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Statement by Staffan De Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, at informal briefing to the General Assembly

21 June 2016
22 June 2016

Mr. President, Excellencies,

Thank you for the invitation to join Stephen O’Brien and Ivan Simonovic at this meeting. I will obviously defer to both Stephen and to Ivan on the subjects of their own competence and professional knowledge. And I will still refer to the linkages that exist between my own mission - on behalf of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretary-General – and those of the humanitarian and human rights. In other words everything seems to be connected. As I have said in the past, when we look at Syria it is as if we are looking at the moment at a table with three legs: one is the cessation of hostilities, the reduction of violence, the other is the humanitarian access to all Syrians wherever they are, and the third one is the political process or political transition, as we all now recognise it in order to maintain each one of the three legs moving and stable.

Since I last briefed you last November, in fact through your own initiative Mr. President, there have been quite a lot of changes and significant -frankly- developments. We need to recognize them because the moment when we only look at the glass half-full or half-empty, in this case we can see that there have been some developments which should give us hope and more energy to push forward because in Syria, a glass half-full is not enough.

Number one, we have had the establishment of an International Syrian Support Group (ISSG). Now, this is co-chaired by the US and the Russian Federation, (and) includes all regional actors and beyond, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. This, one year ago, was unthinkable. We didn’t have any contact group. So that’s a move in the right direction and certainly in support to what we are trying as a mission.

Second, we have had two Security Council resolutions endorsing a political roadmap and a timetable. We didn’t have any. We just had the Geneva communique and some generic Security Council resolutions. These two, in particular 2254, are very precise.

Three, we have had a four-month long cessation of hostilities, of which the first two months were almost 90 percent. They were co-sponsored by the ISSG and in particular by the two ISSG co-chairs, the Russian Federation and the US. And that saved many lives. We have been counting how many are dying or used to die every day, and how many, luckily, were spared during that period. We have had two ISSG Taskforces now functioning in Geneva, where the international community is in a position, if they want it, when they want it (they have been doing it quite often), to push forward on improved access and preserving the cessation of hostilities, or limiting when the cessation of hostilities was in major danger.

There has been greater international cooperation on the fight against Daesh. Just look at the latest developments when in fact from the North and from the South, there have in both cases some military moves towards Raqqa. It’s difficult, but it’s taking place.

There has been progress on building a more cohesive opposition. As you know, many of us have been complaining and worried about the fact that the opposition was excessively divided or certainly not on the same page. There has been the High Negotiating Commission, and there has also been an understanding by everyone that the instructions I got from Security Council resolution 2254 is for a broadly inclusive, I repeat, inclusive, and representative political process; and progress, even if timid, in trying to reach some kind of common understanding or commonalities. That’s what we have been doing during the last two rounds – depending on how many we want to count them but we count them as two- of intra-Syrian talks, which resumed in Geneva under the UN auspices in January.

This, in addition to the fact that, thanks to the ISSG push and tireless work of the UN teams on the ground, that have produced quite more access than we used to have to the besieged areas. Remember, one year ago, Mr. President, the number of besieged areas reached by the UN was zero. This year we are reaching, and you will hear it from Stephen O’Brian, more than around 300,000 people in besieged areas. The delivery of emergency aid is obviously for the Syrian people, the first sign that whatever talks or meetings we have in Geneva do have an impact on every day life, including the reduction of violence. All this to prove that when the international community is having a common line, we can delivery on all fronts: the political, the humanitarian and the reduction of violence does remain united. We can deliver on all fronts, including the political one.

Yet, despite what I’ve been telling you, we are now facing a difficult moment. The cessation of hostilities, which started very well and quite impressively, almost within hours, 72 hours, you could see a radical change in the level of violence, and which was particularly effective during the first two months, which led to a drastic reduction of casualties, has been now heavily challenged, especially in and around Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia and some of the areas surrounding in the neighbourhood of Damascus. But it has been holding in many other areas. We are not in a place where the cessation of hostilities has broken down, but it is in danger of becoming worse and therefore reaching that. So far, that’s not the case but we are concerned. Access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas has definitely improved, but of course this is not near the pace and the volume required to address the needs of all Syrians. Plus, there is one area where we are concerned and we have been saying it ourselves at the ISSG. There has been a trend in the last weeks that the very areas where there has been a breakthrough of delivering humanitarian aid to besieged areas have been then shelled before or after the convoys have reached or departed, and that has been a bad news.

In adopting resolution 2254, coupled with 2268, the Security Council has made it clear, abundantly clear, that only a negotiated political solution can bring an end to this conflict, not a military victory or a military defeat, which is clearly not possible, for anyone. Five years, almost six years, have proven that this is impossible and unreachable by anyone. The resolution further acknowledged the close link between a nationwide ceasefire and a parallel political process. Let me clarify and I know you all feel the same. There is a connection between the confidence-building measure of a cessation of hostilities, which then favours and helps the access of humanitarian aid and the feeling among those who come to Geneva to discuss a political process, that they can justify to their own people, to the Syrian people, that sitting in Geneva for a month, three weeks, and talking about a political process is immediately, at the same time, bringing some benefit for the Syrian people. Progress therefore on the cessation of hostilities, will drastically improve the conditions on the ground, leading to significant scaling up of humanitarian delivery. When there is less fighting, humanitarian delivery has more access. More access means more confidence. More confidence means also for the people who want to look at the political process, to believe in it. This important inter-linkage has been constantly very present in our minds. That is why it is important for the two ISSG taskforces to progress -- because they are conducive to making our intra-Syrian talks meaningful and credible.

Since the Ministerial-level ISSG meeting in Munich on 11 February, the UN and partners were able to reach, and you will hear it from Stephen so I won’t go into detail, 16 besieged locations, many more than once. I am acutely aware that the access we have today can easily end tomorrow and that we should avoid the syndrome of the “stop-and-go,” “stop-and-go,” or good news one day (one day before we have a meeting in Geneva), and then bad news between that meeting and the next. That’s why we believe that what is required and is fair to request, is safe, unhindered and unimpeded access as the Security Council resolution unanimously referred to. We are conscious however, and so are the Syrians when we talk to them, and as you know we do meet them regularly, that only progress on the political front will deliver a sustainable long-term solution and therefore ensure the immediate lifting of all sieges and everything else that is affecting Syrian people.

So let’s talk about the talks for a moment. The last round concluded on 27 April. During that period of two weeks, both the Government of Syria and the opposition spelled out their own respective visions for a political transition in greater detail. Now the good news, most encouragingly, at this stage, is that for the first time all sides, I repeat, all sides, accepted the need for a “political transition”. Yet, while common grounds exist particularly on what Syria would look like with some shared principles, disagreements do remain stark on the question over the devolution of any type of Presidential authority. While the opposition insists on the creation of a Transitional Governing Body with full executive powers, as indicated, as you know, in the Geneva Communique, the Government of Syria envisages the formation of a broad-based government of national unity. Whatever the name and whatever the shape, it is ultimately decided by the Syrians. It needs to reflect a commitment to a real political transition, and that’s where the challenge is with us as the UN and as governments in order to try to see whether we can find a formula by which we can respect both the Geneva Communique and the (SC) resolution 2254.

Drawing from those discussions, I have further identified a list of core issues to be addressed in greater detail in the next round, which as you know I have postponed until I have some form of reassurance that at least the two co-chairs have a common ground on which we can start working. You may argue, why do we need the two co-chairs? The answer is the two co-chairs were able to prepare the ground for the cessation of hostilities, which was then regionally accepted by everyone including Syria - by the government of Syria and by the opposition forces. So when they agree and the ISSG agrees, we have a critical mass on which the UN can produce the follow up and the sustainable solution. So I have been identifying a group of core issues to be identified in great detail at the next round when – I know the question will come up – well, I’ll consider that in July. Not yet, not now because it is premature with the current discussions and the current situation.

We have summarized all this in what we called the “Mediator’s Summary”, and in particular Annex I, which I’m sure you have access to -- the document that has been circulating amongst the Security Council members as well. These include defining the composition of the relevant transitional governance arrangements, how to reform the military and security apparatus, and how to practically establish a calm, neutral environment that assures the safety of all during the political transition. ISSG Ministers on 17 May encouraged the parties to re-engage constructively on this basis. My team has since embarked on a series of technical talks, which waiting for the official form of talks to take place, with the parties get deeper on these very issues ahead of the next formal round of talks. Meetings have already been held in Moscow and Cairo and planned for next week in Riyadh and also in Damascus.

Meanwhile, we have continued our sustained engagement with the Women’s Advisory Board and civil society organisations, which are important constituencies that have not been shy at all from open debate on very challenging topics including governance, and that’s exactly what we hope to hear.

Mr. President,

Having said that, political talks cannot proceed effectively while hostilities are escalating and civilians are starving. In April, we have seen a marked deterioration in the situation on the ground, both in terms of fighting and humanitarian access.

As you will surely hear from USG O’Brien, partly due to air-drops and after several really very bad weeks of humanitarian access in the country, we have recently seen substantial progress. The progress has been helped of course by effective diplomatic work by members of the task force, including systematic efforts – and we have to give them credit – both by the two co-chairs, Russian Federation and the United States, but also by the courageous and commendable work by our humanitarian colleagues on the ground and partners. And some increased, indeed, cooperation by the Government of Syria.

Unfortunately, and despite sustained efforts by the two co-chairs, I cannot say the same as regards to the cessation of hostilities. While the overall level of fighting continues to be below – I repeat below - the level prior to the ceasefire in January, there has been a worrying escalation of fighting in several areas.

Meanwhile, ISSG statements have progressively reinforced the linkages with the political process, and the need to advance on the agenda set out by resolution 2254. Yet, parallel discussions amongst key international and regional players have yet to yield an understanding on the speed and depth of the political transition.

The dilemma remains the same: how to ensure "meaningfulness and irreversibility of the political transition" and a widely acceptable process, without causing abrupt shock, trauma, catastrophe, in the system in Syria.

Humanitarian access will remain the most pressing, obvious and visible way by which the UN and the international community can and must make a difference on the ground. Syrians yet expect more of this from us. Syrians need to hear news of their missing persons, of those imprisoned and detained. They need to hear that bombardment and shelling have reduced or completely stopped. That’s what they are hoping and asking us every time we meet them.

And they expect that we break through the misplaced logic of a military solution. There is no reason to wait for new developments to take place. It has been abundantly proven that any type of military solution is out of the question. No one should think or dream that by gaining time, a military solution will make a difference.

Some argue that we should not be bound by artificial deadlines. For instance August, which has been a date indicated by the two co-chairs. August is an artificial deadline but it’s a serious deadline. It prepares for a new General Assembly debate, which will unavoidably touch on Syria and it is also the last General Assembly on which this Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be reporting on Syria. It will certainly be the opportunity for all of you – all of us – to prove to the world that the movement that has taken place can have a positive development. So the August timeline is very much present for us in view of the September timetable.

The window of opportunity is quickly coming to a close unless we keep alive the cessation of hostilities, we increase humanitarian aid and come to some kind of understanding about political transition. This way, hopefully in July we can have intra-Syrian talks, not about principles but about concrete steps towards political transition. This is what we aimed at and what we hope we will be able to reach.

Thank you very much for this opportunity.​