Transcript of Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Advisor, Jan Egeland, 22 December 2016
SdeM: Good afternoon everybody. We just ended a Humanitarian Taskforce but of course it did cover many subjects and we have been actually also looking in particular to the issue of Aleppo, that's why I will leave to Jan most of the comments on Aleppo.
Let me start by saying that obviously the meeting of the Taskforce, which includes all countries which have been and are involved and concerned about what has been happening in Syria, have been paying a special moment of sadness for this dark week in the world, which included the horrible killing, by a terrorist, of Ambassador Karlov, and the attack in Berlin. And also the difficulty and the sad moment in Turkey for having to see that what happened to one of the Ambassadors accredited to Turkey. So sympathy to all three countries was expressed at the HTF and by ourselves.
Now you will get a briefing on Aleppo so I will not go into much [details] but I will simply say that some general comments have been certainly a recognition to ICRC, which has as usual worked with great efficiency and dedication, SARC, the UN, we have a team there and we will elaborate more on that, and many NGOs, including some quite active Turkish NGOs who have been doing big, hard work and are still doing it on the evacuations.
We may be seeing today, that's what we have been hearing, but we need to verify facts as usually are crucially in these ups and downs of good news and bad news, whether today may be a crucial day for the evacuation of civilians and fighters.
I just wanted to make a point because you have been all involved, and you were part of it, and when I say you, I mean all of you. On the 6th of October, I did here in Geneva, on behalf of the UN, make a special press conference. And it was about Aleppo. And it was through you, members of the media, international media, that I made a special appeal to both Russia and to al-Nusra, in order to ensure that we will not reach the point where we would be having at Christmas, which is next week, a total destruction of one of the most ancient cities in the world, Aleppo. And that we would have been able to avoid at least the final part of what was going to look like a terrible massacre with the so-called “end of the battle of Aleppo”.
I wish the Security Council would have been more united and earlier united in order to be able to address that aspect, and I wish that some of my proposals would have been picked up in a way to become operational earlier. But we still have to say that in spite of all this, if we can look at something in terms of less tragic events, is what has been happening in the last few days, in terms of the Turkish-Russian facilitated arrangement, which has been then producing a movement of evacuations that we will be able to elaborate on.
In other words, I wish we had had in October a much more effective response. We would have avoided so much suffering day and night. But in a way, we will see how it ends. It has still, I want to believe, and through you because you were the ones who launched the appeal, had produced some momentum that has also avoided, I hope that by Christmas, the last part of the battle of Aleppo, could have been a tragic Vukovar, which I hope it is not going to be.
Now the next steps of course is to look at where do the people who have been evacuated go, and whether they in winter will be actually not suffering further. Because some of them went to west Aleppo, few. Many, many have gone to the rural part of Aleppo, which is in armed group controlled areas, in armed opposition areas, and therefore, again a question of how to make sure that the humanitarian aid from the UN can reach them. And many have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo. So we have to look forward. And what is the reply to that? Two: the first one is: make sure that the UN has not only access, and we will hear about that, but also the means, the capacity, the funding for the winter. We are in the winter, it is snowing in Aleppo, and [it is] very cold in the rural areas. So [we need] enough funds and capacity for the UN to reach these people while the priority remains: cessation of hostilities.
And that leads me now to the next point. As you probably have seen a few days ago, we had for the first time in a long period, a unanimous again Security Council resolution. I wish, as I told you, we could have had it when we made the appeal for Aleppo, but at least it took place. 2328 resolution, which has been the trigger for us to think now is the time, now is the time to relaunch the political process, in order to make sure that in fact there is a momentum based on this renewed unity of the Security Council. That's why, you know, and we announced it on the 8th of February, and in Geneva, here, we are planning to have the renewed relaunching of the political, intra-Syrian political process under UN auspices. The reason for doing it on the 8th of February, are many, and some of them are obviously linked to the fact that a) we will have a new Secretary-General, by then firmly in hand and therefore he will be able to launch his own initiative, b) there are some interesting and important initiatives that are been planned in January, including what we heard about the Astana meeting. We feel that all those initiatives are useful to us, in order to be able then to have a common approach, which is the only one under [resolution] 2254, the UN one. We will be therefore proceeding along those lines, believing that we can actually capitalize on any type of initiative that may take place between now and the 8th of February, 2017.
The bottom line remains now, humanitarian access, humanitarian aid to those who have been in need, not only in Aleppo but elsewhere as well, the cessation of hostilities - otherwise between now and when finally we will be getting the political process moving forward many others may be killed - and the momentum of the political process. That's the plan and that's where we are at the moment. Thank you.
Now the floor to Jan Egeland, and then we will take some questions.
JE: Thank you Staffan. A very large, dangerous, difficult, and complex evacuation is going to its final phase today, mainly from eastern Aleppo and from the two villages Foah and Kefraya. This morning, we reckon some 35,000 people will have left eastern Aleppo in over 200 buses, it was 750 cars and trucks that had left through the Ramouseh gate, where the UN is observing. It will be probably more than a thousand cars and trucks all together, these are cars that had flat tires and not fueled, that are full of people, it is very complex.
I would like to thank, really, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC, the UN teamin place going in shifts through the days and nights as well as all of the Red Cross and Red Crescent colleagues who were there to organize for the evacuation from east Aleppo.
I also like to thank the 32 Non-Governmental Organizations which have worked also with the UN in Idlib and in rural Aleppo where tens of thousands of people now from east Aleppo joined hundreds and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced already. It is a race against the clock and against the winter to provide shelter, warmth and relief to people who are sick, exhausted, malnourished from five years of war.
We need more presence in all of the areas that had war, and where there is still a lot of tension. And our presence means protection and that's the whole purpose of the Security Council resolution, monitoring will lead to protection. It is at the moment a limited but important UN contingent of 31 international and national staff dedicated to monitoring, in addition to the 100 people from the UN in Aleppo that are there for the very large assistance operation.
More people are on their way and we have requested full and unimpeded access to all areas in eastern Aleppo. We are accessing parts of eastern Aleppo; we also need to [access] the remaining parts including this area that has been the last enclave held by the armed opposition groups.
Now, to get this protection we need all of these permits that are so slow to get now from the Syrian Government, from the Governor’s office, from all of these institutions in Syria that are slow to give us the access we need. We would also have liked to be part of all of the negotiations that take place that have humanitarian implications, we would have wanted to be part of the agreement that we had influence on so that we can be there from the beginning; that also goes for the ICRC and the others.
But all in all, this was the largest operation that I know of that took place and I think it saved a lot of lives and I think it means that the end of the battle proved to be less cruel than it could have been.
Finally, there are 15 besieged areas beyond east Aleppo. And it hasn't gotten better in these areas because all eyes were on Aleppo. Only one convoy so far in December to Khan Elshih, a Palestinian village south-west of Damascus, 6,000 people got finally relief there, but all the other places have not yet gotten relief in December. November was also a very bad month.
We worked, at one point this year, to reduce the 7 steps, bureaucratic steps that we need to go through, down to 2 steps, to be able to reach areas, it is now back to 10 steps. So 2017 needs to be a year where bureaucrats and armed men and security forces stop preventing humanitarians from reaching the exhausted, hungry, worn-down civilians in this cruel war, we are ready to do our job, let us get access, let us have presence and thereby protection among civilians. Thank you.
Q: Mr. de Mistura, two questions if I may: The first is: given that Russia and Turkey seem to have taken over the political track to a large extent, how relevant is it that the United States remains as the co-chair of both the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian taskforce, as I understand. Why is the United States particularly with regards to the political transition in the United States, has there been discussion of letting Turkey serve in the place of the United States? And the second question is about, you mentioned today that the priority right now is the cessation of hostilities and stopping of the fighting, for many months you had said that the political transition in Syria was job number one, where is it now? Have you given up on that? Is that no longer an ambition of your mission?
SdeM: Let me start first of all in qualifying this aspect. The other day Sergey Lavrov called John Kerry in order to debrief him about the important, and in my opinion, useful meeting which took place in Moscow. Just to indicate the importance that Russia attaches to make sure that the US and this administration in particular, John Kerry, is au courant. Secondly, no one denies, and we have always been looking for the opportunity of seeing an engagement of those countries who have a direct impact on the conflict in Syria, to be actually talking to each other in a proactive way. So when you see Turkey, who has got 900 kilometers of border with Syria and has been affected so heavily by the conflict in Syria and is now even militarily present in it, the same applies to Russian Federation and Iran, talking to each other, and producing the interest among them to support a cessation of hostilities all over the country, apart from the arrangements that have been facilitated by Turkey and Russia in their own discussions regarding Aleppo, we can only be welcoming that, and I know that was the case of the US.
Just because I have seen in some remarks and comments some question about the role of the US, well let me state, and frankly this is the right time to say: no one, no one, and particularly in the US, should be denying the enormous impact, influence and support that whatever good has happened this year, came also very much from the determination of John Kerry, on behalf of President Obama. We would not have had the Vienna process, which was a decision pushed by John Kerry, and Sergey Lavrov, but in that order at that time, we would not have the International Syria Support Group, we would not have the two taskforces, we would not have had the February cessation of hostilities, which did work for three months and saved probably from six to eight thousand people. That doesn't mean that there are moments when in fact regional players who are heavily involved like Turkey, Russian Federation and Iran, talk to each other is a good thing.
Now regarding the UN mission in terms of aim, the aim remains a political process that becomes totally inclusive and is referring to [resolution] 2254. Now how to get there, based on realpolitik which is the one we are witnessing every day, that will be something that we will be adjusting along the lines. That's why we have been welcoming the Astana initiatives. We welcome any other initiative in that direction, so that we can wrap it up as we always hoped, with some type of totally inclusive international engagement.
SdeM: That's a decision by the US and Russia, who are the two co-Chairs. They are the ones who actually invented the ISSG, with our blessing, but it was them.
Q: Because you mentioned realpolitik, I am wondering about this February 8th thing. How sure are you that the parties you need to participate will actually turn up, some of them might feel they don't need to?
SdeM; Well, that's why 8th of February is an interesting date, it is not the 8th of January, it is not the first of January, it is the 8th of February. I think you and I and all of us should be reviewing what you just asked by the middle, 20th of January. And you see that probably there is more chances for a concrete, serious discussion on the 8th of February. I can’t go beyond that at this stage, forgive me.
Q: Mr. Egeland, you said 35,000 civilians evacuated from east Aleppo, but Turkish officials said yesterday that more than 40,000 civilians were evacuated as of yesterday. And another question to Mr. de Mistura, do you see yesterday a little girl from Aleppo said that she is very happy for evacuation from Aleppo but her dream is to return to her city Aleppo, do you think her dream will come true? Thank you
JE: On the figure, there have been many figures, but 35,000 was one that was ours this morning, and includes everyone that we have estimated could be leaving. It could end up closer to 40,000 but it remains to be seen. We also need to collate it with the numbers coming to Idlib and western Aleppo. Few chose to stay in government-controlled west Aleppo city, nearly all want to go to Idlib, or to rural Aleppo, that is opposition-held. A few go also for treatment in Turkey. And Turkish NGOs have been crucial to this operation, including the IHH which has done a great job.
SdeM: And to the young girl who was a symbol of resilience and of courage and also of humanity on behalf of everyone, I think the answer would be: “Yes”. We all have the duty to make sure that she goes back, and not when she is grown up, but as soon as possible to Aleppo. But to do so, we have to make sure that this winter goes by without many people suffering and that we can also take care not only of the humanitarian but also reconstruction aspect.
Q: Pour la réunion dont on parle beaucoup à Astana au Kazakhstan, comment vous voyez cette réunion, est-ce que c’est une étape préparatoire pour les «Geneva talks » et concernant les pourparlers à Genève le 8 février, est-ce que vous avez commencé à recevoir des échos des parties concernées, de réponses peut-être positives. Et être aussi pour la cessation des hostilités, est-ce que vous sentez que cette fois-ci on va vraiment arriver à ce cessez-le- feu ?
SdeM : Je commence par la dernière question en disant qu’il y a des pourparlers actifs. Hier d’ailleurs à Moscou il y a eu des discussions et même un « commitment» du côté iranien, russe et turc de vouloir discuter sérieusement pour que l’on puisse faciliter une « cessation hostilities ». C’est prématuré pour moi de dire «quand » et « où », mais je sais et nous soutenons ça et nous aidons ça, qu’il y ait cette « cessation hostilites », qu’Alep devienne aussi l’occasion pour sérieusement éviter qu’il y ait d’autres Alep. Ça c’est le premier point. Pour le second point, je pense que je voudrai vous répondre un peu plus tard, en janvier, sur « qui », « comment » et «pourquoi » sur la question du 8 février, car je pense que c’est tout à fait normal que toutes les différentes parties puissent examiner leur position avant de donner une réponse. Je sais que nous sommes déterminés à faire cette réunion au commencement de février. Et je pense qu’à ce moment-là, il y aura beaucoup plus de clarté et de savoir quelles sont les chances pour tout le monde et pouvoir y contribuer efficacement et y être.
Astana, je la considère comme une étape et une contribution et je pense, comme le Président Poutine l’a dit, c’est pas considéré comme de la compétition c’est de la complémentarité, c’est du soutien et de la préparation au rôle de l’ONU qui va être démontré encore une fois le 8 février.