Note to Correspondents: Transcript of Press Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, 30 November 2017

SdeM: Thank you very much. I will take questions of course, that is why I will just give you a little bit of a summary here.

This round of talks in Geneva is number 8, and we are planning to have it lasting up to the 15th of December.

As you remember the intention was to actually have them for two to three days and then it was likely that the Government delegation in particular would have gone to Sochi, and that would have required for them to return afterwards, and to a second round of the same round, so to speak. But Sochi has been postponed as you know for some time - to January or February, the date is not being fixed - and therefore we felt that this is the occasion to actually take a little bit more advantage the prolonged opportunity.

The Government arrived slightly delayed, but did arrive, and the opposition has been here from the beginning. Now, all this takes place against quite a backdrop, it is not just a normal round of talks. Think about the intense diplomatic activity which has taken place regarding a common type of search for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. No one can deny that, as we said, after the territorial losses of Daesh in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, there has been now a moment of truth, we need to find a political solution, and that is shown itself through a lot of activities. Let me just mention them because they all have an influence on what we are doing and on what this round of talks - and the next ones - will be. The Da Nang joint declaration of President Putin and President Trump, the trilateral summit of Iran, Russia, and Turkey Presidents, the meeting between President Assad and President Putin where there was a follow-up declaration which has an impact - we are in fact referring to it when we meet, especially the government delegation and the opposition -, the so-called R2, Riyadh II conference, plus our own Security Council briefing when I got an additional reinforced mandate in order to proceed according to some of the indications, that I will indicate; our own visits meetings in Moscow, New York, Paris, Riyadh, Ankara and contacts with the Iranian authorities and the EU partners, and the recent telephone conversation just the day when we started the intra-Syrian talks with Secretary Tillerson, and a visit to Damascus by the Deputy Special Envoy, Ambassador Ramzy.

So we have now two delegations in Geneva - one arrived a little bit late, but they are there and I would like to place on record and thank the Russian Federation for their having secured and helped in security the presence of the Syrian Government delegation, and Saudi Arabia for having facilitated, quite effectively, the establishment in Riyadh of a unified opposition delegation - it is the first time, you remember, we used to have three, four, and different groups.

Now we do have also as you know - and I want to place this on record - our own constant interest in engaging Syrian civil society, and we have been able to do so in a very active way - why we are doing so? Because that’s the principle, delegations yes, are important - but what about the people of Syria? Do we hear their voice? And therefore, we have engaged more than 200 different partners of the civil society and I have been listening, as usual. And I want to emphasize that to my own and my very, very effective Women’s Advisory Board. All that in the background to these meetings that we have been having.

So we are still at the beginning, if you want to look at it in the context of the 15th of December. Today we had what I would define, probably, a first time - I am sorry perhaps you will get used to this type of terminologies, but they do mean something - very close, I would say, very close proximity parallel meetings with the two parties. In fact, I have been shuttling with my colleagues between the two rooms which basically were five meters away, while we were actually raising and discussing, with both, issues which we consider very important for all.

On substance, well the agenda that we are pursuing is the one that I had been referring to - and I got a reinforced mandate from the Security Council. These are the 12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles - I will elaborate, the name sounds very sophisticated but it is something very substantial. And that is what the Security Council has been asking us to focus on, and, I must say, all the meetings I referred to from Da Nang to the Sochi trilateral meeting, there was always the reference to some type of importance to the constitutional process and the elections, which we interpret according to 2254 as presidential, and parliamentary elections, under the UN supervision. That means that apart from the 12 principles, we have been, and we intend to discuss and raise with both sides, all four baskets, but in particular the two which we have been referring to and which we have been supported by all these meetings to address: constitutional process and UN-supervised elections.

We have also been talking about the rules of the game, and therefore reemphasizing: no preconditions. I know every side had been expressing, and probably will continue doing so although we are not in favor of that, their own opinions, but don’t you have in your own countries different opinions? I want to believe so. And that opposition and government - and we have our French colleagues here who can remind us how this is very intense, or my own country, there is always discussion between the opposition and the government. So opinions is one thing, preconditions is a completely different thing. So we are asking - and I am insisting, and so far it has been respected - no preconditions about anything that we will be discussing. Of course nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and everybody knows that.

So where are we on these 12 points, why are they so important? Well these are essential, because they do refer to what could be, could be, a shared vision of the kind of Syria that the Syrians want to live in. They are inspired by the request of both the Geneva Communiqué and the 2254 resolution, which as I said, we need to come up with a shared vision.

Both parties have responded quite constructively, actually even in a way illuminating ideas and comments and amendments, and that is what we discussed today when we had those close proximity parallel discussions.

Today we did share with them our own thoughts and our own understanding on some commonalities that exist in fact between them about what could be a shared future vision of Syria. They are important, you know why? Because they might guide the drafting of a new constitution, and actually be an entry point for genuine reconciliation discussions.

We are hopefully going to continue along that road, and that’s why what we have been thinking about is actually allowing any delegation during this weekend - and I think the Government will do so - to actually return home, consult, refresh and come back next week around Tuesday, in order to retake again, the same round of discussion so that we go through the 12 points, the constitutional process and the elections aspect, and do so until the 15th of December.

Everyone have been acting so far, I must say, professionally and quite carefully addressing their own point of view, I hope this will continue. I can’t tell you much more because, as I said, we are at the beginning - but the beginning with a strong backlog of international interest in wanting to see political process.

Question: You mentioned that both delegations shared some commonalities, could you share those with us?

SdeM: The answer is - I am sorry, it is premature. I think they are the ones who should be first metabolizing them, that’s the whole role of a mediator, frankly, to try to get them, put them together, try to make sure that what they understand is also our understanding of it, and therefore avoid that it becomes a (inaudible) but rather a negotiation or discussion. So it is premature. I hope I will be able to do so at the end of this session.

Question: France and the US agreed on Monday that thet Geneva talks are the only legitimate track to achieve a settlement in Syria. How do you see today Russia’s attempts to create another track in Sochi to achieve a settlement which might be in favor of its ally President al-Assad? Thank you.

SdeM: You allow me to correct you? May I? It is not only France and the US. Every single member country of the Security Council and that includes certainly Russia, the US, France, the UK, China and all the others, have been clearly indicating and repeating that the only process for the political process is the one led by the UN, mandated by the Security Council, linked to 2254, and based in Geneva. So any other initiative, including the one in Sochi, we are looking at any initiative with great interest, but we will be making a judgement based on what I said at the Security Council, and it was (inaudible) by the Security Council, is it going to help, support, the Geneva UN-led process.

Question: You talk about your 12 points, can I just get some clarification that the key texts still are the 2012 Geneva Communiqué and then resolution 2254 which again endorses that communiqué, and I know you are focusing in this round on elections and constitution - but can I also get clarification that you are still seeking to form a transitional governing body with full executive power agreed by mutual consent?

SdeM: Let me qualify this point, the 12 principles/points, when you will be reading them - and you will, because at a certain point we hope to produce this - this common understanding are completely, constantly inspired by the Geneva Communiqué and 2254.

Question (ATS) : Monsieur l’émissaire, maintenant que vous avez réussi à réduire la distance physique entre les deux délégations – et vous aviez fait en juillet, lors du dernier round, un objectif de pouvoir les réunir dans la même salle –, est-ce que vous pensez faisable d’atteindre ce point d’ici le 15 décembre ou est-ce que vous partez du principe que toutes les sessions jusqu’au 15 décembre seront sur ce format des proximity parallel talks ?

SdeM : Je suis toujours en faveur d’un contact personnel physique, excepté s’il est violent, entre les interlocuteurs d’une négociation ; mais honnêtement, ma priorité ce n’est pas – je sais que l’on en fait une grande histoire chaque fois – de voir si les deux côtés se saluent ou se parlent, mais plutôt de voir si on peut obtenir d’un côté à l’autre des contacts du point de vue des sujets, c’est-à-dire des points principaux.

Alors, nous, comme médiateurs, on est quand même entraîné à bouger assez vite entre deux chambres qui sont à cinq mètres de distance ; et ce n’est pas la première fois qu’une négociation importante était bien préparée sans que les deux côtés doivent absolument se rencontrer. Si vous voulez, ils se voient de temps en temps ; ils se sont vus ici et vous étiez avec nous quand il y a eu le salon où ils étaient l’un en face de l’autre. Ils se voient sans parler à Astana. Ils ne se parlent pas à Astana, je peux vous assurer ; ils sont dans deux salles séparées, ils arrivent à la dernière minute et ils sont assis. Mais les négociations et les discussions sont faites comme ça. Donc, il ne faut pas en faire une histoire énorme. C’est beau à voir, ça va, c’est passé, c’est inévitable peut-être, mais ce n’est pas le vrai major achievement.

Question: You mentioned the UN would for the first time propose for direct dialogue between the two parties, what are their response?

SdeM: I was just explaining it to our French colleague, French speaking colleague, that you see, it’s true, that it’s always very good to have direct dialogue, but for a mediator what matters is the substance, we have plenty of negotiations in the past in history, where in fact it took only the last two meetings of the whole agreement [to obtain] they actually sat with each other. But what is more important is they actually be able to interact between the two on the substantive things. I give you an example, I’ve been in Astana as you know has produced some good results on very specific area the so-called de-escalation areas - do you think that they were meeting together? No, they came in the same room and sat, you know the picture, and they looked at each other not very happily but they sat there. The real discussions were being done by very effective mediators, who are the three facilitators, or guarantors who were shuttling all the time. So let’s be frank, the direct contact is good, but what is essential is being able to exchange opinions and shuttling like we do or proximity is good enough and if and when it happens I will be very glad but it may just be a photo opportunity.

Question: You gave assurances to the Syrian government delegation that the opposition will commit, during the 8th round of talks, to the ceiling of the UNSCR 2254, and will enter into negotiations without any preconditions. Previously you had also provided guarantees that the opposition will adhere to negotiations principles, what guarantees now that the opposition will now stick to these guarantees that you set? Do you personally guarantee that?

SdeM: One of the words that I’ve been hearing for past three years constantly by everyone is: Mr. de Mistura can you give a guarantee about the cessation of hostilities, can you give a guarantee that we have elections? can you give a guarantee, the only guarantee can come from there [showing the sky]. What we can do, and are doing is actually making sure each side realizes that if they do not follow what we are actually advising them, there will be and it can be a very negative consequence, that’s why we have been insisting on no preconditions and if the preconditions are raised - and sometimes there is a temptation by one side or the other to do so - I immediately stop the conversation saying - sorry have you heard what the Security Council has said, have you heard what in fact many very senior political world leaders have been saying: no preconditions, let’s start again the discussion now.

Question: I was trying to ask how far do you want to get in the current round, and just in case you don’t have an answer to that, I wondered if you could just remember resolution 2254 mentions a six-month timeframe for I think for the agreement or progress on governance and Mr. Hariri reminded us of that this week - has that clock started, do you hope to have things in place in 6 months’ time, thank you? SdeM: That clock had started long time ago do you remember, and in a conflict of six and plus years and in a region where things have gone so complicated and complex like we have had in the recent times, I would tell you when we will actually set the clock on months, what I do know and I really mean it, that the recent developments, geopolitical, local, regional have you seen how people are talking to each, how those who were involved in the conflict for the first years are actually taking positions that are in the direction of a political dialogue internally and externally - so I will let you know when the six months really triggers again, it maybe even 3 months, who knows, or perhaps a little bit longer but what matters is that the talks start this time, it’s not starting today, by the way.

Question : Monsieur l’Envoyé spécial, pouvez-vous nous présenter un petit peu l’atmosphère des entretiens aujourd’hui avec les deux parties ? Et puis selon vous, Monsieur l’Envoyé spécial, quels sont les principaux obstacles qui empêchent l’avancée des pourparlers de paix ?

SdeM: I could summarize the words in one word, the atmosphere as far as I can see, particularly comparing to the past was, professional and serious on both sides. Regarding the biggest obstacle: trust, and but that is been always the case and that’s what a mediator should be working with the assistance of all the countries who are interested, including China who have been helping every side to understand we need to proceed on a political dialogue - there is no military solution and even if there was there is no solution to a good sustainable peace without this.

Question: You confirmed several times, even during the briefing, that there are no preconditions during these meetings by both sides, does this mean that the regime delegation does not adhere any more to discuss the issue of presidency, as a precondition?

SdeM: We have not discussed the issue of presidency. We have been discussing the 12 principles and you will see that they are of broad nature but they have an impact on everything, on the future constitution, and we have starting addressing the issue about how to proceed on a new constitution so that issue has not even come up. I want to believe that this issue should come up with the Syrians, through UN-supervised elections according to 2254.

Thank you

Geneva, 30 November 2017