Note to Correspondents: Transcript of press conference by Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy for Syria, 22 February 2017

Thank you for all of you to be here, I’m convinced it will be worthwhile. We are going to give a serious try. This round is taking place again at the time when we want to give a chance to the Syrian people, to the Syria parties to try to have some type of dialogue leading more beyond than just a conflict.

Let me give you some few points and then of course we will take some questions. I have got with me some colleagues also, I’ve got here for instance our Representative in Damascus. She is my representative in a very difficult office which is the one managing our relations and our work inside Syria, Stephanie Koury. Then I’ve got my colleagues also related to women issues and to the issues of humanitarian access, so in case you have any questions, plus of course my Deputy [Mr Ramzy] who has been supporting me on all what I am trying to do.

Let me go now on few points, first of all the cease-fire, let’s talk about that for a moment, why? Because I’m just coming out from a Task Force on the Ceasefire and it’s not by a coincidence frankly we had it today, why? It’s not a precondition, let’s be frank, let us be very honest among ourselves. The fact that in Astana and before between Turkey and Russia in December, there was an agreement to actually include in their agreement a substantial attempt to bring a cease-fire on board in Syria, has been helping, and I hope is going to continue helping a political process. Even if frankly there is still some difficulties. It is still fragile, but it is holding by large. And we would not have been able to have these talks if there was a breakdown of the cease-fire.

There are spoilers, we know it, we’ve seen it all the time during the last talks and perhaps they are maybe even attempting or maybe tempted to do something before or just during the talks in order to provoke one side and the other to walk out or to not accept talking. But we will try to control it, and you must know, and I understand this is standard procedure in every event like this that the political momentum that helped the cease-fire to have raison d’être and the raison d’être also from the cease-fire to the political momentum.

Today, the Russian Federation at the Ceasefire Task Force did announce to everyone and every country present and to myself that they have formally requested the Government of Syria to silence their own skies in the areas touched by cease-fire during the intra-Syrian negotiations. We have been requesting those who have an influence on the opposition to try themselves also to do the same. They don’t have airplanes but they can do something similar in terms of reducing any type of provocation on any side to give a better chance to the intra-Syrian negotiations to not be affected by breakdowns produced that spoil the actual talks.

Intra-Syrian negotiations, what we are planning to have tomorrow? The Syrian parties have been arriving, are arriving, and are expected to be all here by tomorrow. Tonight most of them, tomorrow perhaps one more, depending on visas and travel. What and who are they? The guiding principle is the resolution 2254, if you read it carefully, operative paragraph number two, I won’t repeat it, is the guiding principle along which I have been inviting the Syrian parties to these talks. I was there when the resolution was discussed, negotiated and then adopted, so there were a very delicate touching in order to be able to give guidance, which I am going to follow, and I did follow.

Now, regarding the subjects, the agenda, again 2254. If you look on the operative paragraph number four, it speaks very clearly; one the establishment of a credible, I’m quoting 2254, I’m not making my own working here, the establishment of a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance; two, schedule for the process of drafting a new constitution, new constitution; and three, free and fair election pursuant to the new constitution administered under the UN supervision to the highest international standards. Well, these are the three areas, we can call them baskets if you want, in which we intend to lead the discussions among the Syrian sides.

On the constitutional side, there has been often, referred to recently, let me be clear, I think because that was a request I have got from many Syrians. The drafting of a constitution the sole prerogative of the Syrian people, not us, not anybody else. It should be understood that we can all contribute with thoughts, ideas, suggestions, but it is up to the Syrian people. No other country in the world has actually had someone else writing a constitution and that one lasting for long or succeeding, and we have past examples.

The UN is there to help them, the Syrian people, with devising the best procedure and by providing necessary expertise in this regard and it is our hope that it would be possible to agree on the process to devise a new constitution, clearly such a process should be as inclusive as possible and include the various components of the Syrian society, so just to address the issue, and I know it’s been coming up regularly, it is up to the Syrian people, we can help them, support them, we have expertise, we have knowledge, about elections and governance frankly.

Now that they are in town, I will be meeting with the participants in the negotiations to discuss how to proceed, so I hope you will not expect me, please at this stage, and not ask questions which I will not be able to reply to how we are going to actually devise all this, because the first ones I should be discussing this is exactly the Syrian counterparts who are coming. After that, with great pleasure, we will be able to elaborate more.

Tomorrow morning we will be having bilateral meetings with those who are here, I did today, this afternoon, this evening or tomorrow morning. And in the afternoon, I plan to have the first opportunity to give and express my welcome to them and hopefully also in the presence of the international support group [ISSG representatives], in order to show that the international community is interested, supportive, united as much as we can hope, in order to tell to the Syrian sides, it’s time to talk and fight on the table, but not in the field.

Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I’m not expecting a breakthrough, but I’m expecting and determined to keep a very proactive momentum. And I think we can aim at that. So I’m not expecting any media breakthrough from this round of negotiations, but a beginning of a series of rounds that should enable to go much more in depth on the substantive issues that are required for a political solution in Syria.

We will be very reluctant to engage on the preconditions, and in fact I will be refusing them. Preconditions about, we need to do this or that, before actually addressing any type of subjects, the subjects are clear- 2254.

Inclusivity, we have a mandate to be as inclusive as possible. I have been trying by following carefully 2254, to do exactly that. But there is a category of people, important people to us, to the UN, who have not been so far included sufficiently, those who represent fifty one, if not fifty two percent of the Syrian people, the women, Syrian women. I have been asking the delegations to include a substantial number of women, I don’t think that will be, unfortunately, the case. I see names of highly qualified women, among those who have been suggested to come, but not enough in numbers. I have, as you know, established the Syrian women advisory board in a platform in the palace for civil society representatives in order to be able to advise me and participate, in one way or the other, in the intra-Syrian talks in an advisory and consultative capacity. And that what I plan to do even this time, inclusivity means, not only numbers but influence, and influence that women advisory board will have, and can have, with their own very remarkable example of being able to actually agree among them, in spite of having very different positions, on what can be the future of Syria, is an important element for me.

Today by the way, and it was not a casual decision, the first meeting of today was with a group of seven women. Syrian women, all of them united by one fact, there have been either detainees, or tortured or abducted, or they have their mothers, daughters or wives of detained or abducted people. Detainees, are those by government, thousands, and abducted are those by the opposition.

I want to do so to respect their determination in making sure, in spite of the fact that we are talking about grand issues, we should never forget the suffering of so many Syrians on one side and the other too during this conflict.

Bottom line, its delicate moment, but since we do have, fragile but very substantive, when you compare it to the past and today, think about what we used to have about a year ago, when the cease-fire broke down and think about today. So we do have fragile incidents, which need to be controlled and need to be taken care of and not be allowed to go further, that’s why Astana for us is important and Astana needs to be focusing on delivering the cease-fire and those confidence building initiatives. But just because we do have a cease-fire, we need to keep the momentum we are not having. Second, any excessive expectations, let us be frank, clearly we are determined to give the Syrians another chance for addressing the political process that they all claim they want to address.

Three, please, dear friends of the media don’t be surprised if there will be rhetoric statements and even dismissive statements among them, aggressive ones, they are part of what we should expect. Wait, look for the substance, look for what would happen during the talks and at the end of the talks. So don’t be, and I will not be, impressed if you will be having terrible interviews saying, these people are awful, the others are even more awful. It is part of the rhetoric, we have seen that, you will have it. I hope they will be controlling it, we will be aiming at substance. I would stop there and leave it up to you for some questions.

Q: Last night, the militias of the government obstructed the access of assistance to al-Waer, this is a violation of humanitarian access. If the regime continues to obstruct such matters and obstruct the cease-fire what are the measures that you will take?

SdM: We discussed exactly this case of al-Waer, at the Humanitarian Task Force. The circumstances about sniping and attacking and then diverting 22 trucks were analysed by the Task Force and there was a decision to, one; make an inquiry about it, two; actually this as an example of how dangerous these days is any type of initiative that maybe aimed at spoiling the cease-fire. The case of al-Waer was serious and we consider it very serious, particularly because 22 trucks were diverted. Who started sniping or countering is important, but it is even more important that the trucks never reached al-Waer.

Q: Mr De Mistura, until now the picture is not clear for us, how these talks would take place, will there be dialects, direct meetings, will there be more than one delegation in the same room, in the same discussion, or will it be like last year separate meetings with delegations. Yesterday, Mr Michael Contet also spoke of what you mentioned today that the political process aims at a political transition, can you please clarify the objective of this round, in addition to the three points you already mentioned.

SdM: I have already replied to your question, so I have to say, first by saying please don’t ask me kindly, any of those details because I am bound before informing you to actually discuss them with the actual Syrian interlocutors on how to proceed, what type of form, what type of meetings, separate rooms or together, so allow me to elaborate more later on. Regarding the agenda, both Mr. Contet and me referred to 2254, so I would please ask you to read paragraph 4 and paragraph 2 of 2254 and learn it by heart because that is our guidance and I will abide in terms of agenda by 2254.

Q: I would like to ask you about the role of the United States in this round of Syria Talks, at the security conference in Munich you were asked “where are the United States?” and then you answered “I don’t know” so have you found an answer to this question and what kind of role are they playing? Many thanks.

SdM: I was in Washington recently, and I was able to meet some of the representatives of the new administration, and in fact, in particular, I did meet the Secretary of State Tillerson and I must say in all fairness, any new administration requires some time before devising a new strategy. They have announced that they want to revisit their strategy regarding the fight against Daesh/ISIL and by implication what they are doing in Iraq and in Syria. So when the press asked me in Munich whether I knew what was the American position, the answer I gave is still the same : we are not yet in a position to speak on their behalf. I do know that they are very much interested in fighting Daesh, I do know that they are having instructions from President Trump to actually develop a new strategy of new options of a strategy in the next few days. It was one month ago so I would say let’s wait for that. Meanwhile we do have US representatives here actually, and the same one that used to be here during the previous Intra-Syrian Talks, and I am convinced that they will be very supportive to whatever we try to do and that’s what they said today when they were at the meeting. I can’t tell you more than that but that’s the fact. I am not criticizing, I am not complaining, on the contrary, I am just understanding frankly that you need a month for devising a new strategy and we are waiting for that like everyone else. We look forward to see what the strategy is, meanwhile, history goes on and we need to begin those talks otherwise we lose the momentum. We will be able to adjust of course, like everyone, to whatever new strategy comes from any of the major players in the Syrian environment.

Q: (Interpreted from Arabic) You mentioned the issue of detainees, human rights organizations speak of tens of thousands of detainees. Amnesty issued a report of Saidnaya and slaughter houses. Could you ask today the Syrian regime, the Red Cross and organizations to review the status of detainees to put pressure on Russia to put pressure on the Syrian regime in order to have that achieved? Thank you.

SdM: The issue of abducted people or detainees will certainly be raised by me with the Government of Syria and the delegation of Syria, and they are in a large numbers so I will be able to address it not only once but more than once. Thank you.

Q: About besieged areas, how can both parties be engaged in a peace process if they don’t show compassion to the people living in these areas? Syrian peace talks must unlock humanitarian access, how? I would like to have your answer on that please.

SdM: At the moment, we do have areas that are besieged, and they are besieged mostly by the government and two areas are besieged by the opposition and one area besieged by Daesh or ISIL or whatever you want to call them. The only area that has been reached in the last period has been Deir Ezor area controlled by the government, besieged by Daesh, and by whom? By the UN. We have been doing, thanks to the contribution of generous countries airdrops every day even during this period. All the other areas including Al-Waer have not been able to be reached. We are complaining about it very strongly, why? Because that’s something that we would like to be raised in Astana. In Syria, the problem of reaching humanitarian access is not caused by the wind or by the snow or by a flood, it is caused by war, by conflict, by fighting, by roadblocks and when there is a ceasefire in theory, there should be no war, there should be no roadblocks, or at least roadblocks should be open, and that has not been happening so far. So this issue has been raised today at the Humanitarian Task Force.

Q: I would like to ask about the conditions around the talks this time. Do you think the conditions are better than the round before and what are the headline that you see at the end of the talks? Can we say the talks reached a good point for a start and that it will be better in the coming rounds?

SdM: The answer to that is simply that 2017, from a geopolitical, from a military point of view, from a general point of view is very different from 2016. We are seeing it, and the fact that you would never had thought about it a year ago that a ceasefire led by the US and Russia under their own sponsorship has been now replaced by two guarantors plus one, Iran, called Turkey and Russia. In other words we are in 2017, that’s all I can tell you at this stage, the rest I will answer to you at the end of the talks, because the question about what am I expecting, what would be the outcome, what would be my comment to that, let’s wait for the end of the talks.

Q: You have repeatedly talked about an inclusive process, so I would be interested to know if the opposition delegation is going to include any people other than the High Negotiations Committee.

SdM: At the Security Council last time, when I was there, in New York, I made quite a firm statement if you probably remember, saying our aim is actually to come to the talks with as a unified or as inclusive delegation of the opposition as possible for two reasons. A) It is easier for a negotiator to handle a negotiation when you have got two groups and B) because often, and I hope this time will not be the case, because frankly it would be quite disappointing, the Government delegation spent two or three days telling me that where is the opposition rather to address the substance. So my aim and hope was that it would be as inclusive as possible. Well I must say there has been a response because I will leave it to the Riyadh based opposition to explain to you but they have been, to my knowledge, expanding as I requested. The number of armed groups that are represented, I think they are more that 50 per cent of the delegation. My argument being: Everyone who is doing peace among those who fight, secondly the ones who fight and die are the right ones to negotiate if that is the case. Three, even President Assad the first time I met him told me “I want to negotiate with those who are fighting me”. Well, here they are. Plus I understand there was an inclusion of other groups, so you should ask them how inclusive they are. We will see tomorrow but my impression is that they have been making an effort to follow particularly the request to include armed groups upfront.

Q: I know that you are not from ones who give up so easily. Before coming to this room we heard some rumors about your resignation, I hope it won’t be so? About the comparison between Astana and Geneva, are they integrating between themselves? Should we start to talk about field aspects in Geneva and should we start to talk about political issues in Astana? And how do you evaluate the results of Astana and how do you see the reducing of the level of representation of Turkish delegation and other delegations? Also you had other meetings, did this affect the results of Astana? How can we integrate both processes to come through with a valuable resolution for this?

SdM: I have been almost three years in this mission and I remember almost a month after I was appointed I was getting this question about when am I going to resign, so it has been a recurrent question. So I think this is something that sometimes comes out in the media either because there is part of a psychological pressure so that I blink in one direction or the other, but I am trying not to blink for this type of things. I am blinking more when I see humanitarian tragedies, that’s what makes me very worried. Now, no that is something that is for the Secretary-General to decide and my wife, in that order or almost. Now regarding your question about Astana, you are very right, it is important to qualify because sometimes there is a combination. We mean what we say, Astana has been and is a very positive initiative. There has been now Astana 2 and Astana 3, and we hope that there will be more Astana. Their job, their mission is a very important one. It is about the ceasefire, ask the Syrians, they will tell you this is the priority, a ceasefire. Then of course you can have the talks, any negotiation can take two or three months, two years perhaps but with no bombing, no shelling, no fighting. So it is a very important task, and it is their task, and a specific surgical task. Not the political one because then you enter an environment where three countries, four countries cannot make that. It requires the UN and the UN has the mandate and I think this is well understood. Astana, ceasefire, confidence building measures related to it, including possibly the humanitarian access because possibly they are linked, or even some type of initiative regarding war prisoners. Anything that is linked to ceasefire. Full stop, and this is a big job that’s why we want to help them, that’s why I have sent five of my colleagues, highly experienced colleagues to support that. We have seventy years of experience in ceasefire, some countries don’t have that, so we can help. That doesn’t means that we don’t have also a Humanitarian Task Force and a Ceasefire Task Force, and be a link to Astana, but not replacing Astana. That’s basically where we are.

Q: Will you be talking to one, two or more delegations of the opposition and if you could clarify which people will be inside.

SdM: I will be able to show that to you tomorrow, and tell you that tomorrow. Every delegation listed in the 2254 has been invited and every group which has been mentioned in 2254, not only invited, is coming, thank you very much.