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Transcript of Press Conference by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura

14 December 2017

SdeM: Thank you Alessandra.   Let me make some few comments and then of course I will be available and open for questions.
We have just completed the 8th round of the intra-Syrian talks.  I will give you some ideas and where we are, more or less.  You must understand that the deep assessment of this round needs to wait for me to discuss it with the Secretary-General in New York, where I am going this weekend, and then the Security Council, so you have to forgive me if I will be still be a little bit vague I would say what I think, but I will not give you too much of analysis because that will depend on the Secretary-General’s discussion with me, on the issue that we have seen and heard and on my discussion with the Security Council.  
So I remind you that this round has taken place after quite a lot of international activities and diplomacy, we said it the other day, I will just repeat it because it is good to remember.  It took place in Da Nang, in Riyadh, in Sochi, at very high level and there were also negotiations and discussions between us and others with the two delegations. 
So the goal we had - and we still have - was very clear, to bring about real negotiations, in other words that’s what I said in the Security Council, on the full implementation of resolution 2254, because regardless of what people say or different delegation analysis everybody agrees that the only resolution we have is 2254 - and that we talk about full implementation.  How to do it? In what form? How accelerated? Through what means? - is another issue. But 2254 [is what we have].  I said and we indicated in the agenda of the meeting a particular focus on the 12 principles, on constitutional processes and elections, while of course elaborating the thoughts on governance and counter-terrorism, which are basket 4 and basket 1.  And then never forgetting, pushing for confidence building measures such as detainees, again, which is a terrible issue which is not moving forward.
So, what is the assessment? Let’s be frank - as you know I am a very positive thinker, by now we know each other - we did not achieve, we did not achieve these negotiations.  In other words, negotiations, in reality, in the end, did not take place.  So why? Let me give you the position of the two sides, then I will make some comments myself.  
The Government: you must have heard Ambassador Jaafari gave his own interpretation or version on why he did attend these meetings, and when he attended, I will give you what I heard from him in the meeting.  The Government had been claiming that the opposition has put themselves a precondition due to the Riyadh II statement which took place in Riyadh - and insist, the Government, that such a Riyadh II statement should be withdrawn, otherwise they do not talk to them.  And also questioned whether the opposition delegation represented a sufficiently wide spectrum of views.  My explanation to try to convince the Government to engage with the opposition was: 1, we are in Geneva - not on the islands, we are not in Riyadh, we are in Geneva.  And I will judge what is said in Geneva.  Everyone can express their own opinion as long as it is not a precondition.  The Government then reacted by saying that there was a very strong statement upon arrival of the opposition delegation which in a way reflected some of the points of the Riyadh II declaration.  It is true and therefore I did express my disappointment with the opposition - and in all fairness, if you look, and you are the best judges, there were several other important, in my opinion, well calibrated statements where the opposition did not refer any more to that context which was particularly annoying to the Government.  
In spite of that, the Government insisted on not wanting to meet the other side, the opposition and insisted that they did not wanted even to discuss through us with the other side, in spite of the fact that we had one meeting almost parallel as you know because they felt that I should be imposing on the opposition to withdraw the statement which was done by someone else, not all of them, there were others in Riyadh II. That obviously was not a logical or possible type of approach because to me sounded again a precondition. 
Now on the other side the opposition which [was] unified, and I think that this is an important point that I draw the attention of the Government on - the Government used to say in the previous rounds we will not meet the opposition, because “who are they? They are divided, we do not know who they are” - well this time, and I think that in Riyadh the Saudi authorities did a good job there frankly and we were there, Ambassador Lavrentiev, from the Russian Federation was there, I was there, we were able to watch how difficult it was to make in a new type of political environment the so-called Moscow platform, the Cairo platform and the Riyadh platform come together. And indeed they showed up here and you can judge yourself - apart from that beginning, which was something I complained about, they have been able to have a common line, a common position and even in the meetings, a unified position, a mature one in my opinion.  
Now, they said that they are not putting any preconditions - and even when it was raised, that issue of Riyadh II, it was their opinion, but they called in fact for an open, tough negotiation with different goals but no preconditions.  And in fact the opposition said that the Government is putting a precondition.  In other words, we got into this game of conditions, preconditions, which is regrettable and all this requires a real political will - not this type of ping pong, particularly from the Government side, in saying unless someone withdraws that [then engagement will not happen]. Why I am saying that? - because for us, in the UN, a precondition is when you say: I will not talk to that group or that person unless he or she will do this or that. That is in English, or in any language, a precondition.  And that is what the Government actually did. 
Now, I did not see therefore the Government really looking to find a way to have a dialogue and negotiate in this round - I have to say, regrettably.  I did see the opposition trying to.
I really hope that diplomacy, not only ours, will help the government and the opposition to actually do what is expected and was expected.
I have been explaining it quite frankly to the Ambassadors of the P5, the permanent members of the Security Council who are here in Geneva, but I will obviously then elaborate further and ask their advice and the advice of the Security Council when I meet the whole Security Council next week.
So we did not have, in spite believe me of a lot of effort by my whole team, day and night, with all sorts of creative formulas, we did not have real negotiations. We did have, however, bilateral discussions, with both parties - we had 7 meetings with the Government and 11 meetings with the opposition.  The opposition in particular are engaged with us on all four baskets: governance, constitutional process, elections and countering terrorism.  They also gave me some concrete ideas on the so-called 12 essential principles.  The Government engaged with me only on terrorism.  We do understand the Government has been affected, like all of us, all over the world, by terrorist attacks and I certainly recognise that even very recently the Government had been affected in Damascus and elsewhere by terrorist attacks or attempts of terrorist attacks. But the truth is that there was not one single other subject that they addressed except that one, whereas we had invited them here to come and discuss 12 points, constitutional process and elections and then also the other baskets. 
Meanwhile on the humanitarian side, while we were having the meetings as you know, we had still this tragic situation in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in the country.  And nothing has been moving here or elsewhere on detainees so that is very much sad to say at the end of a year.  
I am planning to go to Astana at the end of the year at the request of the Secretary-General, at the invitation of the Kazakh authorities. One of the subjects that should be there and are on the agenda and I hope will be on the agenda - and we will be insisting that it is on the agenda - is the issue of detainees, because it is affecting thousands and thousands of Syrians and the so called missing people or the kidnaped ones, and so on.
I will probably not elaborate much more because as you know, I reserve that for next week when I will be talking to the Secretary-General and then the Security Council.  But some fundamental points and then I am almost through and then I will take your questions: there is clearly a desperate need for a real political process under UN in Geneva to implement 2254, everybody is feeling that.  Secondly that the intra-Syrian talks do need to produce some progress on constitutional and electoral matters, everybody had said so, everybody had felt so but in reality we were not able to move.  And when we say so that means that it should be implemented through a calm and neutral environment, with a credible, all inclusive, non-sectarian governance arrangements, and arrangements to counter-terrorism, all implemented under 2254, and that means all the four baskets.  That is still the party line. So I am probably going to reach the conclusion that as a mediator I may need to come up with some additional new ideas on how to actually have key parameters regarding moving forward, particularly on the issue of constitutional issues and on elections - but that will be after consulting the Secretary-General and the Security Council.  
We have been hearing also many other voices, so the two weeks have not been wasted.  Apart from the opposition with whom we engaged, and with the Government with whom we engaged sadly only on one subject, i.e. terrorism, or counter terrorism, we had the opportunity of hearing many Syrian voices, the civil society, the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, and even this time very much refugees - because sometimes we forget, but they are five million and they have a voice and they will be involved, both in the constitution and in the elections, both presidential and parliamentary.
So all that took place as if they were part, and as far as I am concerned, part of this period of consultations which did not end up in negotiations. I would conclude by saying, if you did ask me, a big missed opportunity.  A golden opportunity at the end of this year when in fact there is a clear indication by many sides, that the military operations are coming to a close, the Daesh territories reduced close to zero, but at the same time everybody knows, everybody agrees - believe me because I talk to them privately, and separately and publicly, as well - that without a clear political process we risk to not have learnt a lesson of Mosul, and we risk to not have what should be winning the peace, not only winning the war against Daesh.  So the bottom line is, I was hoping, and my team worked very hard, but due to what I described to you and I tried to be as objective as I can, is a missed opportunity, a golden opportunity missed. As you know our motto is - did you try?, you failed, they failed with us, you try harder and you fail better - but we are not going to give up on the Syrian people, especially in this moment, when in fact they are expecting once the conflict is over, there should be some political process and not precondition, or stonewalling.
Question: The other you said to us that you will see if there is some kind of sabotage from the parties, so after all what you have explained to us can you give us your impression if you think one or both parties tried to sabotage the round?
SdeM: When I said sabotage, the word sabotage, I was having in mind two things, the first was if any party would have actually left and not returned, or not come at all, that to me would have been sabotage.  Secondly if there was any other initiative here or elsewhere that would actually try to replace, which is impossible, the legitimacy of the UN Geneva, Security Council mandated process.  Neither of these two had been coming up, the delegation came, stayed, came late, left early, but came and stayed, so I can’t call this a sabotage, that’s why I call it a missed golden opportunity.
Question: Special Envoy lots of time we hear from countries like Russia, or USA that the Kurds are not a part of the negotiations.  You know, lots of us know that there are Kurds among the delegation of the government and also with the opposition.  One group of Kurds in Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces are not with the delegations, when you talk about the involvement of all the Syrians, is there any chance for them to be involved in the negotiations somehow? 
SdeM: You gave the answer yourself, I think there are Kurds both in one delegation and the other, at least that is what has been noticed by me, I think this is an issue that should be solved among the Kurds. 
Question: Do you think that the time for this round was not appropriate and you didn’t have the support you need from the countries related to the Syrian crisis to reach the target that you were planning for?
SdeM: You see this is a question that I ask myself all the time.  When is it really the best time for having a round? What I do know that this Geneva process and the rounds in Geneva are not only an opportunity of verifying whether this is the time or not, but also the feeling that the world had not given up on the hope that there must be and can be a political solution in Syria, so you could say there is never an ideal time and there is never a guarantee that a round will be successful, that’s why I have been avoiding very carefully, based on very good advice I got from both Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, a Geneva conference, because that means you make it or break it. In the case of rounds, we are keeping alive what we know is going to be a very complicated - we always knew - very complicated process.  Now timing now, well there was a need to do something in terms of verifying, don’t forget there had been a meeting in Da Nang where both President Putin and President Trump had made very important comments which are on record, there had been a meeting in Sochi between President Putin and President Assad, there had been discussions in various locations regarding international arrangements about trying to end this conflict with a political process.  So all that in my opinion should have been tested and verified. Obviously that is not yet the case, that is why I am bringing back the attention to the attention of those countries who are very keen in seeing a political solution the sooner the better.
Question: I have a two parts question, some people believe that you fear your mandate will not be renewed as Special Envoy for Syria in view of the continuing failure of the Geneva track so far and that is perhaps why you accelerated efforts to make any kind of progress at haste, is this haste the fault that you committed and led to the failure of this round? You say that resolution 2254 is at the crux of the matter and is the essential resolution, this resolution calls for the largest spectrum of the opposition and their involvement in Geneva, but you know that there are only three platforms, Cairo, Moscow and Riyadh represented in Geneva, isn’t this a violation on your part of the resolution?
SdeM: First of all, I heard that from Ambassador Jaafari - you are repeating very well his point.  I told him - Ambassador Jaafari, let’s try to be realistic, you told me that you could not meet the opposition because they are divided, and that Moscow is not there, and Cairo is not there in Riyadh, now you have them all three, (Mosh Kefaya) not enough, but we are talking to civil society, (Mosh Kefaya) not enough, we are talking to refugees (Mosh Kefaya) not enough, we are talking to women associations, (Moh Kefaya) not enough, obviously there is never going to be perfect.  The perfect way to consult the Syrians will be through UN-supervised elections. Meanwhile I can tell you that the groups we are talking to represent a lot of people, never perfect, never perfect, but let’s start talking with them.
Question: Simple question, is there any point in coming back?
SdM : Well, you see that’s exactly the type of question that every mediator should always ask himself all the time, and I will consult the Secretary-General and the Security Council, but what is the alternative, look at me, what is the alternative? When I refer to other initiatives, we know there are other ideas and some of them probably are going to be very good, or could be very good, we are not prejudging them, but the only alternative for a political process is the Geneva UN mandated one. Now will that require another recess of two months, one month, until everybody realizes that there is not a solution except that one, that there can be no reconstruction unless there is a political credible process, but that is something that we have gone through in the past.  So my short answer is yes, when? I’m planning in January -remember our motto we never give up, and when things don’t go well that doesn’t mean that we should be simply giving a chance to nothing to happen.  
The Syrian people, many times told me that, and I probably told you already - my antidote when I was on the plane, and there was a person behind me walking behind me in the plane, he was flying to Beirut, he was an elder gentleman, he told me, Mr. de Mistura I would like to thank you, and I said why, I didn’t get far yet, please it is not yet there - Yeah, but you and the UN process are inventing, producing, creating a constant momentum in the direction which we all want, if this stops the alternative is back to war, alternative is abandoning Syria, the alternative is what I said yesterday, and Ambassador Jaafari didn’t like it, but I will use his own map which he has been using on YouTube by the way, which is a map showing what Syria looks like today. [displays a map] There are areas of control by others or by influence, no one wants that, not even those who are there in these areas, everybody wants a unified sovereign country, so no fragmentation, the only alternative for that is a political process here in Geneva but with people willing to negotiate, negotiate means accepting the other side, as imperfect as it might be, as incomplete as it might be, and accept also to make concessions. The question was very short, he has a right to counter question. 
Question: What did you say you are planning for in January, I didn’t quite hear it?
SdM: What, well I will of course consult the Security Council and Secretary General - another round. 
Question: Mr. Special Envoy can you give us your assessment on credible news reports that the United States is now looking at a longer phase out of the President Assad in the Presidency up possibly until 2021, has that brought credibility or not in your views?
SdM: I am totally unable to comment on this frankly, you are asking me a comment on what is a perceived or a presumed position of the United States, what I can simply tell you that we are looking at a political transition, but that is also through a change in constitution, through elections and under UN supervision we are not going beyond that at this stage that’s what 2254 is saying. And I let me repeat it there are other initiatives like Astana, which I will be attending, and I understand although there are no dates yet indicated and no clear agenda yet, other ideas we look at every initiative taking place with open mind, but as long as it brings back to Geneva the whole process.
Question: Mr. de Mistura last week you told us, last Thursday about Eastern Ghouta in this room, did you have any chance to talk with Mr. Jaafari regarding the evacuation of the wounded and sick Syrians in Eastern Ghouta, and what did he tell you? 
SdM: I did raise it, and will continue to raise it as it has been done at the Humanitarian Task Force. I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. 
Question: Do you still remain optimistic? Going forward, what will be your priority? 
SdM: Well the gentlemen was simply saying am I still optimistic about the future, thank you for asking that question. Secondly, what would be the priority of my next focus. And the answer to the first one, being optimistic - I am by nature as you know - but one must not be overly optimistic so and I am being very pragmatic about the fact that I am disappointed, because my disappointment comes from the fact that when you see the military situation going in the direction of the end of the military activities, and you saw what happened and saw the announcements made in Raqqa, on the Iraqi border, and also by the Russian military. Then you have the feeling that we are getting close to finally doing what should be done, avoiding what happened in Libya, where there was a military operation and then the political process didn’t take place. So I was expecting sufficient energy from everyone, on the two delegations to ensure that we could have a beginning of a negotiation, we are trained to go on for months, hours, nights and days - I didn’t get that, so that means that perception is not yet there. So my plan is to insist on that, particularly on the three points that I got the mandate from the Security Council recently, 12 points, constitutional process, and UN supervised elections. That all in the context, as you know of 2254 otherwise cannot happen in a proper way.
Question: Mr. Special Envoy, you said Geneva is the only place reach an agreement on Syria, but don’t you think that constant failure here could create conditions for others to justify going to other places to try to reach a peace deal in Syria? One more quick point, how about the two rooms, the negotiating rooms the closed ones, Jaafari said he was misled yesterday, did you really mislead him about it?
SdM: I know he raised it with me too, well you know I think he didn’t hear me then, rather than being misled, I did tell him there will be a parallel meeting in the other room. Now, and he knows very well - because he’s familiar with rooms now - that they are not that far. But never mind, I will certainly not have a debate about that frankly, in fact remains that we had a beginning of an interesting experiment of we talking to them and talking to the others almost simultaneously, actually simultaneously.  I see his point he does not want to be associated even in a sort of geographical environment within six meters with someone he feels should not be meeting them. But that’s a sad conclusion because as we said there should be no preconditions - you may disagree, you have different opinions, but you don’t put preconditions, but never mind. Now, Geneva or elsewhere, you see it is not’s a matter of Geneva or other city, the issue is if we here, or anywhere else, able to have what is required by the international community which is a credible political solution within resolution 2254, and with the legitimacy given only by the UN, no one else can do it, and that happens to be in Geneva.
Question: I wanted to pick up a little bit on the other things, but I want to keep it brief, just about where do you go from here issue, with Sochi ahead and you mention that you need to have new ideas, why not just fold, fold the UN process into say the Sochi process and have the UN come in at the end, for example to monitor elections and do it sort of in the reverse order that it has been now. You mention that you had some, that we need to have some ideas, but presumably you saw how this is gone from the beginning, you came in with a good bit, certain amount of optimism I would say, and your seeming deflated somewhat now. I just want to know what are some of those ideas you are thinking about? 
SdM: On the last point, you always are very very astute in trying to get me to tell you what are the ideas - which I just told I will have to consult the Secretary General first with all due respect. Now regarding Sochi, first of all you should know that the Secretary-General has not expressed any opinion nor have I about Sochi - we don’t have enough information by the way yet and even about the date - but what I think we will be doing and we should be doing is that, every initiative - Sochi or even the future of Astana - should see in the context of whether they are supporting and reinforcing Geneva. Now, I been very concerned by what has been happening these days, because I said to myself, if the Government is not willing to meet anyone who seems to have any type of different opinion, and is not willing to discuss constitution and elections, and as they told me unless there is a change in this map - then I would be very concerned if I were those organising Sochi or any other initiative, and I would be trying to do what we expect and hope to happen, that there would be an effort to make sure that in Geneva that we have a signal that the Government and the opposition are ready to work. Otherwise you can change all the locations of this world and having thousands of people, but that’s not good enough. So we need a beginning of a political dialogue and then we will be able to see how this translates elsewhere and here. At the end of the day you are right there is no alternative but to have the legitimacy of the UN. I agree with you.
Question: After eight rounds, what do you expect to happen between now and January that would make it worthwhile for people to come back in just two or three weeks’ time, isn’t it about time perhaps that you set some precondition and what might those be for people to return?
SdeM: You are giving me some ideas, thank you.  Because when others put preconditions all the time why should I be the one constantly giving the good example of no preconditions!  But in reality I did have a precondition.  The real thing was and still is that I did have a precondition which is: no precondition on your sides as well - but you are right I think I read between the lines what we could do - and perhaps what we should do, and perhaps that I am thinking about having some clear parameters when you are thinking about what would be the subject of constitution or elections as per 2254, I think it is a very valid point because you need to frame a little bit, when people come and discuss - and when they come and discuss what we mean - so that they do  not go in all directions or put to each other preconditions.

Geneva, 14 December 2017