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Transcript of stakeout by Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria

24 March 2017

Good evening everyone and thank you for being here. As you know yesterday the delegations and invitees all arrived and that Deputy Ramzy met them informally in their own hotels. I know the importance we attach to this round in particular which is the fifth round as you know of Geneva talks. I have been particularly attentive trying to engage and asking for advice and support from all the regional players or interlocutors or stakeholders. That’s why I took one more day because you know we are human beings so you can’t fly everywhere at the same time. And one more day spent having been to Riyadh and then to Moscow and then to Ankara. That's why Ambassador Ramzy had to do what was useful: Some preparatory discussions in the hotels with the various invitees.

I would not go into details as you can understand, on the various discussions which took place both in Riyadh, Moscow and Ankara. What I can tell you, [is] that everywhere I went in all three locations there was a stronger feeling that in spite of the non-totally positive development which took place in the last Astana meeting, and in spite of the recent surge of military activities, the Geneva talks according to each one of the interlocutors, need to go ahead and actually build on the fourth round of the Geneva talks.

In fact, they said just because of that indeed, it was even more urgent that we would have the fifth round of the Geneva talks. Indeed developments on the ground while we speak are very much related sadly to offensives and counteroffensives. But, all invitees and delegations who were present here and as you know we have also the Women Advisory Board which has been giving me and continues [to] give me very wise and substantial support, are feeling that it was worth it to come and all came. None of them has threatened to leave or not to come, which is a sign of maturity and of responsibility particularly in difficult moments like this one. Well obviously we have always been in favour and strongly advocating for stronger calmer or major calm during the discussions but this is also something that sadly has happened in other conflicts. They have been talking and fighting at the same time and this is not what we want but this is what can be faced by continuing having the talks in spite of the fighting.

Hence, our expectation and the stronger suggestion to the guarantors of the Astana process that they do retake the situation in hand and that hopefully there will be new Astana meeting as soon as possible in order to control the situation which at the moment is worrisome.
So, let’s go back to today then, okay? Today we got into substance, there was no discussion about the agenda. The agenda has been established and actually strongly supported by the latest meeting we had with the Security Council. Well the first meeting as you know with the government of Syria delegation and its main focus was on the current security issues.

There was a long discussion on the security current developments which will be continued tomorrow because that is an issue that is concerning very much the government and will meet them again at 11 o'clock. As you know we gave the opportunity to all delegations and we will be, to actually choosing which of the baskets, but all baskets need to be addressed. Frankly the government, while focusing today on the security aspects, agreed, as indicated by interviews, both by Ambassador Jaafari and by President Bashar al-Assad, all four baskets would be addressed by the government in the next few days.
Then we had a meeting and you know with the HNC delegation which came from Riyadh. We first discussed the recent military events and we received in the context of the counter terrorism aspect a detailed report from the opposition regarding the on fighting in various locations, the threat of Daesh. We then discussed with the opposition delegation which we met this afternoon the legal aspects of the governance in the context of political transition and resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communiqué.

Tomorrow we will continue the meetings with all invitees and we will start at 11 o'clock and then continue the whole day with all invitees. In light of this importance that we are attaching particularly on this round of the intra-Syrian talks, and in view of the tensions that undeniably are taking place inside Syria from a military point of view, I have decided to accept an invitation from the Arab League to go for one day and try to explain to the members of the Arab League and have bilateral meetings with those who are engaged or involved or have an influence on the intra-Syrian talks and on the Syrian situation. And therefore, leaving on Monday and returning on Tuesday. Meanwhile the talks will continue under the chairmanship of Ambassador Ramzy but I felt it was important to engage as many regional players as possible and they all happen to be in one room.

Thank you this where we are at the moment but now is open for questions.

Q: you have already cited that there you left to the delegations to choose which basket to start the negotiations with, but all four baskets should be discussed during the coming days and therefore understood that the government delegation have discussed one issue which is the security and terrorism as they call it and the opposition delegation have discussed the transitional governance. So in that context how can we understand how the negotiations between two parties that you are conducting are going now?

SdM: You see the great advantage of proximity talks is exactly this one. You're right if they were talking to each other there would be two subjects at the same time but we are in the proximity talks in other words they are talking to us, to me to my colleagues and then I can use it when we will be addressing the subject on the other side that is the strength of proximity talks.

Q: I understand from what you said that there are talks that are being conducted with each delegation with each party according to the priorities of each party. Then how would you bring together these divergent opinions of both delegations on the same subject?

SdM: I tried to explain it to Madame. You see the proximity talks help because I pick with my team what are the points and we interact on one basket. By the way all of them have to talk about all four baskets no one can exclude the other baskets that is a deal and is a ruling even supported by Security Council. Secondly whenever we don't have a sufficient material on one side we will be then addressing that aspect together with the other delegation. In order to be able to come up with some type of commonalities that is what the job of a mediator is. Not easy but trust me they can be and that’s the beginning of real negotiations.

Q: Could you tell us what your objectives are for this round. Last time you had clear objective, which is to get this agenda. Have you got a sort of similar bite-size chunks that you want to get done in this round. And also have you got any instructions or guidance from Washington about what they want to seek?

SdM: Regarding our objectives, I would try to be careful about expectations, like we were on the fourth round so I am not expecting miracles. I am not expecting breakthroughs and I am not expecting breakdowns. What I am expecting is building on the fourth round with some incremental constructive steps, which I would be able to tell you at the end of this road.

Regarding instructions, I think you must had a slip of the tongue there, because the only guidance, not given instructions, because there is a lot of trust the Secretary-General is giving to his team here in view of the fluidity of the environment. The only guidance I get is from New York Headquarters.

Now having said that what was discussed in Washington recently, if you're referring to the main counterterrorism theme in the conference, has been and being studied by us very carefully, because there were some important indications which came out of that. And that we are still studying them and want to better understand the implications on what is going to have as an implication of what we are trying to do.

Q: There are some statements by some members of the Riyadh group that had been adopting some of the terrorist acts perpetrated by al-Nusra, how do you look at that?

SdM: I am currently looking at what is being said to me during the talks. We are talking about the talks. There are lots of statements taking place from all sides, all the time, my focus is on what they have been hearing during the talks. And today when I discussed that with the opposition delegation, HNC, they were focusing on how they intend and are focusing their fighting against ISIL, that's what I heard today.

Q: You mentioned in your very first comments that this time you are particularly attentive to the international players and trying to engage and ask for advice from other regional players. How should we understand the fact that you were not here for the start of the talks yesterday and that you're stepping away this time to go, as you mentioned, to Amman? Is this a sign of a realisation from your office that this conflict is maybe more international than you originally thought and in fact needs to be more international focus?

SdM: The answer, Jamie, is the following, no one including me has ever doubted or eluded itself that this conflict does not huge regional involvement. It is being admitted by everyone by now, so that's not new. What is a proper explanation is rather a chronological one; I know it is not very appealing from a journalistic point of view, but it is really chronological. Look at when we met last time and we didn’t have much time in order to get to the next round, okay, so the travelling around which as you know by principle, I do neither by private plane or any special plane, but by flying regular flights at night or during day. It is a matter of principle we have been applying that makes it quite difficult to be able to cover 20 countries at the same time. So I could do what they could do during those days depending also on scheduling arrangements of our counterparts. And missing the opportunity of meeting many of them in one meeting place in Jordan, on the occasion of the Arab League meeting, is an opportunity not to be missed because they need to give me their own opinion. I also need to be able to talk to them about the importance of not giving a bad chance to this fifth round. That is the only reason chronological, physical, geographical and transport logistics, basically.
Q: We have been witnessing escalation on many fronts including in Damascus and Hama. Escalation perpetrated by Al Nusra front and many other terrorist groups that have taken part in the Astana process. You have been visiting regional players as you said, including Turkey which has been one of the sponsors of these terrorist groups. Did these countries provide you with any guarantees to ensure the success of the fifth round of the Geneva talks and are you confident that they are going to dictate their commitment on the factions that they are supporting and how can you trust them after all these breaches?

SdM: Let me say one thing. I mean it when I said it and I would repeat it, for Astana process it is very important and I would have few comments because it has been able so far to actually establish quite a ceasefire. Not a complete one, we knew it was going to be difficult, but quite a ceasefire. We always knew that, as last year, every time we have a ceasefire that has been taking place, those who were not part of it, like Al Nusra, can be a major spoiler.

Having said that, I'm counting in fact on the two co-sponsors which have become three and actually more than sponsors: guarantors of the Astana ceasefire, to reconnect quickly in order to deliver what we were all expecting them to deliver: A) a credible ceasefire - and I am convinced that we will be going back to that because there is no other alternative - and B) because to me they appeared to be sincerely trying to do so, remember in December.

Thank you, we will be having other opportunities as you know, God willing, in view of the fact that there will be regular updates. But I will do it whenever we have something substantive to share with you, not just indicating we had a meeting today or one tomorrow. Thank you very much.