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Transcript of the Press Conference by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, Geneva 26 February 2016

26 February 2016

SdeM: Today, there’s been quite a lot of discussions and events taking place here in Geneva related to what happened just now. And by midday today, there were 97 armed groups plus the Government, all the major regional and international stakeholders, who indicated in time – by, as you remember, midday, which was the time for indicating their willingness to accept the framework of the cessation of hostilities. So that was the first thing which took place today.

Then, of course, all those acceptances were meant by those who were expected to accept the cessation of hostilities. This does not apply to and excludes Al-Nusra and Daesh, as you know. The cessation of hostilities has initiated in terms of an hour, it is not a long time ago actually, and took place just during the Security Council. Now let me be very frank, with all of us, myself too. In all cessations of hostilities I have seen, in any type of conflict I have been part of, and certainly in this one which is and was the worse that we have seen in a generation, there is a high chance that we should expect some hiccups that need adjustment, and tensions and incidents. The important point we need to see is if those incidents will be quickly brought under control and contained, that is going to be the test. Now the co-chairs, which you know are the Russian Federation and the United States, have established separate operation centers in Moscow, in Washington D.C., Latakia, Amman and we have here in the UN a 24/7 UN operation centre in Geneva in this building. Those mechanisms are meant to collect information on infringements and pass them on as quickly as possible to the two co-chairs because they have the primary task of addressing cases of non-compliance, through an additional hotline, that exists between their own operation centers. The UN, us, apart from acting as a secretariat to the taskforce, will assist in the flow of the information and analysis in order to make sure that the two co-chairs will be in a position, together with the taskforce, but particularly them, to address the infringements that are likely to take place, in order to make sure they are contained.

There is going to be a mechanism, and it is already in place, to address cases of non-compliance and those of persistent non-compliance, which are two different cases. We are going in a war which has been going on for five years, with such a confusing and incredibly metastatic environment like the one we have in Syria. We should not be surprised at breaches but what we need to make sure that they are contained. So in cases of breaches, a military response should be, according to the taskforce, the last resort after exhausting the engagement of the two co-chairs and the taskforce and the ISSG, and should be proportionate.

This afternoon, we had the taskforce meeting, and that is why I was meeting you afterwards, after the Security Council. And the taskforce on the cessation of hostilities had its own first meeting regarding its own terms of reference and queries and questions that many could have had about how to make this work.

Tomorrow for your information, in the afternoon, early afternoon, I think around 3 o’clock, we will have another taskforce meeting, an informal one. Naturally, to be able to monitor and check what has been basically the situation during the night and during the morning, and to see how the cessation of hostilities has been able to actually take hold, where incidents might have been taking place, and what type of approach needs to be done in order to contain them.

UN operations center will be supplemented by officers from the Russian Federation, the US, and any other ISSG country member who wants to support this full-time handling of possible incidents and misunderstandings of information. We are providing the information, the taskforce will be addressing it and the two co-chairs will address it. The UN is not part of addressing these incidents. I repeat, it is up to the co-chairs.

The Security Council resolution 2268 which was just adopted, frankly is an additional new element showing, in addition to the 2254 and the Munich commitments, the importance, and also the seriousness of the commitment by the international community, certainly by the two co-chairs, in wanting to transform the momentum into something concrete. Two areas have been addressed, as you know, in Munich. One is the humanitarian. There has been progress, not enough, not enough, but quite a lot, comparatively speaking, and certainly moving onwards. The second one was how to address the cessation of hostilities, and now we are starting to have the first test of it.

As always, facts will speak and not only words, and that’s why we are all very keen on watching and monitoring what will be the situation in the next few hours, next few days. Based on this, and with the hope that there will not be serious reasons to the contrary, I have informed the Secretary-General, and you heard it already, and the Security Council, just an hour ago, that I plan to reconvene here in Geneva, the suspended Geneva Intra-Syrian talks on Monday the 7th of March, on the assumption that there will not be any serious reasons to the contrary.

The first phase of these talks will last for three weeks, and then we will re-assess the situation together with the Syrian parties in order to make sure that they are seriously engaged in what they are supposed to do, which is the agenda. And the agenda has not changed, is the same, within the framework of the Geneva communiqué. The clear guidance is 2254. Let me repeat it so that there is no misunderstanding on what the agenda is all about: a new inclusive governance, a new constitution, new presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.

We will be continuing monitoring and helping the progress of both areas, one is the humanitarian one, as you know very well, and the second one is the one regarding the cessation of hostilities.

Now let me end by saying: let’s pray that this works, because frankly, this is the best opportunity we can imagine that the Syrian people will have and have had over the last five years, in order to see a change in their own hope for something better, and probably, hopefully, something related to peace. Facts will tell.

Thank you. Now questions:

Q: Etant donné que, d’après ce qu’on a vu dans la presse, cet accord ne couvre pas, ne couvre que quelques zones assez restreintes du territoire syrien, est-ce que cela ne va pas être problématique pour pouvoir tenir jusqu’au 7 mars ?

SdeM: Avant tout je dois vous dire que l’impression que nous avons – et j’ai pas ici une mappe, mais j’ai toujours avec moi des mappes - et c’est quand même une grande partie du territoire syrien. Ce qui est exclu dans tout ça c’est la zone où Daesh est présent, qui est surtout désertique excepté pour Raqqa et pour Palmyra, et puis les lieux où Al-Nusra est clairement présente. Donc, je trouve que c’est quand même une bonne partie du territoire syrien qui peut être affectée, sans doute une bonne partie de la population syrienne.

Q: Cela couvre par exemple des alentours d’Alep ou certaines banlieues de Damas où il y a actuellement des bombardements ?

SdeM : J’aurais besoin d’une mappe pour vous montrer tout cela, et peut-être que je pourrai le faire la prochaine fois qu’on se voit. Il y a des zones qui sont très clairement présentes avec une forte composante de Al-Nusra, dans ces zones-là c’est évident que le cessez-le-feu ne s’applique pas parce que Al-Nusra et Daesh sont tous les deux exclus. Il y a d’autres zones où il y a une présence d’Al-Nusra très minimale; à ce point-là c’est un choix aussi du côté des autres groupes, qui ne sont pas dans les groupes de terrorisme des Nations Unies, qui peuvent prendre une distance physique, politique et géographique d’eux.

Q : What are the initial reports that you are hearing about how the cessation of hostilities is holding. And then, more broadly, how are you going to deal with violations exactly? You seem to be putting a lot of eggs in the basket of the U.S. and Russia. What would happen, for example, if Russia is deemed to violate the terms of it. Would everyone in the world be relying only on the United States to make the determination as to whether or not a violation has occurred?

SdeM: Well, both questions are very valid. First of all, regarding initial reports, the first report I got about midnight 03, was that suddenly both Darayya and Damascus had calmed down. Having said that, I did see a tentative report which came in about one incident. Now we are investigating that and asking for more information. There is another report that came in that appeared to be completely unreliable, so there will be some of that too. In other words, propaganda, or possible misinterpretation, or even attempts to show the one side or the other. I think that is part of what is already forecasted as possible. The thing will be how all this will be verified. We do have means both on the ground through our own contacts and certainly different operation centres, separately by the Russians and the Americans, who do have their own antennas which have been raised. There are focal points, there are contact points, there are hotlines, and I think the system needs to be given a chance to be tested, but it is there.

Now the case you have mentioned is a hypothetical one so I will not elaborate on that one frankly. Let’s see what happens and then check on that.

Q. Can you give us some insight in this task force, how will armed factions that did not sign on to the midday deadline be dealt with, other than Al-Nusra and Islamic State. And secondly I have noticed in the new Security Council resolution that they have extended it to over 30 areas for humanitarian relief from the 7 [besieged] you are looking at now to expand to 32. This is very ambitious. Do you think you can get it?

SdeM: Well, let me start with the second one, the aspect of the humanitarian issue is as follows. The Munich decisions were clearly about unimpeded continuous reach to all areas which are besieged; they are 14 as you know. Those areas are both besieged by, two of them are clearly besieged by the opposition, many by the government, and one, a large one, Deir ez Zor, is by Daesh. Now in the case of Daesh, we are planning and as you know, there has been the first test of doing the air drops, and they will continue now to be more of that. That is one area of urgent need. But there is a second one, a second layer, which has not actually been reached because we were not even able to dream to do that, which are the so-called the “difficult to reach areas”. Actually, we are talking about, in the first case, 460,000 people in besieged areas, and we are talking about 4 million people [in the difficult to reach areas]. Now imagine for a moment, and we need to imagine, because we need to believe in what we are trying to do altogether, that the cessation of hostilities despite of incidents, and in spite of what could happen in what is a very complicated conflict, holds. Imagine that then the possibility of humanitarian access will increase enormously, and the reasons for the humanitarian access and the possibility of doing that will become easier. So the two things will go hand in hand.

Regarding the first question, there was a discussion in the taskforce - although I will not reveal, because it is an internal taskforce - there was a discussion on those who had not indicated by midday their own compliance. Well, the issue there becomes pretty delicate, in the sense that those who had not indicated their compliance have time to do so, but they should be doing so according to the terms of the cessation of hostilities, and there is a possibility of doing it. Secondly, if they are not belonging to the group of the so called “terrorist” groups - and you heard who they are, they are two, Daesh and Al-Nusra, plus very small groups, those who are stated in the Security Council resolution, not just by countries - if they do not use violence, in other words, fail to comply with the cessation of hostilities, they in theory should be in a good position to be considered a part of it.

Q. The plan is fairly clear from the outside, but I just wonder, following on from what you were just saying, whether there’s actually quite a lot of worrying wiggle-room. I mean these other terrorist groups, it seems a bit unclear who they are, and I just wonder if you can put your hand on your heart and just say that you’re sure, you’re confident that the Russians and the Americans and the Syrians and the Turks, all have exactly the same understanding of who the groups are that have signed up. They’ve got the list of the 97, they’ve all got the same names, and they know exactly where they are on the map. Because, you know, at the moment we have a rather sort of opaque process. We’ve heard there were 97 groups, we don’t have a list, I don’t know whether you’ve seen a list. Can you reassure us? Thank you.

SdeM: Yes, I can reassure you but I can also tell you that, as always, the proof will be in the facts. And in an environment like the Syrian one, with the complicated map as the one we have, it’s the facts which will be proving it. So, I think we should be readjusting our own analysis in the next few days.

Q. When the talks resume, as you hope they will on March 7th, how quickly are you expecting them to get underway? Last time there was quite a lot of waiting. Do you think that you have enough momentum this time that things could get started pretty quickly? Could you tell us how you see that?

SdeM: Well, I see it as follows: the fact that we do have a humanitarian momentum, at least so far, and we intend to push the envelope as much as we can to test that and to make sure that both us and the government and the opposition can ensure that this incremental and going on. And on the assumption that the cessation of hostilities, grosso modo will work and perhaps the more we go into it, the more effectively it will work, and I would find it very difficult for anyone coming to the Geneva talks to actually feel that now is not the time to talk about the substance in the political one. Secondly, among those who have been accepting - I do not know whether you have seen the terms of the framework of the cessation of hostilities, yes they were public - those who have accepted that the cessation of hostilities have also committed themselves, to come and stay and talk, at the Geneva talks, Intra-Syrian talks. Last point, it is clear to everyone that humanitarian assistance is crucial for the Syrian people, we feel very strongly that the cessation of hostilities [is] crucial in order to give a feeling to the Syrian people that all this is meaningful. But we all know that without a political process and a political solution, both the cessation of hostilities and the humanitarian assistance will not be enough to solve the problems. So the three things come together. Bottom line, I believe that based on what we have seen, and that is why Munich was so crucial, and in a certain way, the suspension of talks perhaps helped as a reality check, now that we have seen what is happening, the resumption of the talks should be much more concrete.

Q. Pour moi c’est clair, la (inaudible) pour Daesh et Jabhat al-Nusra, mais pour les organisations, les groupes armés qui n’ont pas annoncé leur accord pour la cessation d’hostilités, alors ces groupes, comment va-t-on les traiter ? Et deuxième petite question : les groupes où il y a une violation de la cessation d’hostilités, quelle est la réaction, comment va-t-on les traiter par les deux forces russo-américaines et les Nations unies ? Pour les Geneva Talks, est-ce que les mêmes groups sont invités cette fois-ci et est-ce qu’on parle d’un groupe d’opposition ou bien de deux groupes d’opposition en face du gouvernement syrien ?

SdeM: Vous avez trois ou quatre questions-là. Voyons un petit peu. La première c’était comment ça pourrait se passer avec les groupes qui ont pas annoncé leur acceptation de la cessation d’hostilités. Essayons d’être opérationnels. C’est avant tout une question qui doit être résolue par les deux co-chairs. Mais mon analyse, sur la base de ce que j’ai compris de leurs intentions, est la suivante. Il y a des groupes qui sont considérés terroristes par le Conseil de sécurité. Daesh et Al-Nusra, puis deux ou trois petits groupes qui, franchement, n’ont pas vraiment beaucoup de redevance sur le terrain syrien. Mais vraiment très petits, je ne me souviens même pas des noms maintenant mais si on veut on peut les chercher, dans le Conseil de sécurité c’était adopté. Eux, ils sont exclus du cessez-le-feu. Eux, ils ont refusé le cessez-le-feu. Je l’appelle cessez-le-feu, mais nous on l’appelle « cessation of hostilities », donc il faut pas le traduire « ceasefire ». Les autres qui ont oublié, ou peut-être ils ont pas eu l’opportunité ou peut-être l’envie de vouloir montrer leur nom, mais qui ne sont pas dans les groupes terroristes, s’ils respectent le cessez-le-feu ils ne devraient pas avoir de problème, mais s’ils ne le respectent pas, le problème devient automatique. Ça, c’est le premier point, La seconde question s’il vous plaît.

Q : En cas de violation de la cessation d’hostilités, quelle est donc la riposte par les deux forces ?

SdeM : Comme je l’ai dit avant, il y a un mécanisme qui est prévu pour les violations temporaires et les violations continues, permanentes ou sérieusement continues. Dans les deux cas, la première réponse ne doit pas être militaire, on a prévu un système, mécanisme pour attirer l’attention du côté qui l’a violé à travers un système d’alerte des deux co-chairs, suivi par attirer l’attention et la gravité de la situation à ceux que l’on appelle les groupes de travail, les taskforce, et si ce n’est pas suffisant, on va aller même au ISSG. Et à la fin, il y a aussi la possibilité d’une riposte qui soit proportionnelle. Donc, il y a une gradation, et on considère la riposte militaire comme the last resort, au moins dans la théorie de ce que l’on a discuté.

La dernière question, je n’y réponds pas pour le moment, parce que nous n’avons pas encore préparé. Je viens d’annoncer ce soir quand il y aura les réunions, donc je pourrai être plus précis plus tard sur ça.

Q : I would really like to hear your comment, or your explanation, on whether this careful selection of term, using “cessation of hostilities” instead of a “cease-fire”, is adopting a more cautions wait-and-see attitude so that you cannot run into problems too fast. Is that the case? How would you paraphrase it? Secondly: what is your response to the High Negotiations Commission’s open letter about some notes that they passed to the friends of Syria and the UN Security Council President and you, on some conditions they have attached to respecting the cessation of hostilities. First of all, they are going to do it for two weeks, and secondly, they’ve again mentioned that the governing body must exclude President Assad. What is your comment to their request? And do you have a percentage of the area that might be under the cessation of hostilities? Thank you very much.

SdeM: The answer to that is that cessation of hostilities is what the word means. I know in English it may mean something, perhaps in your own language may be slightly different, but cessation of hostilities is what it means: cessation of the attacks, by using, and there is in the framework a list of the actual weapons that need to stop to be used, from aerial bombing, to mortar shelling to use of rockets, anti-tank missiles, and so on. A cessation of hostilities does not require therefore a peace treaty, doesn’t require long negotiation, which eventually takes place when you have a ceasefire, and there is even a ceremony for that. Here, it’s the declaration by midnight, which was the case of accepting - I stop, you stop, no movement of territory, there is no gaining of territory, on [either of] the two sides. It is simpler, it is faster, it is quite effective because in a way it is immediately visible. That is my answer to the first question, and the only one.

Q: Your Excellency, during the first round of negotiations here, you didn’t invite the Kurdish community. Kurds were not invited, and there were a lot of critics, because they are an integral part of the Syrian society, they control 16 per cent of the territory. This time, as we know from your report to the Security Council, you are planning to invite the same participants. Are you planning probably at some stage to invite representatives of the Kurdish community? Because it is difficult, I think, to organize fair negotiations without this big part of society. What are your plans?

SdeM: First of all, I fully understand your argument and you made them very clearly. Let em elaborate on my plans after the 7th of March. Thank you.

Q: L’ONU a beaucoup fait pour trouver une solution à la crise en Syrie. Mais nombre de gens ont quand même l’impression qu’on veut cueillir un fruit qui n’est pas assez mûr. Quel est votre commentaire ?

SdeM : Ecoutez, dire que le fruit n’est pas mûr après cinq ans de guerre et peut-être 400 000 morts, c’est ce qu’on a vu dans les derniers rapports faits par d’autres, un million de blessés, des millions de réfugiés et des millions de déplacés, je pense que le fruit était mûr il y a deux ans. Et heureusement, on a commencé maintenant à prendre sérieusement comment affronter ça. Donc, je sais que c’est jamais trop tôt, mais cette fois-ci, c’est vraiment trop tard, presque. Heureusement on a commencé. Merci.