic of incidents, which are what break normally a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities, because the mechanism we have in Geneva in this Palais and in the other capitals, has been able to succeed in keeping the fire in not becoming a “bush” fire, but remaining incidents of a fire, regrettably as it may be.

Now the second element has been the humanitarian access. It used to be zero last year; we are close to reaching 384,000 people. Not enough, but moving – Darayya, for instance, Douma, but moving.

The third element, which is the fuel helping these two to keep going and actually being also fueled by them, is the political dialogue. I won’t call it yet a political transition but a political dialogue definitely. It has taken place and I would say, rather in a civilized way. So the three are mutually supportive and mutually reinforcing. The secret during this period is that when one is suspended, for obvious reasons, the other two should be continuing, putting hope, energy, positive credibility, so that when the third one is renewed he would be in a position doing the same with the other two. They are interconnected, and I think I had explained it from the beginning.

Q. I remember, two years ago in 2014, James from al-Jazeera was asking a question to Brahimi, the former UN Special Envoy, about Syrians who were watching this press conference. He was asking him what can you tell all Syrians, can you give them hope for the end of the Syria crisis? And Brahimi said he was hopeful for a solution. He said that two years ago. How long should we wait for a solution for the end of the Syrian crisis?

SdeM: Perhaps I should ask James to answer. What I would tell the Syrian people: You are right in having doubts. You have been waiting five years, you have been disappointed so many times, and you have been suffering so much more than anyone could dream to expect from any people. But please look at the facts. Look at what has been happening. Would you ever have dreamt just three, four, five months ago, that countries like Russia and the US would actually sit and seriously spend a lot of serious talks about how to end this conflict? Would you ever have dreamt to see in the same room Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey and everyone else who has an influence in this conflict to spend seven and eight hours to discuss how to end this conflict? Would you ever have dreamt that overnight, at zero hour on the 27th, almost one month ago, suddenly it was possible to produce a cessation of hostilities? So give us trust, and believe in it. I do realize that you need more to believe in it, but the political horizon is the answer to that.


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