13 December 2016
13 December 2016, New York
SdeM. Good afternoon, you had the opportunity of talking to the ambassador of the Russian Federation and I would like to give you a very short summary because this time it was the Secretary-General himself who spoke to the Security Council. I will make some additional or complementary points.
The first one is the situation in eastern Aleppo is indeed very concerning, we don’t need to underestimate that the area which is still under the control of the armed groups is estimated probably to very few kilometres, four or five kilometres maximum but even less than that. The number of civilians is a major reason of concern for us and the figures are floating because none of us is inside but there has been an estimation of up to 50,000 civilians and they are the ones we are particularly concerned about. As for the number of fighters, well there is an estimation that there are still 1,500 fighters of which probably 30 percent of them is Nusra. All these are figures that you have to take very cautiously because we are not inside the area. You heard the SG Ban Ki-moon who has been underlying the importance of everyone, particularity the government, since they are the ones who are gaining terrain and advancing to ensure the respect of humanitarian laws and the respect of civilians. There have been as you know reports about people found dead in the streets and on the squares. We do not have evidence, we have to admit that, of who was the one who did it? [i.e. we do not know who caused the deaths of these people.] But the fact is that there have been bodies in the streets and in the squares including civilians like women and children.
What has the UN done? First of all, we are ready, we have beefed up our people and our team and we have beefed up our capacity for responding. But I have to say one thing: we don’t have access to the actual locations, we have been asking for that and we have not received it. We would like to be present when the evacuation of the civilians takes place and we would like to be present when the Armed Opposition is withdrawing. In that context there are two groups and two different operations which have been planned. We were informed at the Security Council by the Russian ambassador that indeed they have reached an agreement – and I’m quoting the Russian ambassador as we need to verify that on the ground- with the armed opposition, and that it is imminent if not already taking place, some beginning the withdrawal of the armed opposition. It is not clear to me yet whether they will be allowed to withdraw with their light weapons – which was one of the issues that have been discussed- or without their weapons. We also understand that they are being helped to withdraw towards Idlib not to other locations. But we are still insisting that also civilians who may want to go with them or go elsewhere, people like volunteers, should have been allowed to do so, apart from the massive civilian movement that is expected to take place.
Bottom line from us is that we need access. When there are rumours or announcements that things have gone badly, if we were there, we would have been able to witness, like the ICRC, what has been happening or not, plus to reassure the people, when this is happening, that we are there with them. So far, that has not been the case.
Next point, there was a clear reference to something else that has happened recently: Palmyra. And there was a major concern expressed by everyone, that in fact the takeover of Palmyra while we are all focusing on Aleppo, and by ISIS on top of it, has been a major blow and needs to be taken into account in what is the fight against terrorism.
Last point, the bottom line is that we have gone into a very low point, we were all hoping that Aleppo will not end up in ruins and I want to show you a picture that you have not seen [he holds a picture]: this is Aleppo today or perhaps a few days ago. This is a satellite picture taken by the UNITAR. All you see in red is totally destroyed, and what you see in yellow is substantially destroyed and the rest, not yet. You can see the level of destruction, you can understand why we are insisting and asking that the so-called “Battle for Aleppo” ends as quickly as possible and hopefully the last moments of it will be without the suffering we are seeing so far, which means evacuation of the civilians, welcome by the UN as well, voluntary withdrawal of the fighting groups- which seems to be taking place, and then humanitarian aid. If that takes place we would have avoided what I have been saying could have been happening by Christmas: the total destruction, the whole map becoming red and that would be something that we would never forgive ourselves for.
Q. Ambassador Churking said that people are being allowed, the fighters are being allowed to leave, many of them going towards Idlib. Are you concerned now that Idlib will be the next target of the military offense of the Syrian Government?
SdeM. Yes, I am. It looks like a possibility in view of the substantial number of people, even from other locations, which have been going there, but at this moment our focus is on Aleppo because this is where there still is a large population enduring such a tragedy.
Q. Are you working on strategy to prevent Idlib from becoming the next Aleppo?
SdeM. We are, we are working on that.
Q. On Aleppo, is this the end for any hope for a peace process in Syria? Do you think that there is a chance in the upcoming couple of months we will have any talks after Aleppo?
SdeM. This is not the end of any peace process, perhaps it should actually be the opposite. Every conflict sadly has a military acceleration but this in particular we all know cannot be ending with the “Battle for Aleppo.” We can continue for many years in a form of low-intensity guerrillas and so on. So this is actually the best moment to insist that a peace process needs to be restarted but to do so we need everyone to want to talk about a political process starting with the government and everyone else.
Secondly, we are intending to do all necessary preparatory meetings in order to make sure that when the people decide to come, they will want not to talk about procedures or agendas, but rather about 2254, in other words the political process. So we should be looking at this as a tragic opportunity for accelerating the political process.
Q. Could you please clarify whether the civilians should be evacuated? You said they should be allowed to leave.
SdeM. The Civilians should be allowed and I want to believe that this has been happening already. You must have seen the figures that have come up and the pictures, more than 40,000 people have been moving so far and they have been moving just whenever they could. I imagine that those who are still left in what is left of eastern Aleppo will be doing the same. This is a figure of maximum 50,000. Most of them will be going to west Aleppo. I know you are from the Turkish television, there has been a major concern in the past to have 200,000 refugees moving towards the Turkish border, so far that has not been the case.
Q. In Palymra, what is the status of civilians? And also, is there any update on your desire to meet with the team of the incoming US president. Have you met with them or will you do so this week?
SdeM. Regarding Palmyra, the issue is very confused at the moment because as you know ISIL, or Daesh, has been actually taking over the city by surprise, with a substantial number of fighters. The population to a large degree, according to the government, has been evacuated just in time, they were not that many so it probably did take place. But there is a concern for those who have not been able to be evacuated which is about 20 percent of the population at the time. What we hear is the intension of fighting back and retaking Palmyra. But what is shocking and surprising and worrisome is that they were actually able to do so, having lost the control of Palmyra. Regarding meetings with the President-elect team, our line is not to comment on it, because it is an informal environment given that the President-elect is not yet in charge and his whole team is not totally there. Whatever meetings with may be taking place and have taken place I will make no comments on that.
Q. The Russian ambassador said there was no proof that Syrian aircraft had bombed eastern Aleppo. Do you have such proof?
SdeM. Well, I didn’t hear that but I can only refer to what he said in the Council was that there is no evidence that those bodies which were found dead inside eastern Aleppo were actually killed by Syrian forces or by militias close to the government. They could have been killed also by the other side, that’s what he said. But he was not referring to areal bombing because those bodies that have been reportedly found were actually executed, so they were killed by someone with a handgun.