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Transcript of Joint Press Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Adviser Jan Egeland

4 September 2018

Staffan de Mistura: Thank you very much and good to be together with Jan on this, the subject is Idlib. Idlib is our first priority and our second priority is Idlib again because we are very concerned.

So, I will make a few general comments and Jan will make his own, and I will open up for questions. I will be, obviously, doing more on the so-called political-military connection on what is happening in Idlib, because as you remember, this morning, and then I did last week, I referred to a perfect storm, but as I mentioned also to Tom when we were referring to it before, this perfect storm is not caused by wind or by rain but by political and military decision, so we cannot disconnect that. And that’s why a political formula between the stakeholders, and therefore military decisions, need to be looked at very carefully.

Now let me make a few points. The general matter, I will say something which I heard from Jan, which is very valid, let’s try to avoid that the last probably major battle of this Syrian territorial conflict ends in talks and not in a bloodbath and that is the message we have together, and we should have learnt and we should learn from the past, from eastern Ghouta, from Aleppo, from Raqqa, from Daraa, and we need to make sure that in this case this is learnt as a bad lesson, bearing in mind that we are talking about 2.9 million people, which is by far, bigger, and huge compared to what we have already seen.

So, point number one, we all continue to wish, to ask, to hope to avoid the battle for Idlib, that remains our firm point. We therefore ask for more time to be given for negotiations, especially between Russia and Turkey, who are the main indirect stakeholders, who are currently, while we are talking, had been talking until this morning, and who do hold, in my opinion, the key for a soft solution to the Idlib issue. Point number three, inside Idlib area there are 2.9 million people, I repeat it because it is an enormous figure, now out of them 1 million children, these are not terrorists, one million children, not even the 2.9 million people, because we have identified around 10,000 al-Nusra, while we are talking about 2,890,000 people still there. There are many other armed groups, and they are present, but not all of them, actually some of them, are even fighting or arguing with al-Nusra.

The Idlib residents, and I am sure you, Jan, have the opportunity of meeting many of them, I met many, even today, they are men, women, teachers, health workers, engineers, children, all who are actually just civilians, squeezed in the anguish of knowing what will happen. While we all know and we have said it that al-Nusra is a terrorist organisation listed by the UN, the others are not, and should not pay the price for the Idlib battle.

Next point, our priority therefore is the protection of civilians, and for this reason we have to avoid, or at least limit to the minimum, the military action and this is by far the most desirable action, no military action.

In this connection, I must say I have to express some quite serious concern about the fact that today there were six, I think, air strikes that took place on Idlib. Now we have been calling, since the Secretary-General started very actively, and you have been doing it too, and many others, and now ICRC as well we heard, all countries to maintain indeed increased moral pressure on the parties to avoid any drastic military option and to allow more time for discussions. This is why, and I probably reply to James on that, we welcome the statement of President Trump. We have been expressing grave concern for any reckless attack leading to civilian tragedies, that is exactly what we all want to avoid.

Now the guarantors of this de-escalation area have a special responsibility and they have a responsibility to find a sustainable formula, which is not impossible, that would spare the civilian population, hence we will look with great attention, and concern and hope, to the crucial summit in Tehran on Friday.

The UN, while we are saying we do not want a military battle for Idlib, in view of the numbers and of the situation, we have the duty to be prepared because 2.9 million people. In the worst-case scenario, the UN should be enabled to be ready to help and asked for protection for protected routes for voluntary evacuation, voluntary evacuation. One of them being the east, which I referred to but not the only one, there is also south and north, and the whole principle should be and can be that they, the people, should decide where to go, but in order to do so, we need UN access particularly on the east side where there will be more concern about where they go to. That’s why I have been repeating again my own availability and the one of my colleagues’ to be there to, in a way, be part of what could be a reassuring protection aspect.

Now, there is one element that I would like to say, perhaps at the end, which is the following: we heard President Trump today, going beyond just referring to chemical aspects but going on the actual humanitarian tragedy, and asking for that one not to take place. Well I would like to take this liberty frankly myself, to address myself, if you allow me to, through you, to President Putin, and to President Erdogan: you have been the ones at the beginning and I know because I was very much witnessing what happened at the end of the siege and the fighting of Aleppo, you were the ones who actually were able to talk to each other, make a telephone call, organize a formula that allowed the end of that horrible period, not to be the worst. A telephone call between the two of you would make a big difference, even before Teheran. The meeting so far between the Turkish side and the Russian side have not been conclusive and we have been hearing indications through the press that the government was putting a deadline around the 10th of September that’s why the sense of urgency, that’s why our appeal, if I may, to President Putin, and President Erdogan, to talk, and go beyond, perhaps, technical discussions and find a solution which can be a soft solution to this crisis. So, I will stop there and I will give the floor to you Jan, and then of course we will take questions.

Jan Egeland: We look to Russia, Turkey, Iran to come with hope to the civilians in Idlib. We look to the United States and to the Gulf countries who also have influence in the area, to do whatever they can so that men with guns and power, for once, put civilians first in this war. There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib. There are a million children.

Now Idlib is like no other place, because this was the place where people fled because it was safe, so hundreds of thousands have come to Idlib because it was presented as safe, Russia, Turkey and Iran said it was a de-escalation zone, those who negotiated an end to the besiegement of eastern Aleppo agreed to send buses to Idlib because it was safe. People left the ruins of eastern Ghouta to Idlib because it was safe. And importantly one negotiated, talked with some of the listed terrorists so that they could go on buses and go to Idlib as part of the agreements.

So, if it was possible to negotiate an end to the fighting in these places it is possible to end the fighting in Idlib by talks, certainly with all of the groups which are not listed but also with those organizations that are listed as terrorists.

Perhaps the greatest fear now as humanitarians is that we have a relentless buildup to war, buildup of forces, buildup of fortifications inside Idlib that will signal that the innocent, the civilians will die. And again, and again, women, children, civilians, the elderly the wounded the sick dying, at a much higher ratio than the armed men.

We are prepared now in our planning for war, but we pray there will be no war. We cannot have a war in Idlib because it is filled to the brim with the internally displaced, with civilians.

A war would also make it very difficult to maintain the life-line which is there every single month to 2 million people. 150 non-governmental humanitarian groups, and a dozen UN humanitarian agencies, supply relief to 2 million people. It is an operation that is close to collapsing because of the enormous problems in funding it, in doing it, in having safety for it. A war would put that totally in danger and then on top of that there could be 800,000 more people engulfed in war.

So, we appeal for sanity now at the end, hopefully, of this, the worst war of our generation, and sanity would mean not repeating eastern Aleppo, eastern Ghouta and Raqqa. It is not a way to liberate the people or to save a city by crushing it with the civilians inside.

May I mention one more place because it hasn’t gotten better in all of the other places in Syria just because the people of Idlib now fear for their lives. In Rukban, we haven’t been able to deliver relief since January. People there are desperate and they are in a desert. Everything should now be ready and we agreed with Russia and the United States today, everything should be ready for relief to go there, at long last next week. We will continue all of the operations at the same time as we fight for the civilians in Idlib that they will be spared from the war.

Questions: A couple of questions, you mentioned President Trump, first of all Mr. Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran, said today upon arriving in Damascus, that the terrorists need to be purged from Idlib. You mentioned your appeal for President Erdogan, you mentioned your appeal to President Putin, what about the Iranians, and how would you describe that comment from Mr. Zarif, is that helpful to talk about purging terrorists? Also, could you please address the question of exactly what the reaction has been to your evacuation plan that you had announced last week? Mr. Egeland: you mentioned intense diplomatic activity, are there contacts with Al-Qaeda, with al-Nusra people in Idlib right now, what is this diplomatic activity exactly and what are the options, how are people actually going to end up going back to areas in Syria that they fled?

SdeM: The first point you mentioned, Iran is an important partner in the so-called Astana de-escalation areas. But we all know that the negotiations which are taking place and have been taking place during the last few days, intensely, in Ankara, have been between Turkey and the Russian Federation. Now, the same happened at the end of the period of Aleppo, that’s why I have been focusing my appeal in particular to President Putin, who I know when he talks to President Erdogan or when President Erdogan talks to President Putin there is often been in the past occasions for finding a reasonable, logical, non-dramatic solution. At the moment, the discussions have not been conclusive but that was not done at the level of President Putin and President Erdogan. That’s why I am urging them, and taking the liberty to do so, to actually raise it at their level. Tehran meeting summit is on Friday, if it is true, that the rumour that we are hearing, that there was a plan to actually start moving and increasing the escalation militarily on the 10th, the time is of essence.

JE: I do hear a lot of countries not only Iran, Russia, also Western countries saying again and again we have to vanquish the terrorists, we have to kill them, we have to destroy them, we have to eliminate them, we have to do away with every one of them. What is often forgotten is that there are many many more civilians in the same areas. So, the war on terror is not enough focusing on the victims of terror; again Raqqa, eastern Aleppo, and eastern Ghouta are examples of that. Who are talking with the listed groups, of course local humanitarians have to deal with them, that’s how we are able to provide relief in all of Idlib, but it’s not the humanitarians who will negotiate an end to the bloodshed, laying down of arms, an end to the fighting—it’s the parties. So, our urging is, those who have influence on the armed opposition groups, this is the time to influence them so that they start to think of the civilians. The armed opposition groups have become increasingly, many of them not all, many of them more reckless, more ruthless. I hear reports of some places where they have put up gallows in the town square, to warn any civilian for cooperating with the other side. Armed opposition groups have destroyed bridges which means that civilians have no freedom of movement anymore—they are trapped. This is the time to talk with the groups listed or not listed ask that they put civilians first, and those who attack, this is the time to negotiate, even with such groups, an end and there are many ways of reaching them.

SdM: We are in the process of, this is an ongoing process talking to all sides.

Question : M. de Mistura, vous voulez éviter une bataille à Idlib, ça c’est clair - vous parlez de deux millions, pratiquement trois millions, de civils – et en même temps la semaine passée vous avez parlé de 10 000 combattants qui sont terroristes et il faut les combattre. Nous sommes vraiment dans une situation très compliquée. Quelle est l’issue à votre avis – quelle est l’issue pour les Nations Unies, pour M. Staffan de Mistura – de cette crise ? D’un côté il faut combattre le terrorisme et, de l’autre côté, il faut éviter une bataille. Merci.

SdM: This is exactly where at the highest possible level, politicians, presidents, diplomats need to put their own minds together. There are ways, we have seen it in the past, which when you have a small number of terrorists comparing to the population you can find a way by which you can identify, separate, and at the same time put, as Jan was saying, a pressure on those who might be able to talk to the terrorists that the civilian population should not be used as an hostage, and to the other side not to level down a whole city simply because they are among a million people, ten thousand. It’s not an easy one, it’s not an easy one, squaring that circle, but that’s why we are appealing now at the highest level. There are formulas and I don’t want to elaborate on that at this stage, but there are ways.

Question: I was wondering you mentioned your availability to go and also to try to ensure these humanitarian corridors if there are any, I was wondering what kind of response you have received to that, and what is the likelihood that this will be set-up; and also you mentioned last week that both the government and Al-Nusra have the capacity to create chlorine chemical weapons, what is the likelihood that they will use these do you think?

SdeM: Regarding, I wouldn’t call it anymore humanitarian corridors, because this is a quick word which has many other connotations (bringing food and medicines) we are talking about protected voluntary evacuation routes–where people who feel in danger should have the capacity to go in whatever direction they feel they can go, not in only one area. But that is where our offer comes and it is a firm offer and I will repeat is: they need protection, they need reassurance and what is the best way, at least to start with from the UN is to be with them, to actually witness, see how they are being received, and with your own presence, in a way provide what we call access. Now, we are, and I am not going to elaborate again on this because this enters operational arrangements, the offer is there, our preparedness is there in all directions because they could move and we were talking about numbers today about possible numbers, they could move in a certain place in the North, in the East and in the South. In all of those places there is a need for the UN to have access, in one place perhaps more than elsewhere where the government is because some of the people are very concerned, that’s where the UN should have even more access, but I won’t go more into details on that.

Now on the chemical side, let me read some few points on this - yes I have been saying it and I confirm my thinking that the government on one hand and al-Nusra (which is an organisation declared terrorist by the Security Council) are having the capability to produce weaponized chlorine - I’m not talking sarin here, we are talking about chlorine. Chlorine has this unique horrible capacity of being on the grey zone [of dual use], while at the same time having proven to be extremely effective when it actually reaches (due to its weight) below to so called places where people hind because it is heavier than air and producing terrible effects. Now, chlorine is not difficult to find, you know that very well, it is used in many other occasions for other purposes. So why did I mention that al-Nusra has that capability, well because you may remember in 2016 there was a report by the Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and OPCW, which noted that the al-Nusra had taken chlorine production plants and had the capacity of transporting chlorine across the country. Now the government has clearly the same capacity, but one has to add they also the only ones who’ve got helicopters. So, we are simply concerned in both cases.

Now the bottom line perhaps is a simple one, is simply saying the total unacceptability of the use of any chemical weapons, including weaponised chlorine and the chemical weapons must simply not be used. Let’s turn the page for a moment, however, that’s why it’s important to have appeals which relate to all sorts of all types of war, heavy bombing by planes or by artillery can level a city and kill more people than chlorine, so when we make an appeal regarding the fact that civilians should not pay the price of it, it’s not that simply - OK don’t use chemical weapons anyone, and then heavy bombing, destruction of a city, No.

Question: Don’t you think that the start of the airstrikes today is a bad sign, giving an impression that a decision is already taken to start the battle and maybe Friday as a deadline will be too late?

SdeM: First I answer with my heart and then I will answer with my brain. With my heart, I really, really hope this is not the case, because it would be terrible while we are still all, everyone recognising that this would be a horrible scenario, not manageable even by the best preparation and how can we talk about refugees returning when others are coming, how can we talk about reconstruction when this whole area may be destroyed, I mean we are talking about things that appear totally illogical. So my brain, my mind says this is simply a sign that the discussions between Turkey and Russia did not go that well, and there are diplomacy sometimes as you know sadly is also continued by other instruments and negotiations and that in fact this is simply a signal, but the real discussion, the real solution can be done, if President Putin and President Erdoğan talk by looking each other in the eyes and deciding that this can be solved differently; and Tehran meeting, in this case, could be the moment when this is announced we hope, the alternative is something that we don’t want to think about.

Question: Do you think it is possible to think about an evacuation corridor through Turkey as a proposal for Russia?

SdeM: I’m not going to go into details of what are the best proposals between the two major key holders of the solution, soft solution of the current Idlib potential tragedy. But when we say that people in the case we had a military escalation, the people will start moving they don’t want to be under bombing and shelling, and they will probably choose to go wherever they feel they are better, where is easier to go or where it is closer to their own location. So, even moving to west Turkey is an option, but not only there and will Turkey accept them moving inside Turkey or in what could be considered an area of no conflict is another option, but there are many options that can be taken. The best option, believe me, is not reaching that point, because as someone rightly remarked the other day, you can’t imagine 3 million people moving obviously, they are not going to move, we are talking about maximum 700,000—800,000 people because the rest will not be able to, and even for that the preparations are massive on our side and need access.

Question: You said the next hours would be critical in the regard to get a…

SdM: Next days I did say, let’s try to dramatise as much before the 10th and before Tehran yes.

Question: Do you think and would you recommend the Secretary-General travel to Tehran and try to force that discussion, eyes on eyes between President Putin and President Erdoğan?

SdM: I can’t reply for the Secretary-General frankly. I know he is extremely concerned and he is actually supporting very much what I am trying to say, and also feeling that probably President Erdoğan and President Putin are very authoritative personalities who can, if they want, handle this type of discussion between them, but I can’t speak for him. What I can tell you is that he is constantly asking and suggesting, what I am doing actually is based on his own guidance because his concern is enormous.

Question: You have replied to both questions in part, if I may just ask them again just to put it on point. The situation today you talked about the airstrike, how is it today in Idlib and what kind of diplomatic solution do you see?

SdM: OK on the first one, and Jan you can jump in on that, we have been in touch with people, civilians, normal people, civil society—you can imagine normal people in Idlib, panic, panic is the word. Is this the beginning as you rightly were saying, is this a possible beginning of what anyway is the major battle of Idlib or is it just a signal in a certain direction but will not be incrementally catastrophic, so that’s the feeling, because people don’t know and they have not been told by the fighters where the situation is and they don’t know where we are. Regarding the political formula, this is where we have ideas, we have suggestions and we are ready to make even more, and I know, and I know in particular President Putin and President Erdoğan are capable of coming up with very creative formulas. There is a need for a will.

JE: Perhaps I will just add one thing, a humanitarian response plan has been launched for Idlib it calls for 310 million US dollars, that is money that we do not have today, so it was heartening to hear that so many members of the humanitarian task force say we will come with additional pledges which is needed. At the moment, the operation for the existing people in great need in Idlib is rarely funded, there is no money for an additional operation, we need that funding, we need full freedom of movement for the civilians, if it becomes a war zone again and we need full access for all humanitarians cross border from Turkey, but also cross-line from within Syria.

Question: I wanted to ask you about President Trump again, a couple of questions, beyond sending vague and threatening tweets I wonder whether you see him having any ideas or contributions that he can make, perhaps he can give you 310 million dollars, but is there anything the Americans can do at this stage, and also I want to clarify something, about these 10,000 so-called terrorists, does not account for all the fighters in Idlib or are there others who are not what you call “terrorists” and if there is a solution, where would those people go to? What is going to happen to them?

SdeM: Well, you are now entering again what could be part of the discussion I am suggesting at the highest level, OK, how to square a very difficult circle, how to actually solve the issue, I am not talking about killing, I am talking about solving the issue of having 10,000 terrorists and at the same time having 2.9 million people who happen to be in between them and what could be an attack on them. Now so I will hold any type of suggestions regarding how to solve it for our internal diplomacy.

Regarding the other point, well, first of all I welcome the tweet that came from President Trump because he was referring to reckless attacks and the grave humanitarian mistake which could produce a potential humanitarian tragedy, the world humanitarian comes twice, for me reckless means an all-out war when 2.9 million people are there. So, in that sense he was sending the right message. Now how they could also contribute, I think you are right. One way is to help us to be sure that if things go wrong, and they can go wrong, we would at least be able to support and avoid the human tragedy of those who will survive a conflict.

On the numbers of al-Nusra, which, I repeat, is an organisation listed by the UN, perhaps some of them are just Syrians who have decided to join it, well they have a chance to disconnect, if they want, but al-Nusra contingent, you hear many figures, but I think the most reliable one is around 10,000. Now there are many groups, in fact you can list them, we have them, of fighter, who even have been fighting al-Nusra in Idlib, in fact this has been one of the problems you have been mentioning, who are either likely to find a moderate solution or some other formula, and therefore the 10,000 is the number we are looking at, the others can be in a way, moving into a concept of reconciliation or re-adaptation or moving elsewhere, they are not considered terrorists, and therefore they are not to be considered as such.

Thank you.

Geneva 4 September 2018