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Near Verbatim Transcript of Press Remarks by Geir O. Pedersen, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria

19 May 2020

Thank you so much, really a pleasure connecting with you again, of course, I had hoped it could be in person, sitting together with you in Geneva. Maybe in the not too distant future, we will be able to do that again. I am sure you are just as busy as we are covering COVID-19, among other headlines. Hopefully, there will be a time when we will not only have to focus on COVID-19 and all the consequences that has for our work.

You may have heard my briefing to the Council yesterday, but let me sort of try to, relatively briefly, sort of explain a little bit where I believe we are. And, of course, I will be repeating some of the messages that I gave yesterday in the Council.

I think one of my key messages yesterday is, it is a question: Are we seizing the opportunities that are there? As you know, since the emergence of COVID-19, I have called for a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable what I call an all-out-effort to counter COVID-19.

And of course, I have been in close touch with the Government of Syria and the opposition, and I have also called on all the relevant players and told them that we are prepared to work with them to make sure that a ceasefire could hold. This is, of course, a follow up to the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.

I have also, as you will have noticed, continued to work on the political track and in particular, of course, on the Constitutional Committee. I have been in constant touch with the government in Damascus and the opposition. And my Deputy Khawla Matar is in Damascus and is continuing working there on a daily basis.

Of course, it goes without saying, that I have been in regular contact with all the key international players as well. And if you listened to my briefing to the Security Council yesterday, you will have heard that I have also been in close contact on a regular basis with the Women’s Advisory Board and also with what we call our Civil Society Support Room. We have had quite a few meetings with them, and in particular during these difficult times it is extremely important to hear from Syrians all across the country how they see the situation. And I must say it has been really rewarding listening carefully to them.

And of course, we have been following very, very carefully the situation on the ground. As I said in my briefing to the Council yesterday, there is a relative calm in Idlib, the ceasefire that Turkey and Russia entered into at the beginning of March is still by and large holding. I have said that this is indeed good news, but I also warned that hostilities could resume and that would
have devastating consequences, of course, not only in Idlib but in many other parts of Syria as well. But of course, we are in particular worried about the situation in the IDP camps when it comes to the potential spread of COVID-19.

You will have noticed that in terms of COVID-19 itself so far the official case count in Syria is very low. It is 64 and there is of course a great relief that the numbers are not a lot worse when it comes to Syria. But at the same time, and this is also what I am hearing from Syrians when I am talking to them, there is, of course, a risk of a wider spread that is ever present. So there is no cause for complacency. And in connection with this we continue to call for sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, using all modalities including scaled-up crossline and cross-border access to deliver necessary and urgent assistance. And of course, this is absolutely essential.

In my appeal for a nationwide ceasefire, I also mentioned obviously the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons. And I continue to appeal for large-scale releases of abductees and detainees and more information about the missing persons. I said that this could be both unilateral and, of course, negotiated. But, I have stressed again and again that the time has now come for more meaningful actions on all of these issues. As I said, on detainees, abductees and indeed also on missing persons.

For those of you who follow Syria you will also have noticed that economic conditions are dramatically deteriorating. This, of course, is the result of a range of internal and external factors throughout nearly a decade of conflict. The last few weeks we have seen significant price increases and even shortages in basic food commodities. So it is what I would call a dramatic development.

But if I should summarise sort of briefly the common sentiment that I hear from Syrians it is a real concern that the current situation will not improve in the near future and that there is huge uncertainty about what the future holds. And there is, of course, also naturally I would say, disappointments that the political process has not delivered tangible improvements for Syrians.

You will have heard that we managed to get an agreement between the co-chairs when it comes to an agenda for the Small Body of the Constitutional Committee, and that the two co-chairs now are ready to meet in Geneva, as soon as the pandemic allows us to meet and international flights are resumed.

I also had a meeting with members of the civil society Small Body and have kept them, of course, also informed. As I have said all along, but I need to repeat it, the Constitutional Committee in itself will, of course, not solve the conflict. If it is done in a proper manner, it can build confidence and it can be a door opener to a broader, wider political effort.

As I told the Council yesterday, to solve the conflict in Syria we also need improved international cooperation. We need to build trust and confidence also amoung international partners and, of course, also among the Syrian parties. I have been arguing since I took office that we need to do this through reciprocal measures.

I have also said that obviously the United States and Russia have a key role to play in this and I’ve asked that they increase their dialogue and cooperation when it comes to Syria. They have done it before, and they can do it again. Of course, there are many other actors that also need to be on board if we are to be able to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. This we can get into later, if you want.

I have said that there have been too many episodes in the past decade where fleeting opportunities to turn the dynamics toward a political path were lost, and I emphasised that those missed moments were followed by renewed violence and hardening of positions both among regional and international actors. And that we must not repeat this pattern.

We have now some calm, we have the common threats of COVID-19 and Daesh, and with the Syrian people continuing to suffer, so therefore I continue to remind all key players that they have a common interest and a duty to build what I call a constructive Syria diplomacy, and that based on this we hopefully could move forward and start building blocks to end the conflict in Syria.

I will stop here for questions. Thank you so much.

Question: Thank you very much and good morning to all. It doesn’t appear to have been any conspicuous movement on political issues, and I am just wondering is there any point bringing co-chairs to Geneva without some action, some demonstration, some concrete move by both sides to indicate that there is really an opportunity to move forward before they come?

Mr. Pedersen: Good question, but I think you could sort of turn the argument on its head, and say, you know, that’s what I have been saying from the very beginning, that is, in every conflict there needs to be a moment that you maybe in hindsight could identify as a beginning of something new. That may be a small thing, it could be a big thing. The Constitutional Committee in Syria could be that, we may define as a small thing that could be the beginning of building trust and confidence between the parties and then it could produce some positive spin-off that will allow us to move on to what I call other avenues in Syria as well. It will obviously also help us if we could have a sort of a broader positive environment in Syria before the two co-chairs and their teams come to Geneva again, but I think that would be sort of to put forward wrong dynamics. So my hope is get the co-chairs, the 15 from the opposition, the 15 from the government, the 15 from the civil society and if they come together, let’s slowly, as I said, start to build confidence and trust, after nine years of conflict we all understand that this is not done overnight, but what I need from the parties is a proper commitment to be willing to do this and not to use excuses not to move forward. So, I hope that, at least, partially answered your question.

Question: Good morning Mr. Pedersen. I want to ask about the possibility to continue the political process in light of the changes, in light of the opposition, and the declining of this position especially the political opposition and my second question is about the transfer of fighters from Syria to Libya, does these continue, this operation continue and do you have some numbers about the fighters, and what is really the risk of those operations? Thank you.

Mr. Pedersen: Thank you so much. Let me start with when it comes to Syrians fighting in Libya. As you heard, I mentioned this as one of the examples that the Syrian conflict sort of reverberates all across and that this is indeed a danger with the conflict continuing. And that we now have Syrians, it seems, based on the reports we are receiving, fighting on both sides in the conflict in Libya as well. But I don’t have more information on that, but I think that this is indeed a deeply troubling development.

When it comes to the political process, as you are aware of my mandate in Security Council resolution 2254 is to work with the government in Damascus and to work with the opposition as it is defined there. Today, that is the SNC and the SNC has nominated their member, as co-chair to the Constitutional Committee and members to the Constitutional Committee, and nothing that has happened so far has had any impact on the work that we are doing within the Constitutional Committee. I mean that it is my hope that this will still continue to be the case.

Question: Good morning Mr. Pedersen. I am asking this question on behalf of Anadolu news agency. You mentioned that there are two stumbling blocks at the moment, one is the Constitutional Committee and the other one is talks that could take place say between Russia and the United States. Which hurdle do you see as having a greater priority for you? And which hurdle do you see as being more difficult?

Mr. Pedersen: As I said we need to work both, to be a bit more precise, we need to work internationally, of course, on getting more trust and confidence between the key players that will also need to happen regionally, but it also needs obviously to happen between the parties themselves. So, all of these things need to go together. The stars sort of need to align. So obviously, it is very important that the US and Russia continue to work together, as I said they have done it before, with success, without the US-Russia cooperation we would never have had Security Council resolution 2254. So, my appeal for them is to strengthen their cooperation and to move on and to support the process. Then between the government and the opposition there is also obviously a deep, deep mistrust and lack of confidence. My hope is that when we got the Constitutional Committee together again, we can slowly start to build that trust and confidence. None of it will be easy, because as I also said when I talked to Syrian people there is a huge disappointment at the political process that it has not delivered anything tangible, and it has been nine years into the conflict. So it (inaudible) civil society, on the Syrians themselves and, of course, also on the parties themselves. This we need to (inaudible) and we need this to start somewhere and the Constitutional Committee could be that arena, where that sort of confidence starts to build.

Question: We entered in a new era of teleconferences, and we could see in the past that sometimes physical settings could be also a problem in the talks. So, could we imagine maybe an online remote resumption of the Constitutional Committee proceedings? And secondly, there were a lot of concerns before the pandemic, by some states, of the trials that were planned in the Kurdish-controlled area of foreign fighters, directly by the Kurdish authorities, it seems that the pandemic also had an effect on postponing these procedures, what is your assessment on that?

Mr. Pedersen: We have been discussing with the two co-chairs the possibilities of doing a sort of online conference, that has not been possible to find an agreement on that, there are many questions being asked when it comes to security and other issues for how to handle it. So, as it looks today, I am afraid it will not be possible to do a virtual meeting of the Constitutional Committee. But what I have said, to all the different members of the Small Body and my message to the Constitutional Committee at large is that you all know what it takes to prepare properly for the next rounds of negotiations that should take place in Geneva, so hopefully, you know, the government, the opposition, the civil society members of the Constitutional Committee, they will all prepare themselves so that when we meet in Geneva we are ready to have substantial and deep discussions and not waste time, that’s my hope.

You made reference I assume to SDF and the presence of Daesh fighters under their control. This is obviously a file that we also follow with great concern, but I have sort of no particular information related to this. I heard the same news that you have heard. Thank you.

Question: With regards to the Constitutional Committee do the parties agree to come to Geneva when the condition will be better with Covid-19?

Mr. Pedersen: Yes, as soon as the pandemic situation allows, they have agreed to come to Geneva and as I said they have agreed on an agenda for the next meeting. And as you know we had sort of thorough discussions on this so I hope that when time allows and indeed in Geneva, that we can have a substantial and good discussion.

Thank you so much and thank you to all of you and hope to see you all soon in Geneva and to meet face-to-face on more regular basis.

Geneva, 19 May 2020