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Transcript of the press conference by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Adviser, Mr. Jan Egeland

Geneva, 6 October 2016
6 October 2016

SdeM: I am here with my friend and colleague Jan Egeland, because we have just ended an important, in our opinion, Humanitarian Task Force meeting, so will first elaborate, at length actually, about where we are in the situation and then give the floor to Jan Egeland to summarize where we are on the Humanitarian Task Force progress.

No one can deny that we are in an emergency mode, let’s be frank, regarding Syria, regarding Aleppo, about the future of this conflict. What has happened the other day when the two co-chairs, who have been working hard, I have seen them with my eyes, on possible cessation of hostilities based on the 9th of September, decided, unfortunately and sadly, to suspend their own bilateral discussions on the cessation of hostilities, it was and has been a serious setback. So pretending that that was not the case would be unfair towards the Syrian people, and towards common sense and public opinion. So let me take stock first of all and clarify on consequences on that as to the architecture of international involvement on the attempt to solve the Syrian crisis and in particular establish some type of reduction of violence, humanitarian assess and political process.

Point number one, the ISSG which is, as you know, the international body which has been created finally after four years of a conflict as a contact group, including more than 20 countries and organizations, including the EU, in Vienna, and then also meetings in Munich and in New York, is still there and needs to be there, and everybody agrees, in other words, the fact that Russia and America are having their own decision to suspend the current bilateral negotiations, should be not and will not affect the existence of the ISSG.

ISSG may not meet immediately, that's obvious, but needs to be there ready to be convened and to be utilized as a contact group, we need that, Syria needs it, the political and humanitarian security environment require it. That means that one of the outcomes of the ISSG, as you know very well, there were two here, the HTF, the Humanitarian Task Force, and the CTF, the Cessation of Hostilities Task Force, that needs to be reviewed.

Well, the HTF today, we just ended a meeting, which is co-chaired by Jan Egeland and myself, and therefore by the UN, and therefore we have the “power” to dismantle it or not, we have definitely decided that it should not be demolished at all. We need the HTF, Jan Egeland will be able to tell you how much of a difference it has produced in spite of frustrations, or any type of ups and downs that we are facing, we have faced, will continue facing. But the outcome has been still much better than before, where we had nothing like that. That has been, I understand, a unanimous decision by all members of the HTF including Russia and the United States.

Regarding the CTF, well we will be looking at it and discussing it together this afternoon so I am not in a position of telling you where that will be leading. Our personal opinion is that it needs also to remain there, may have some changes if that is so decided by the membership, but it needs to be there, because it is true, de facto, we don't have any more a cessation of hostilities, and that's why the discussions did in a way, have a suspension, but we have no alternative to, sooner or later I hope the sooner than later, a new cessation of hostilities, no conflict can just end by a conflict in itself. And we still maintain, some people may think that this is not the case, there is no military victory, or military capacity of keeping a military victory, which may appear to be taking place, but then will be contradicted by further developments. So we will need a body to support, perhaps more effectively, perhaps more stringently, future cessation of hostilities.

Now, let me change subject and focus on the issue that is touching us all and which is something that is keeping us awake, day and night. While not forgetting the rest of the country, Aleppo, the city of Aleppo as such and in particular, eastern Aleppo. Let me first of all, again, try to draw your attention on some facts and then make some comments, today I cannot avoid by making some comments.

We have done a much more updated analysis of the al-Nusra reality in eastern Aleppo. I know I was quoted, and is correct, I did refer to a figure which was close to 50%, you must have heard it, I think it was in the context of the Security Council. Well based on a more accurate estimates, which are also more up to date, and which are never completely perfect but are in my opinion, quite reliable, we are talking now about a presence in eastern Aleppo of at maximum 900 people, 900 people. The previous figure probably was also based on the out of date figure, that about 1500 al-Nusra fighters had left Idlib and other locations in order to join the al- Ramousseh battle which you remember took place some time ago when they attempted to re-take al-Ramousseh road. But they, according to our information, did withdraw, once this counter-offensive did not succeed and failed. So this amends, and please take it now as the line, which can always be amended by facts and figures, and more effective analysis, but that amends the so-called 50% thing. 900 al-Nusra fighters in eastern Aleppo.

The total number is, the question is of the fighters in general, including the so-called main stream fighters or the AOGs in eastern Aleppo, the maximum figure that is being considered as such is 8000 people, 8000.

Now let’s go back and try to remember, all of us, who are we working for, who should we be concerned about? People, Syrian people. In this case, eastern Aleppo people. How many are they? 275,000 is our estimate at the moment. How many children among them? 100,000 is the estimate, enormous number of children and they are all in eastern Aleppo. So are we talking about 900 people basically who are becoming the main reason for which there is 275,000 people actually being attacked? Is this going to be and is the alibi and reason for actually the destruction of the city?

Since 23rd of September, 376 people had been killed, one third of them had been children, can’t be all terrorists, children. And 1266 wounded. Let’s be also intellectually honest, while this has happened on eastern Aleppo, meanwhile there has been and sometimes we tend to forget it, on west Aleppo and there has been reports on it, just got it today, that there has been these horrible canisters of gas or whatever they are calling them, or mortar shelling which has been actually killing several of people there two. The two things are not comparable but we should not forget also what the western Aleppo civilians are suffering.

Let's go back to eastern Aleppo because that is the emergency. All health facilities have been touched. Seven attacks in the last week, two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed, three doctors killed, two nurses killed, in one week. 600 patients in need of medical cure, treatment that cannot be today due to this provided are still waiting for that. And outside, there is a need for medical evacuation for at least 200 people and as you know the UN, WHO with the strong support to our own humanitarian evacuation plan from the European Union, and we are grateful to them for that, has been constantly updating possibilities for at least, at least, medical evacuation of the 200 people, who have been, most of them wounded, civilians and that could not survive if there is no trauma support to them.

All sort of ammunition so far have been used in eastern Aleppo, heavy aerial bombings, we can’t count them, hundreds of them and all sorts, and type of weapons.

Let’s now address the reality and it is my duty, I think morally on behalf of the UN and the Secretary-General to tell you, and through you the world, and those who do have a capacity of listening to this, the reality. The reality is, the writing on the wall, in front of us, if this continues to be the pattern at this rate, unless there is a major game changer that may change the equation, this cruel constant use of military activities, bombing, fighting, destruction, in eastern Aleppo, will continue, let’s be honest, there is nothing that tell us that will not continue, it may be punctuated by one or two interruptions, in order to allow some ambulances to come, like a Band-Aid on a big wound, that then once the Band-Aid has been there, there will be a return to the bombing, so what may be happening, the bombing will continue, and the bottom line is in maximum, two months, two and a half months, the city of eastern Aleppo, at this rate, may be totally destroyed. We are talking about the old city, in particular. And thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed, and many of them wounded and thousands and thousands of them may try to become refugees, in order to escape from this, 275,000. This is what you, we, the world will be seeing when we will be trying to celebrate Christmas or the end of the year, if this continues at this rate, unimpeded, Homs multiplied by 50. This cannot be an option that we can just passively wait to happen.

I am therefore asking publicly, let’s start with al-Nusra. We don't talk to each other, you know it, we know it. But can you please look at my eyes, and those of the Aleppo people, of the 275,000 civilians that are there where you are, and confidently tell those 275,000 people that you are going to stay there and that you remain there and keep hostage of your refusal to leave the city because 1000 of you are deciding on the destiny of the 275,000 civilians? I will like you to reply to this question not to me, but to those 275,000 people. And if you did decide to leave, in dignity, and with your weapons, to Idlib, or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally, I am ready physically to accompany you.

I would then like to ask the Russian authorities and the government of Syria, please look at my eyes too, and the eyes of the world and the public opinion, are you really ready to continue this type of level of fighting using that type of weapons, and de facto destroy the whole city of eastern Aleppo, the ancient city of Aleppo, with its own 275,000 people, for the sake of eliminating 1000 al-Nusra fighters? Or are you rather ready to announce an immediate and total aerial bombing halt if al-Nusra leaves, and ensure that the local administration, in eastern Aleppo, remains in place, should not be a capitulation, with even international UN presence and a possibility for the UN there to actually reach the population of eastern Aleppo with humanitarian, medical aid?

These questions cannot be avoided, and we have the moral duty, on behalf of everyone who is outraged, shocked, depressed, frustrated in the world, by what they are seeing. We shall consult of course everyone about this and other ideas, but these two questions, at least, need to be answered.

There is one thing that we are not ready to do, be passive, to resign ourselves to another Srebrenica, another Rwanda, which we are capable sadly, today to recognize, written on that wall, in front of us, unless something takes place. That doesn't mean that we will not, and we will, put this into context of a political process, because it is clear anything we do is not only about Aleppo, is going to also to be part of a political process that we will relaunch, we need to relaunch, we need a political horizon, based on what we said in the Security Council, but first things first. Thank you.

JE: Thank you very much Staffan. Today was a day of humanitarian stock taking, in the ISSG Humanitarian Task Force we looked at what was achieved and what was not achieved. Progress was indeed made in the first five months after we started in February. We were able to go to places that hadn’t gotten assistance for months and years. The co-chair leadership of US and Russia, but also members who are regional powers, helped us like they have not helped us before in this war. So there was progress in the first half of 2016 and no one should belittle that.

However at this point of great crisis we need to be ruthless honest with ourselves and there is no doubt that we are failing an increasing number of civilians in Syria at this point. East Aleppo was just added to our list of besieged areas, which means 275,000 new people in this black list, seen with the eyes of anyone who believes in international law. A total number of 861,000 Syrians are now besieged, meaning full military encirclement, no humanitarian supplies going in, and no freedom of civilians to go in or out. It is illegal by international law and it is the reality of 861,000 Syrians.

When we started our work in February, the number was 486,000, so nearly 400,000 new on that list. Secondly, the unprecedented and indiscriminate attack on east Aleppo’s hospitals, schools, apartment block, bakeries is the worst since this horrific war started. Indeed, perhaps to add to figures we got in a report to the taskforce today, the 376 killed, under the bombardment of the last two weeks, and 1266 injured, is our minimum figures because it is what the hospitals, that are also under attack, can record. It will be more, there will be more dead, and more injured than those horrific numbers. When the attack started two weeks ago there were nine functioning hospitals, now there are six, only 30 doctors left.

In the last month, we were able to really go to besieged areas five out of the days of September. Our heroic humanitarian workers on the ground were then able to reach seven besieged areas with assistance including to Madaya in the four-towns region, which hadn’t gotten anything since April. But September is 30 days, how come all of these men with power, suits, uniforms, all well-fed, sabotaged us, four-fifth of the month.

We fear that the same thing may happen now in October, it is the sixth of October and we still haven’t gotten the formal answer back for the October plan which we had submitted well in advance of this month, for us to go to all the besieged areas and all of the hard to reach areas that are in great need.

Of course there are lots of violations and lots of failures and lots of sabotage by all who are now involved in this horrific war. But of course a special appeal goes to those who have air power and who are bombing eastern Aleppo and to the government and its allied forces who are after all besieging 15 out of the 18 besieged areas.

So we are not giving up, as humanitarians, we cannot give up, and we desperately need the support of our member states and members of the ISSG. In that group members come because they are supposed to deliver political, military, strategic support for our operations. When there was joint US and Russian leadership we saw immediate effects. When there is none, we fear being left alone again. So the unanimous vote today of the members in the group that we need to continue was heartening for us as humanitarians.

Let me end by saying three things can happen in the next days and it could change things: number one an immediate cessation of hostilities being reinstituted for the sake of the civilians of Syria. Enough blood, enough hospitals bombed, enough apartment blocks, bakeries, schools bombed in east Aleppo also in all the other places where civilians are suffering, including by mortar fire in west Aleppo, by the way. Secondly, let us in the coming days evacuate the hundreds of wounded in eastern Aleppo who will bleed to death if they are not evacuated, their hospitals have been bombed as well, let us evacuate them. 200 cases that we have already identified and that need to go to safe hospitals outside of east Aleppo. And thirdly, let us be able to go with the convoys that had now been on stand by for weeks for east Aleppo as well as to all of the other remaining 17 besieged areas we are ready to go, we generally need 48 hours’ notice to be able to go to a place, and we are willing to go, our field colleagues are willing to go even though it is dangerous, so let us do our job please. Thank you.

Q. After what we seen in the past year, I am just wondering if you feel now that you have been to some extent, duped by the Russians, they repeatedly promised or made promises to turn off the fighting, stop the fighting, they want peace, they joined your peace plan, and yet they continue to bomb eastern Aleppo, and the second part is, you made this offer to accompany al-Nusra fighters out, but what is the incentive for the Russians and the Syrians to accept your offer? What happens to them if they don't accept it? Thank you.

SdeM: If they do not accept it I don't have a personal incentive, I think the main point will be history, who will be judging this unique moment in which we will all remember that there was a possibility and an option for avoiding destroying a whole city for the sake of aiming at 1000 people who are considered terrorists and using that as an alibi perhaps for destroying a whole city, so history will judge that, it will not be me certainly.

Secondly the issue about whether al-Nusra group that may decide to leave in order to go safely to Idlib in order to ensure that at least there could be a possibility of a cessation of hostilities, well they need some guarantees and I agree, which requires some official guarantees, I can’t guarantee more than my own personality and body frankly.

Q. Sorry about the first part of my question, do you think you have been duped by the Russians, they have been talking peace, but actions speak louder than words?

SdeM: I don't have that type of feelings I have only facts and I will judge by facts, so we will see whether in the future or today or tomorrow or in the next few days facts will prove that those who can make a difference want to take responsibility on it.

Q. Mr. De Mistura, today in the morning the Syrian government announced that the responsivity will be on any one who will stay in eastern Aleppo, and on the people who will not accept to get out. What do you expect if people did not reply to this announcement and they didn't get out of eastern Aleppo? And do you plan to do any contacts through the next few hours to stop this massacre? Thank you

SdeM: We should never make this eastern Aleppo population becoming responsible for what is they cannot decide. The decision here and the questions I have been raising publicly is to al-Nusra and to the government of Syria and to the Russian Federation who is supporting the government of Syria in fighting this war in eastern Aleppo.

Q. Mr. De Mistura, as you Syria’s military command last night announced on state TV that it will scale back the bombardment of eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to evacuate, I am wondering if you can comment on that? Is that a step in the right direction? And would that be relevant and a hopeful sign for the sought evacuation of al-Nusra fighters from eastern Aleppo, is that a first step in that direction? Thank you.

SdeM: Since I have not announced that to them before doing what I have been doing now, I am not connecting the two aspects. The future will tell whether we can get some of what I have been suggesting taking place. Normally before the HTF and the CTF there has been a tendency to give promising news in order to make sure that the CTF and the HTF have better atmospherics. What we need is facts.

Q. Mr. Special Envoy, you said that there are 8000 fighters that they are not from al-Nusra and just 900 fighters which are from al-Nusra. We always heard from Russia proposals for all opposition to stay aside to take part from al-Nusra. Is it logical that 8000 fighters they can’t fight 900 al-Nusra fighters? And the second questions is regarding the negotiations track, according to these circumstances, the feasibility of continuing the negotiations, the so-called opposition coalition refused to continue the political talks, how will you continue your mission during these circumstances?

SdeM: Regarding the last point, that is not my information. My information I spoke to Riyad Hijab very recently twice, he has indicated his willingness to participate in the Intra-Syrian talks, based, of course, on an invitation that will be issued by ourselves. So let’s see when we call for that meetings, and see who actually comes. At the moment we are addressing an emergency. As for the other part, I have no comments on that because it will have to be replied by the other people, the fighters themselves, not by me.

Q. Le processus de la paix sur la Syrie est dans l’impasse. Selon vous quels sont les principaux obstacles pour relancer le dialogue inter-Syrien ? Quelles mesures l’ONU envisage de prendre pour la prochaine étape ?

SdeM : le vrai obstacle actuellement c’est la sensation - qui est une réalité -, que au lieu de porter sur un processus politique, la priorité est donnée au processus militaire, surtout du côté du gouvernement, mais aussi de l’autre côté. Je vois avec mes yeux que les parties essaient de trouver une solution militaire pour que dans le futur ils puissent imposer leur solution politique. Aussi, même s’il y a des progrès militaires d’un côté ou de l’autre, on a déjà vu, comme dans le passé, que cela pourrait être une continuation du conflit sous une autre forme. Donc, il n'y aura pas vraiment de paix en Syrie. Et la Syrie a vraiment besoin de la paix, la stabilité et la reconstruction.

Q. Mr. de Mistura, for a long time already Russia appeals for separation of these al-Nusra fighters from so-called moderate military opposition. Now you are doing the same, you are appealing to this decision. What makes you to be sure to hope that this time they will listen to you, because before it was impossible and this was one of the reasons why these problems appeared between Russia and the United States on this 9 September agreement.

SdeM: It is a big difference between what Russia has been proposing in the past and what I have been asking by both al-Nusra and Russia today. What I have been asking al-Nusra is to actually to talk to their own people, the 275,000 people that they are staying with and to decide themselves whether their presence there is going to be an alibi, an excuse for the destruction of the whole city because they have decided to stay. Secondly, to Russia the difference is very big, I am insisting on the fact that if there was this type of development they should be in eastern Aleppo, not a capitulation, and the local administration should remain the same with an international presence, so we are talking about a different thing than having a total evacuation.

Q. Mr. de Mistura, this afternoon, this meeting to try to revive the cessation of hostilities, what creative ideas are you likely to put forward to convince Washington and Moscow to come back to co-chair the talks of the cessation of hostilities taskforce in this building, thank you.

SdeM: I can tell you in advance that what I am going to try today is not to try to convince the Russian and the American co-chairs to suddenly, again, pretend that everything is fine and that their difficult decision, which has been difficult in my opinion on both of them, to suspend the bilateral talks, should be simply put aside as if nothing has happened, that is not in my power and it would be unrealistic. What I will ask them is to allow the CTF to continue its existence in spite of the fact that its two co-chairs are actually on the cessation of hostilities are interrupting their own bilateral talks and there are many ways to ensure that that happens because sooner or later, as I said, the CTF, the cessation of hostilities taskforce will become crucial and hopefully with them being the co-chairs or any other format that we ensure the survival of this important monitoring hopefully of the future cessation of hostilities. Thank you very much.