Transcript of Joint Press Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Following Security Council Briefing, 18 September 2018
SdeM: Sorry for the delay, but it was a very intense and long, and useful, in my opinion, opportunity for expressing various angles of many countries. As you know, Turkey spoke, Iran spoke, and the Syrian Arab Republic.
So, let me get to the main point. There were two main subjects, no surprise. The first was what happened yesterday in Sochi and the implications of it. And second was, in this case, what do we do with the political process, which was referred to both by President Putin and President Erdoðan. Let’s go back first to what happened yesterday. You must have seen various maps - I’m sure you have various ones. Well, this is the one we have been referring to: you can see it yourself, it is a new development which we consider very important. It is welcome. Remember where we were: we were all in a full, constant, preparation of what could have been the worst military escalation in the whole conflict, and probably the biggest as Mark I am sure will be referring to, biggest humanitarian tragedy probably over the century with 3 million people.
Well, what has come up with is a series of non-military areas, let’s call it like this, which appear to be at this stage working or workable. We will have to see that. They’re not yet working. It will be checked around the 15th of October. It’s a first step in very much in the right direction, so I think everyone in the chamber did express support and welcomed this initiative and this MoU by President Putin and President Erdoðan, and I do the same on behalf of the Secretary-General, we do welcome it. Of course, as you know very well, particularly in Syria, the devil is in the detail. But we are determined to actually do all what we can to give it a chance because the alternative would have been what we just described.
Now during the discussions, even in Sochi, the two Presidents said something that not everybody has noticed but I did certainly, that just because we are having now this type of MoU, one reason more to accelerate one aspect at least crucial—which is the political process. So that’s why today I did make a point indicating that while I was disappointed, and I can confirm it, that regarding the three lists, one list was being questioned very heavily - whereas we believe that list is crucial and needs to be well-balanced, we will be working very hard during the next few weeks - but I do intend to come up as many members of the Security Council, not all of them but many members, have indicated that in the month of October I will indicate where we are in terms also of what could be the beginning of the constitutional committee and a period, which I believe frankly more than 6 months would be more than sufficient for a truly inclusive constitutional committee.
There was by all members a sign of condolences for the 15 Russian military officers who died as you know last night in to a very unfortunate incident. That’s on my side, if you allow me to, then you can ask all your questions, I would like to give the floor to Mark Lowcock and then you can ask your questions to both of us.
ML: I do not have a lot to add to what Staffan has said. I think you all understand why we’ve been raising the alarm about what looked as though it was about to happen in Idleb. I mean, we can explain that again to you all if there is any lack of understanding of that. But because we were extremely alarmed, and because it looked to us as though we may be facing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, the biggest loss of life the world has seen in this century. The agreement reached in Sochi yesterday is, from our point of view, extremely important. Of course, everybody, especially the 3 million civilians in Idleb, want to know how long this agreement is going to last. Is it simply a temporary arrangement or can it provide the basis through which the threat of a massive military onslaught on Idleb can be removed on a more permanent basis?
That’s what those people, sheltering under their pieces of plastic and their sheets of canvas, that’s the question they want the answer to, and that’s the discussion that will need to take place. And the positive answer to that question will only arise through collaboration from everybody with the process that the members of the Security Council have asked Staffan to run.
I want to reiterate though, we are able at the moment in Idleb to reach 2 million people a month with essential food and non-food items and essential health and education services. That is done through the cross-border operation, which has been mandated and renewed by the Security Council.
We are very open, and I discussed this in Damascus, with looking at the ways of reaching people from Damascus, rather than relying on the cross-border operation. But the practical truth, and the fact of matter at the moment, is that the cross-border operations we have been running, would not have been possible in the absence of the cross-border operations, and we need to deal with the situation as we find it and make sure we can reach people through whatever routes are available to us to reach them.
I ran through all the work that we had done and all the supplies we had prepositioned, against the risk of a military onslaught, but I want just to reinforce again that there is no protection, there is no mitigation available against the sort of military onslaught that seemed to be in prospect. The aid system cannot deal with suffering on that scale. The most we can do at the edge is just try to protect people as they move, and provide a little bit of assistance to them. So, what we have to keep focused on, is the prevention, the prevention of that massive military onslaught.
Everyone says that they want to protect civilians in the way the Idleb crisis is resolved, and that does require the avoidance of the use of overwhelming military force.
Of course, everyone recognizes also that there is a legitimate fight against terrorism, and I want to echo the point that the Turkish Permanent Representative made in the chamber, that you all heard, that the fight against terrorism itself has to be conducted in line with International Humanitarian Law, and I pointed out to some of the specific things that that meant in the statement I gave in the chamber.
So, those are the points I wanted to add, and we are happy to take your questions.
Question: A question to you both about Idlib and about the Turkey-Russia deal. First to you Special Envoy, there is a bit of this deal that I don’t really understand, and that’s the groups that the two countries designate as terrorists, al-Nusra, HTS, whatever you want to call them, why would they leave? Where are they supposed to go and who is going to force them to leave if they won’t leave? And to you Under-Secretary-General, you cautioned that this deal might just be a stay of execution. Could you possibly expand to us what it would look like if there was a full-scale fighting in Idlib, and could the UN cope?
SdeM: Well your question James is exactly the one I have been raising myself with both Turkey and Russia and they are going to provide us with some type of answers. I think Turkey in particular seems to be given by Russia the responsibility of finding a way to answer your point. They are not going anywhere so what is the outcome? Meanwhile what you are seeing through these areas, which are demilitarized, you are having, first of all, a reduction of violence in that area. Secondly that there is a strong possibility, which I believe is consistent, of AOGs, which are not in the list of terrorists, to want to be separated from them and do so themselves. And three don’t underestimate the people. I myself have been getting many many messages from the civilians, the 3 million people, the ones you are referring to, who are not neither fighters nor terrorists. Of course, they have a saying too, once they see that there is a scenario where they will not be automatically part of a conflict, because the conflict has been delayed or postponed, hopefully forever. So, the answer will come later, they are working on it too. It is the mother of all issues. You are touching the right point.
ML: Let me give you, James, a very clear and direct response to your question: The UN and humanitarian organizations absolutely could not cope, could not prevent the enormous loss of civilian life, countless number of children above all, if there was a massive military onslaught. That would be the inevitable consequence of a massive military onslaught. It will be a huge loss of life on a scale that we have not seen in a long, long time anywhere in the world.
Question: Mr. De Mistura, you seem to be optimistic that there will be no fighting or full-scale fighting. So based on what you have this optimism? And were you able to talk to any of the Russians or the Turkish parties? And to Mr. Lowcock, could you say also more to the humanitarian aid and the funds regarding Syria?
SdeM: Well, first of all let’s try to go back few days ago or few weeks ago when myself, and Jan Egeland were actually seeing in front of us in Geneva, based on our own analysis there, basically 3 million civilians, cornered in a relatively small area, we are talking about a relatively small area, in what could have been a massive, remember, military escalation. Well, we are talking about a totally different environment at this stage based on this MoU. So, seeing optimism, yes, at least frankly when you compare to before, is a very different picture. Will this mean that there will be no military activities, in the case for instance of what James was referring to, or some areas, very surgical areas? Well, I doubt that will not be necessarily 100 percent, but we were talking about massive military escalation affecting 3 million people. We are turning now into something very different, and even there, there could be some demobilization through the people, through what could also be the work of Turkey, who is very much present in the area.
ML: Thank you very much for your question on the resourcing situation. I mean, we do have one of our biggest appeals in the world in Syria. We have raised a lot of money again this year for Syria but we have, as I said in the chamber, a substantially underfunded response. And one of the ways to address that is to grow the confidence of the people is the money asking for that we could reach the people in need in areas, which in most of the country is now controlled by the government. And if people give us money, we will reach the people who need it, and I had good discussions actually in Damascus on both those points. We have got a need for additional resources to deal with the situation in Idleb. There have been a few tens of thousands of people who have been displaced just in the last couple of weeks or so. We have had a few tens of millions of dollars coming to our appeal recently to deal with what we might face. We cannot sustain the operation for a long while on the basis of the resources we have but we do need additional resourcing just to keep the situation for the people - the 3 million people and a million children in Idleb - stable, while we all hope what is agreed yesterday turns out to be something more permanent.
Question: Israel has violated the Syrian air space and sovereignty 200 times through this conflict, most recently two days ago when they attacked the Russian plane killing 15 people. You just expressed your regrets and sorrow, but I haven’t heard that you condemn the Israeli violation of the sovereignty of a state that is a member of the United Nations without any provocation. Thank you.
SdeM: Did you listen to my intervention? I think I covered quite at length the issue about this latest incident, so I will stick to those words. As you know there have been discussions about how that incident unfortunately happened, and there are still some discussions about it.
Question: Can I ask a question to both of you? Looking ahead to next week’s UN General Assembly meeting, what are you expecting on Syria? Can anything happen here at the UN to help the people in Syria?
SdeM: First of all, remember one thing, il ne faut jamais oublier ça, the biggest danger for Syria was from the time, the first time I met James, and we had a discussion, when we tried to have the issue of Aleppo addressed: disappearing from the radar screen, becoming a mission not only impossible, but an operation that will never end and will never produce, and suddenly disappearing. I believe and hope that the General Assembly will be moving more on discussions. There are at least three meetings that I have on my radar screen where that can come up. And the fact that the Idlib drama had been diffused by this MoU will actually increase the interest in wanting to discuss: “Fine, how do we gain stamina? How do we do more in order to avoid that it could reoccur?” This, in theory, if it did take place, would have been the last biggest, the most cruel bloody battle of this long Syrian conflict. So, if that is being defused now we can talk about what really matters: how to stabilize the peace.
So, bottom line I think there will be two or three meetings which are important and will take place during the General Assembly, just to avoid that it goes off the radar simply because for the moment the drama is over temporarily, or hopefully for long.
ML: And Staffan and I are doing the meetings together. The main thing I will be drawing everybody’s attention to is that there remains a very high level of humanitarian need in Syria, in all parts of the country: in those controlled by the government and those not controlled by the government. I will be trying to engage everybody, all parties, in what could be done to meet more of those needs, not just to reduce suffering and contain loss of life, but because also when we stabilize the humanitarian situation, the more opportunity that creates a wider calming effect and a better prospect for the single most important thing, which is more progress on the political agenda to bring this horrible story of Syria over the last 7 years finally to an end, and enable the Syrian people to move to a better future.
Question: Are you still willing to go to Idlib because you mentioned that you were willing to go to Idlib? I remember a year ago, you were going to resign and then you spoke to us here and you said that you spoke to many friends, including your family, and then they asked you to stay. When they hear you say that you are willing to go to Idlib, what was their reaction, your friends and family? This is one. The second: the Syrian delegation is coming to New York next week and I believe is headed by Minister Walid Muallem, or his deputy Mekdad. Are you going to meet with either of them? And also, are you going to meet with other partners beside the ones you met with last week in Geneva?
SdeM: Regarding the second one about Idlib, my family and myself. Do you know how many years I worked for the UN? 47 and a half now. I have been in 21 conflicts, I always felt that it was a terrible thing when the UN does not actually put itself or is not allowed to put itself at the same level with the people we want to protect. And I meant it, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Srebrenica, in Rwanda, etc. So when I make an appeal for the civilians to be spared, how could I not say: “and I am ready to be with you”? Now the problem that has been in the past that some do not want me to be there. Not my parents, not my family, not my wife. They understand. But I will bring much visibility to their cause… whatever reason. But my offer remains, and it is there, and if I have a chance I will do it, wallahi.
Regarding the first question: of course, that is the great thing about the General Assembly! You have meetings everywhere, even in the corridors. There will be meetings with everyone, and the Secretary-General will do it, and when he does, he often asks me to be with him. So it is a wonderful occasion to actually meet everyone who has a say, including very much the government of Syria.
New York, 18 September 2018