11 May 2017
Transcript of press stakeout by Staffan de Mistura after his meeting with the Humanitarian Task Force
SdM: Good afternoon, I am here with Jan Egeland, so I will give the floor to Jan so that we have some questions related to its own area of attention, separately from the political ones. So I will more or less address now the other issues and will take some questions of course.
First of all, let's confirm that, as you all know, we are preparing the intra-Syrian new round of talks next week. They would be starting on the 16th
, we are aiming [at finishing] as a target towards the 19th
. These [talks] will be rather business-like, rather short comparing to other meetings, but there are two reasons for that, first one is that we wanted to hit the iron while its hot, let’s be frank. After the Astana meeting which took place and which we attended proactively, there has been some outcomes that we find extremely, potentially, promising and we want to connect, as much as possible, that outcome with some political horizon.
We all know that no ceasefire or de-escalation will ever work unless there is, for a long time, at least in the long term or in medium-term, some type of a political horizon.
And secondly, because we are in a way going to do it anyway but in this case we would like to do it as soon as possible. Secondly because, as you know the holy month of Ramadan starts and is not a reason for stopping talks, or not having them but, certainly does have an impact.
And three, we are getting into what we hope, a more business-like type of approach and I will be able to elaborate on that on Monday, where we will have a specific press conference, curtain raiser, regarding on how, I would say, the new approach in this case will be applied, in terms of rooms, facilitation, in terms of media access and so.
But all that with the purpose of trying to make sure that having had several rounds which were more preparatory, sometimes very declaratory, they can start becoming more business-like.
Much is happening, as you know more than anyone else, related to international meetings. Those meetings which are both bilateral and multilateral, have an impact and, in my opinion and my hope, and I know of the Secretary-General’s hope, is that they are all in the direction of helping a political process. We had the bilateral meetings as you know yesterday in Washington, there will be bilateral meetings between the US and Turkey at the highest level, there are going to be international occasions in the next few weeks and related to the G7, G20, in other words, several meetings, not only G7 and G20.
Now regarding Geneva, I just want to say that on the outcome of Astana, and Jan would be able to make more comments on that based on our discussions we had today on the humanitarian follow-up to the Astana meeting, we are talking about the de-escalation areas, the ones suggested by the Astana team.Then there are, as you know, other areas which are being discussed or planned regarding the interim stabilisation area. But when we talk about the four de-escalation areas, these have the potential of affecting, hopefully positively from a humanitarian point of view, at least 2.6 million people. So we are talking anyway of a major impact, if as we hope that would work.
I will stop there, take your questions, and then after that I will give the floor to you, Jan.
Q: You talk about it’s been promising with the Astana deal, what concretely do you see has changed on the ground after the deal, and what makes you believe in this deal as the opposition rebels are not part of it and there is no trust between the regime and the opposition about this deal.
SdM: All valid points, I cannot deny it, especially, I cannot deny the level of distrust or the scepticism that is legitimate in a case like this, after how many ceasefires or temporary reduction of violence we have already faced. But there is something different: the first one is, you must have seen it, I was in Astana, I witnessed it officially, there was a signature. There was a signature put on a paper by three guarantors, that in a way symbolises more than what is simply a verbal declaration.
Secondly, the three countries which have been identifying themselves as guarantors, do have, if they want to and if they put their own political weight behind it, the capacity of making this arrangement potentially working. Spoilers will be there, spoilers are there, but that should be an element of at least giving it some hope.
Three, there is an alternative to that, and the alternative would be simply to do nothing and have another ten, God forbid, Aleppo. So against that background, we add a touch of the will of optimism, whenever there is an initiative and this is a serious initiative because we saw the negotiation, to want to give it a chance. Now it is also true that some members of the opposition did not attend and some actually left the meeting, but I was there, most of them were seated there, and most of them were part of that ceremony, and most of them are having the possibility of deciding between option one and option two. So I would give it a stronger chance to be showing that it has a strong chance. And the UN is supportive of that. The alternative another 10 Aleppo, we can’t afford it.
Q: You talked about promising possibilities from Astana but there is also the possibility that the three guarantor would content themselves with more of a kind of quality partition of Syria, the frozen conflict, rather than what I think you are working towards here, which is peace and political transition. I just wanted to have that security with your four baskets, do you see what have outlined there from Astana, something with you would be prepared to kind of prioritise?
SdM: This concept of a partition, which of course, has always been a danger affecting the future and the present of Syria, and by the way you remember, many of you, that that was a subject which came up even when Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts were in their most tense moments. There was the possibility of conceptualising partitions de facto, and they didn't take place, thank God, because countries need to be able to maintain their unity at the end of the day.
Now what I want to underline, and that's the way we are looking at it, that any concept of stabilisation area or de-escalation are, by definition, preceded by one word, that we all know, it is called interim, and interim is a way to address urgent issues without creating a permanent precedent. The only ones who ever actually so far succeeded in creating real partitions hoping that that would be permanent is ISIS, and we all know what everyone feels about that.
Q: Question of two aspects of Astana, one is about the de-escalation zones, so there are supposed to be monitors or observers, could you tell us what is the prognostic for an agreement on who might actually monitor these zones, because it seems to be a key aspect, and the other question is about detainees or prisoners, I heard, and I don’t know if it is true that there was a deal on prisoner releases, when do you expect to see the first prisoner releases and how many people?
SdM: Tom, you are really very specific there. First of all regarding the operational implementation of the Astana memorandum, I think one of the issues that makes me, you know it, we are by definition optimists, so I have to put that up front. But what makes me more optimistic about the chances for this memorandum to work out, is that they've been very careful about not announcing at midnight, tonight everything will be cleared, clarified and everything will work, and then suddenly something happens which then delegitimises it or makes it less likely to happen.
There are, as I won’t go into details, days, 14 days. There is a date in June as well in other words there is a staggered approach in order to make it as professionally effective as possible, and that requires also a discussion which is ongoing regarding who will be doing the observation, the monitoring, perhaps even checkpoints and so on. I would not elaborate at this stage because they are part of discussions among the guarantors and with our support of course, when required, since we have a lot of expertise.
Now regarding the other two aspects that were discussed and were discussed, in my opinion, quite constructively with some papers that were, almost to the last point detailed, agreed upon. One is on detainees, abductees and missing people, there are many categories. That paper is now almost completely, I won’t say blessed but finalised. So to tell you when the first detainees will be released is premature. What I can tell you is that, that has gone much more faster than I was fearing it would. And it is linked in a way because there was a discussion also on humanitarian demining, which was also a paper that has produced quite a lot of operational details in which the UN is directly involved because we do have UNMAS. And, in fact, there is a potential mission of UNMAS in the area in order to be able to see how we can actually help like we have done in many other countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia.
Q: (interpreted from French) There is a something that I didn’t understand regarding Astana meeting. Is that true that the armed opposition delegation who participated in Astana must fight Al Nusra Front in their area? And regarding Geneva, is here a shift in the format? Will there be direct talks? Will invitees be the same as previously?
SdM: (Interpreted from French) I won’t answer your first question for the moment, frankly because if you read the memorandum, and you probably did, this is what we saw on the paper that the three guarantors, who had obviously consulted both sides present in Astana, the Opposition and the Syrian Government, and I haven’t seen them raising their hands aggressively against that. There has been a reaction from some of them, vis a vis one of the guarantors but not on the paper itself. But I won’t go into interpreting the document at this point.
On the question addressing the format, yes it is true. This time, maybe helped by the fact that there are many conferences taking place in this building, and the use of smaller meeting rooms, we will try to use the business-like approach. More intimate meetings, smaller rooms in which we can look at each other in the eyes. On proximity [talks]: honestly, in the current conditions, we can go much deeper with proximity[talks] than with a formal meeting together. We already did it, formally it took place. , This means we have the intention, if we find the right moment, to go back to that, but I think it is better to do business-like meetings in the proximity format. I will use every occasion to go beyond this. It is of course ideal for every mediator. Last question please.
Q: You mentioned an interesting point about that the safe zones should be considered as interim. The flipside of what you said is that there could be partition ultimately. The flipside of that is that the parties on the ground may use the safe zones as an opportunity to retrench and possibly then later attack other areas. I'm just wondering how concerned are you that this might be a prelude to a new Government offensive on Idlib in particular. There can be two options, either a political solution or more fighting essentially once the safe zones are created. What makes you so sure that the political will be the route rather than more fighting? And if you could also just address the arming of the Kurds which has cost some problems with Turkey. How that affects, how you see that possibly impacting the developments particularly with the guarantors? Thank you.
SdM: Regarding the first question on how do I see this impacting and having possible implications. Allow me to be focused. The Syrian people, at this stage and if you ask them, anyone, they will tell you the first thing: please Mr de Mistura or Mr anyone, we have as a priority no more bombing, no more shelling, no more heavy killing as we have seen for four years. That is their question, that is the question they ask all the time. Now that is why first things first. The first thing, if as we hope and want to work, this would produce as it is expected a de-escalation and therefore what we call a stabilisation in that sense an interim, that means no people being killed anymore by that. That would give us the time to go to any other steps but I will not prejudge or become presumptive on what if in that case. Let's cross that bridge first. That bridge has been crossed in the past and it didn't last long so we need to make that happening, and it is linked to what you will be hearing now from Jan. There are deliverables linked to that, humanitarian aid. There are deliverables coming to that which means also medical access. There are deliverables, which is also access in general. So all that is not a small bridge to cross, then we will talk about the rest. If, at the same time we are having some momentum in progress on any of the political issues, which provide a horizon for what is taking place, then you can see that the two things are moving. Meanwhile, up there, bilateral meetings are taking place in the real politic too, and they are all connected to what we are trying to do. Thank you very much, I'm not elaborating on military issues as you know, normally I don't. Thank you.
Transcript of press stakeout by Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, after his meeting with the Humanitarian Access Task Force
JE: The Humanitarian Task Forces is, of course, devoted to focus on the situation of the civilian population in Syria, and I would say that in some respect more has happened the last first four months of this year than in the previous four years.
We have gone from a largely trenched, frozen trench warfare, to enormous changes in the battlefield, new frontlines and new local agreements that profoundly affect the lives of vulnerable civilians. This has also led us to revise now more frequently the numbers of people living in-hard-to-reach areas, they have gone from roughly five million to now four and a half million people.
We have access to more people in the Aleppo area and we have access to people that previously lived in areas controlled by the so-called Islamic state, for example.
The number of people in besieged areas remain roughly the same, it is down some 20,000 people, it is now about 625,000 people still in 13 areas, 80% of those besieged in Syria are besieged by government or allied forces. There is still 95,000 people in Deir Ez-Zor besieged by the Islamic State. There is now down to 12,000 people in Foua and Kefraya that is besieged by armed opposition groups and then it's the poor people of Yarmouk besieged twice by government forces on the outside, and internally also by armed opposition groups, eight, nine, and 10,000 people there.
Now, we can deliver to 350,000 people per week with inter-agency cross-line convoys. It is a big capacity, we have a big humanitarian muscle in Syria, other countries envy us. In Yemen, we do not have that kind of a pipeline, we do not have that kind of a human program, we have not been funded generously to the same extent by donors.
In Syria however, we have such a tremendous access crisis, and protection crisis that the assistance arm cannot really function, so it is down to now an average of one convoy per week, instead of the four convoys that we could and should have been fielding every single week of a month to people who have been besieged for years. Last week, we were able to reach Douma, first time since, I think October of last year. It took, you know, endless hours, it is an hour away from the warehouse in Damascus, it’s next door to Damascus.
It took a whole day, a whole evening, a whole night and a whole morning, so courageous humanitarian workers in 51 large trucks spent endless hours on checkpoints, endless hours waiting for fighting to stop, and finally an admission- it was close to be called off many times- was able to reach 35,000 people for the first time since October.
It took good diplomats from many countries to help us, including out the two co-chairs, Russia and the United States, but also regional powers and counties with influence and forces on the ground. There has to be a simpler way really, because if it takes this kind of an effort to get one convoy to Ghouta, to reach 35,000 people in a place that has roughly 400,000 people, we will not succeed. I also mentioned this tremendous protection crisis, and since the beginning of April, we have seen 23 attacks on hospitals and clinics, 23 attacks, nine of the hospital ended completely inoperable in the hours of greatest needs for these civilians; the area with the largest number of hospitals and clinics destroyed or damaged by attacks, mostly aerial attacks, was Idlib. This was something that came through, very strongly, from the non-governmental organisations that I consulted with yesterday, these are courageous non-governmental organisations in Damascus, in Gaziantep, in Amman and in Beirut. They all report on shrinking humanitarian space, increased problems of operating, they are very worried for the future and they are, among other things, worried for attacks against the facilities and against humanitarian workers.
Is there a hope? Yes, I think there is a hope here, and it's connected now to the memorandum agreed in Astana on the 4th
of May. It says, in no uncertain terms, that not only will fighting cease, hopefully, in a large part of the de-escalation zones, but also rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access shall be provided. Conditions to deliver medical aid to local populations and to meet basic needs of civilians shall be created, and measures to restore basis infrastructure including water and electricity will be established, and there would be conditions for safe and voluntary return by refugees and internally displaced.
Now, Russia, Turkey and Iran explained to us today and yesterday, I also met them, that they will work very openly, proactively with the United Nations and with humanitarian partners to implement this agreement. We do have a million questions and concerns, but I think we don't have the luxury that some have of this distant cynicism and saying it will fail.
We need this to succeed, so we were sitting down now to try to make it a workable agreement both for the people in these de-confliction zones, that the security zones outside can work to the benefit of civilians for aid in, and civilians to go in and out, and for the basic services to be restored, so that the three signatories and this is a signed agreement. Russia, Iran and Turkey have a big responsibility, but so do we, and trying to make this change lives in these areas, that basically encompass all of the besieged areas except for Deir Ezzor, which is an IS control area. It basically encompasses the areas that we have been working since the beginning to ensure protection and assistance
Q: You just mentioned that you spoke with Turkey, Iran and Russia just this morning, could you explain what specific commitments you got from Iran, particularly with regard to the creation of these safe zones, are there forces, which are on the ground in some parts of Syria, are they going to be actively participating in helping getting the humanitarian aid into the country?
JE: So, I met with the three Astana signatories both today and yesterday, we have increasing dealing talks with the three and yes what they say is that we will now sit down and agree. They will agree with our input on whom should be controlling security, being monitoring, being guaranteeing that there is indeed a free flow of humanitarian relief into these areas.
We don't need more bottlenecks: we have been wasting too many times at roadblocks, we need unhindered access and civilians have been besieged for four years, they cannot leave these areas and they cannot enter their relatives in these areas. Also that has to be enabled. Who would do it? Certainly forces from the three would be one alternative. These third parties could also provide monitors as said in the memorandum, but, as they admit, they haven't come to it and we have not come to that yet.
Q: On the Astana deal, do you see any signs that you are actually now getting more humanitarian access? You talked about the convoy in Duma for example, do you have anything concrete in your hands? Do you see also or do you have certain areas where you think is more pressing to get the access?
JE: One concrete thing, the only one I have in my hand, is a lot of reports that there is a decrease in fighting, that there is a decrease in aerial attacks since 4 May. That is positive in itself. The Duma convoy coincided with the Astana talks, I don’t know, I hope really it was because we have been working on it for such a long time. We are working this afternoon in new meetings with diplomats who can help us for new convoys to Eastern Ghouta, East Harasta, the Kaf’r Batna
area has well over a hundred thousand besieged people. We need to reach them, we want to reach them in the next few days. But to be honest with you, even since the Astana agreement, were down to one convoy per week, so trucks, food supplies that could have gone to people on the brink of starvation, is not getting through because the parties are not allowing us, still not allowing us.
Q: Where will the convoy go this week? You said one convoy per week.
JE: Well, the last convoy was to Wadi Barada, what we hope for is in this next week cycle to have the full five convoys, and we don’t know because the way we do it is that we sought 28 locations for April and May and to go that twice, and then it's too much of a lottery really. We need a facilitation letter, from the government. If we don't have it we cannot load; then we need the security forces to enable us to load, then we need to get agreement with all of the parties involved. There are so many things and we don't even know who would be the next convoy.
Q: Do you have the facilitation letters for the five convoys?
JE: We are not getting facilitation letters and that’s among the issues that we bring to the attention every meeting, including this one, to Russia and Iran, China and others who have their contact with the government of Syria. We need facilitation letters, we need the permits. Bu we also need on the other side conditions to be able to deliver. Infighting between armed opposition groups have been among the problems we have been facing that have inhibited delivery to also places in Eastern Ghouta.
Q: About the evacuation or evictions from besieged areas, after Aleppo there has been more and more of these with the impression that the pro-government forces are gaining ground and this is sort of the end phase of the war. In your view, if these evictions continue, is that a route to the end of the war if the 13 besieged areas get turned over and if President Assad get the control of 80% of these besieges? Would it be a way to end this war? Thank you.
JE: Why have we shifted these numbers? I forgot to mention, two areas have been taken out of the besieged list: Zabadani, so it’s not the four towns agreement anymore it is the three towns agreement. Zabadani is next to Madaya, there are no people there after this local agreement and then Khan Elsheih, the Palestinian refugee camp, was a besieged area, we have access there now. Two new areas are coming, it’s Barzah and Qabun, which are the two last strongholds of the armed opposition groups in Damascus city, new places. They go out of a list very often for the wrong reasons that there is actually a surrender of one side, they should go out of the list because sieges were lifted.
However yes, if one party over an area there is an end to the war but I would say there is no peace because indeed there could be evictions, there could be problems with human rights and humanitarian principles after that. What we call for is that the local agreements, which are many, have to have humanitarian principles involved, which means that we as humanitarians whether this is UN or Red Cross or anyone else would be invited to help with these agreements as now they follow a military logic and civilians are often losing out and they end up involuntarily in places of not of their choices.
Geneva - 11 May 2017