20 October 2016
SdeM: Good afternoon everyone. Let me give you some few general comments. I will also take three questions, not more, because I am going to the airport straight from here, but Jan Egeland will be at your disposal to go much more into an analysis and answering points, in particular because we are just coming out from a humanitarian task force and as you know there is been an announcement of a humanitarian pause. So Jan will be elaborating on that, and on the unilateral humanitarian ceasefire, and the best way that the UN can actually make use of it during those 11 hours of unilateral humanitarian pause for medical evacuation and medical relief for those who have been wounded.
One comment about Lausanne because I was having the opportunity of being there, my own analysis is that it was useful because it did put around the table those directly involved in the region and Russia and the US, who, as you know, where not meeting bilaterally, but can and were meeting in multilateral context on top of it among those who actually around the small table had a direct involvement.
So it was useful, but so far inconclusive, and the good news is that there was a decision anyway, and the decision was to have follow-up meetings, particularly on the issue, as you know of al-Nusra, and at the experts’ level. Those meetings are ongoing and I am not in a position of elaborating further on this.
Now, on today’s 11- hour humanitarian unilateral pause, potentially set out for lasting some few days, and Jan, you will be elaborating on what you heard today, let me clarify the following, I think it is an important thing because otherwise it gets confusing.
We, the UN, consider this pause as a direct response to an urgent request for medical evacuation and relief for those who have been wounded or are heavily sick victims inside eastern Aleppo, particularly in connection with the destruction of medical facilities. This request from the UN has been on the table for few weeks actually and preceded the so-called Special Envoy’s plan or proposal. So we, as the UN as such, we welcome definitely this humanitarian, unilateral pause, because any ceasefire or pause in fact is a unilateral one, is always welcomed. But let me be clear, because there has been sometimes some interpretations which have been confusing. This is not the beginning of the so–called “Special Envoy’s plan” or the “de Mistura plan” to produce a permanent cessation of hostilities in Aleppo. The plan is not yet implemented. We are talking about a medical humanitarian operation here and we intend to make the best use out of it.
Let me remind you of the plan so that we are not confusing the two things. The plan says: Stop bombing and fighting from both sides. Second, voluntary departure of al-Nusra fighters, with their weapons, to any location they want, and any other fighter who wants to leave, but the others are not compelled to do so.
This has not yet been accepted by al-Nusra. So that is why the so-called de Mistura plan has not started to be implemented. Third, there is another element which is part of the package, it cannot be taken by pieces, public assurances by the government of Syria to allow the local administration, in eastern Aleppo, to remain in place, in charge, and all those non-al-Nusra fighters who accept the cessation of hostilities to stay behind in eastern Aleppo. And four, obviously, humanitarian access.
The third point, the one about public assurances from the part of the government of Syria, that the local administration will remain in charge and those fighters who accept the cessation of hostilities will be allowed to stay there, with their weapons, has not yet been obtained. So there are two points which are missing and therefore we should only look today at the so called medical evacuation plan of the UN which is linked, we want to make it as linked as possible, and as efficient as possible, to the unilateral decision by the Russian Federation and the government of Syria, for a pause of 11 hours, hopefully for several days.
So, let me clarify, since there is always a tendency for leaking papers, let me leak one to you, alright? This is the non-paper, explaining the so-called Special Envoy’s plan or the de Mistura plan, if you want to say, and what the package is all about. I will give it to one of you on behalf of everyone, or perhaps to you, who can then give it to everyone else please. So I am officially leaking to you our own paper, so there is no misunderstanding of what the plan is all about and it is a package, nothing beyond that or below that.
Now three questions because I really have to go to the airport.
Q. You said that you welcomed the pause for medical evacuations but it seems that Russia and the Syrian government want to use also that pause to let the civilians get out and try to make the most number of civilians get out of the town, is it part of the pause that you are condemning?
SdeM: I will let Jan to explain, what, as far as we are concerned, and I will let you later to do so. So this question is for Jan, frankly.
Q. Just if I may clarify what you were saying. My understanding is that you are saying that the unilateral pause does not meet the criteria that you regard as necessary to do the deal where some militants would leave eastern Aleppo. The Russians have said that they will not prolong this deal, this unilateral ceasefire or pause in the fighting without some movement on bringing militants out of eastern Aleppo. So where do we stand and how much hope is there that this pause will be continued beyond the 11 hours promised?
SdeM: Well my immediate reply is what I just said, we consider and we are going to elaborate on that, the 11 hour unilateral pause, we welcome it, and we consider it a good decision, and we consider it part and in fact a response to a request by the UN weeks ago, following the bombing of hospitals and the fact that more than 200 people were estimated to be seriously wounded and needed to be evacuated. The rest depends on a package and the package is clear: al-Nusra needs to declare that they are ready to go, or others can do it on their behalf, and at the same time that there is a commitment by the government to respect the local administration. Having said that all this, the movement of al-Nusra and the stability in eastern Aleppo, needs to start with a stop of the bombing, you cannot evacuate the people without a stop of the bombing. So let us separate the two things, today, we consider this medical evacuation and medical support. The next steps are part of a larger package that needs to be there.
Q. Just one question on eastern Aleppo too. This safe corridor offered by the Russians for the people and the fighters to get out, is it a part of an agreement or an arrangement between the UN and the Russians to control or to observe this safe corridor and how the people will get out? Or it is just a uni-side decision?
SdeM: The short answer is, it is a unilateral decision by the Russian Federation and perhaps by the Syrian Government.
Q: If you can just explain at what point do you think that there is any hope that al-Nusra fighters at some point can accept to leave eastern Aleppo? At what point do you have advance with exchange with them? And what point is the government ready to accept the conditions that you mentioned?
SdeM: well, both important elements of the package still don't have a reply, that doesn't meant that none of us, and there are many who are working on it, are pushing for having both a reply either from al-Nusra or from people who may have a contact with them, and from the government regarding local administration. permanent cessation of hostilities in a tense iconic place like Aleppo after so long may require quite a lot of work, but a package is a package.
Q: Last night the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was on SRF television in Switzerland and he mentioned that the civilians in Aleppo want to get out, is that your understanding? Do you believe that all civilians want to get out of Aleppo? And would you support that because, let’s face it, that could amount to in other cases has been considered ethnic cleansing, would you support that?
SdeM: The UN never supports anything that is not a voluntary decision by the local population or in particularly when they are threatened like has been the case in eastern Aleppo. The figures are clear, there are perhaps 6 to 7 thousand perhaps fighters, there are 275,000 civilians. Many of them, 100 thousand are children. Their voices need to be heard and only their voices. But certainly, my feeling is from what I hear, that the people do not want to leave their places, they do not want to become refugees, they want to stay in their place but they do request, stop the bombing, which needs to be, by the way, from both sides.
Jan Egeland (JE): On the 7th of July, the situation took a dramatic turn to the worse in Aleppo. East Aleppo became military encircled and it became much more difficult to get in, it became impossible to get relief in to east Aleppo and to do medical evacuations out.
We have tried since then to get pauses from the parties to be able to do our humanitarian work.
We hope we now have a window of opportunity to reach people in need in east Aleppo and evacuate those who are in urgent need of medical evacuations.
The Russian unilateral declaration of humanitarian pauses, as they call it, started today. We are not able to start our work today because we have not, until now, secured the green light from all parties on the ground to do medical evacuations, which would be the first phase of our humanitarian operations.
We believe we now have all of the green lights that we need, both forom the Russians and the (Syrian) government, and from the armed opposition groups inside, and we hope that the first medical evacuations can take place tomorrow and they will be organized by the UN, WHO, with Red Cross/Red Crescent partners, and with help from NGOs.
These will be evacuations of critically wounded or sick people who will have a choice of either going to west Aleppo, which is government controlled, or Idlib, which is opposition controlled.
We hope to continue until we have been able to evacuate all of the cases that need such evacuations, and that will be in, hopefully be done in, the course of the pause days and it could be several hundred cases with their families.
We also seek to have medical supplies coming in to east Aleppo. It would be terrible to not be able to leave behind much needed medical relief in those remaining hospitals that still will have a lot of patients. So medical evacuation will be something that we will give priority to in our UN plan.
We also hope to provide, in the course of these coming four days, and we hope to get four days, an eleven hours per day in those four days, that we can also provide food and other much needed humanitarian supplies.
This UN effort with humanitarian partners -– which we have tried to do now since the beginning of July - it has nothing to do either with the political initiative of the UN, or with the Russian unilateral initiative for evacuating wounded and possibly fighters. There is a firewall between our impartial, humanitarian, independent, neutral humanitarian plan, and those other initiatives.
We will do all we can to do as much as we can in this period. We are urging that not only do we get eleven hours per day, but that we can start the four days beginning tomorrow, Friday, it was not possible to go today.
We hope that we can have a full separation from any other activities in the so-called corridors and our own evacuation of medical cases. It would be wrong to have any mix-up of these parallel operations. But it would be also very wrong to not use this window of opportunity to help as much and as many as possible.
This will be a very dangerous operation, a lot of things could still go wrong, we have learned that from experience, but we hope and pray that the members of the Humanitarian Task Force, both Russia and its like-minded, the United States, and its like-minded, will enable us to undertake this much -needed operation.
Finally, we have only reached one besieged area this month so far, in this month of October, and that was Duma, which is symbolically very important for both sides, we reached that last night.
Forty-six trucks delivering assistance to 35,000 people. But shelling It came in the middle of the operation, everybody had to run and take shelter, as more and more frequently happens, because there was shelling just next to the convoy. And it’s symptomatic of it having become increasingly difficult to do these cross-line operations, cross-front-line operations. So I feel it’s sort of, it’s unsustainable in the long run. What we need is a real cessation of hostilities that can hold in this country of Syria. That is the only way we can really provide relief and protection to civilians in east Aleppo and across the country of Syria.
Q: You are talking about a window of opportunity for getting people out for 11 hours a day over a period of four days, who’s telling you that you are going to get that?
JE: The Russian Federation has confirmed that we will have 11 hours per day. They first announced eight [hours]. We said it is not really possible, it’s too complicated, too much can go wrong, the families need to be able to come in dignity with the wounded, we need more time. We appreciate that that has become 11 hours of no bombing, and armed opposition groups say they will enable this to happen. And we are still unclear whether we will have a fourth day from tomorrow, and can go on till Monday. But we hope so, because we need to gain experience in this very difficult and dangerous operation, which will be cross-line, possibly twice or more.
Q (follow-up): [inaudible]
JE: They have said 11 hours per day and four days from today, Thursday. We hope it is, that it can be four days from tomorrow, Friday. And this was a request to Russia today, and they will come back on that additional day.
Q: So they told you that today?
Q: The Russians told you that today?
JE: That they are considering the additional days; the eleven hours, we got [that] yesterday night.
Q: Mr. Egeland, following up on Nick’s question (NYT), who gave you the assurances that the opposition forces will not be attacking the convoys?
JE: We, the UN, are in contact with the armed opposition groups, we have explained this in detail to them, they’ve had a number of questions, understandably, so do the local authorities in east Aleppo, and so do the medical authorities. It’s been a very complicated operation, involving our people in Gaziantep, Turkey, our people in western Aleppo, our people in Damascus, and our people in Geneva. And it is my clear understanding now that everyone and everybody are assured that this operation is much needed and that we can start tomorrow. We are still not sure for example if we can get in food, but we’re working on that. It is the medical evacuations that we will start with.
Q: Just to pick up on your point about food, to be bureaucratic and clear about this, the Syrian Government did not give the green light for eastern Aleppo in its October plan, so is there a chance that they will say you do not have a permit to go to eastern Aleppo because you don’t have the right piece of paper?
JE: This is Syria, so everything can go wrong at every possible opportunity, but I cannot see that we, that anybody would not allow us to use this rare window of opportunity to provide much-needed relief to east Aleppo. And I can assure you that we are working around the clock to push every single door to get those permits. And we have everything ready, both in west Aleppo and in Turkey, so this will be a cross-line, cross-border operation.
Q: Mr. Egeland, you mentioned that Duma is the only city that has been reached in the month of October, you and Mr. de Mistura mentioned that the ceasefire plan and the evacuations are part of the unilateral decision from Russia, announced by Russia, you mentioned that the long term is not sustainable, there was the evacuation from Moadamiyeh, which apparently the United Nations was not involved in. How concerned are you that the United Nations is being by-passed in this entire process, and that in fact your good offices are becoming less and less relevant to this whole process? And what can you do about it to rectify it?
JE: Well, I’m convinced that the United Nations is becoming more and more relevant in this, frankly, because we are failing, but they are failing much more, everybody else is failing more than us, and everybody understands that they must help us, the United Nations, and our humanitarian partners to succeed. If we would not have this pause now, if it hadn’t been for the pressure of the United Nations, we would not have been in Duma yesterday, if it hadn't been for the United Nations. We have reached 17 of the 18 besieged areas this year because of the effective diplomacy of the United Nations and the Member States. But it’s also, it’s become astronomically difficult for everything, and very many times I feel like, you know, is there anybody really helping us, is there anybody really helping us to reach the other side. And particularly this cross-line thing that has become increasingly difficult, and why, because the war has become more bitter, and the war has become more cruel, and that’s why it has to end. That’s the only solution to this.
Geneva, 20 October 2016