Transcript of Press Conference by the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria (SES) Staffan de Mistura Geneva, 15 January 2015

SES: Good afternoon. The reason why I was planning to see you and be able to talk to you is also to ensure, first of all, it is the beginning of the year; second, there is a lot of things happening, other things may be happening; and three, to have a feeling of where we are ourselves at this moment.

So, but the real reason for this press encounter is actually something more profound than that. I would like to raise the attention of all of us on the fact that this is now the fourth year of this absolutely devastating conflict and that 2015 started with still the feeling that there is a need of a solution but a solution is not there yet. I have met yesterday as you know Secretary Kerry, today Minister Zarif and recently in Paris and in other locations many other international interlocutors, including in Paris also Minister Lavrov. They all agree that we need to do something to avoid that the Syrian conflict goes into a backburner and that movement towards some type of political solution should take place this year. Well, this is certainly good news in the sense that I am hearing the same in Damascus, I am hearing the same in the region. What we need to make sure is that this does not become like 2014, when we heard similar appeals from all of us, including the UN, and then nothing really happened.

So let me, first of all, forgive me for doing what you already know, but it is actually a reminder to myself and to all of us why this is so urgent now and why we need to take some concrete action, and then I will refer to some of those: 12 million people in need; 7.6 million displaced; 3.3 million refugees; 220,000 killed; 1 million of them, of the Syrian people wounded; polio, typhoid, measles have returned into Syria. 4,000 schools are non-utilizable, 3 million school children are not going to school, 290 cultural heritage locations destroyed or damaged. Syria has gone now 40 years backwards from where it was. It will need perhaps the same type of time if we are not hurrying. In 2015, this year, Syria was expected to be one of the five top performers on the economic side in the Arab world, now it is the second before the last, just before Somalia. So we are starting 2015 with the Syrian conflict being the largest humanitarian crisis since the second world war. It is the place now providing more refugees than the Afghan refugees. It is a disgrace. It is a true tragedy that people all over Syria continue to be living under constant fear of barrel bombs, mortar attacks, rockets, aerial bombing, car bombs, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings.

The rest of the world is not immune. The neighbours are being flooded and have been flooded by refugees and they are reaching the point of not sustainability. In the recent, horrific, terrorist attack in Paris, I’m finding a connection with the origins and consequences of the Syrian conflict and elsewhere and the presence of ISIS in large parts of Syria and Iraq. This is why we cannot avoid raising a flag today of an urgent concern. This is why we are using in the beginning of the year to start saying let’s make this year, as I am hearing from many political leaders, an opportunity. This is why we urge the real implementation of the UN rather strong resolutions 2170, 2178, 2138 which are referring to the humanitarian access, which is fundamental, foreign fighters, which are all over the country and everywhere, and terrorist groups. This is why we have got on the table and we have put on the table the proposal of a freeze of heavy fighting in Aleppo, and eventually the return for a united, reconstructed Syrian city as it used to be because it is a symbolic microcosm of all of Syria, because it has the highest number of displaced people, because it has seen two years of suffering, because while the government and the opposition continue being involved in heavy fighting between them, ISIS is only 20 miles away from Aleppo.

We are engaged in intense discussions with the government because they are the first players in the city of Aleppo, and the opposition forces regarding the freeze. We are going to send another delegation, again led by my own deputy, Ambassador Ramzy, and we will then follow-up with further negotiations and discussions because we believe it is a need. It needs to be simple, the freeze, it needs to be just a freeze to start with, but it needs to be there. We are aiming at the reduction of violence and possibly a freeze of all military activities, bearing in mind the need of an accelerated humanitarian aid. Our hope is that Aleppo could be a signal of goodwill, a confidence-building measure which could and can facilitate the re-starting of a political process with a clear political horizon, bearing in mind the Geneva communique, but also the need to adjust aspirations without preconditions, in line with the new factors which have come up in the reality of the area, such as ISIS.

The Cairo potential meetings and indeed Moscow initiative are both seen favourably by us because any initiative that brings together Syrian people can facilitate a dialogue and if it is among Syrians, it can also be a starting for a political dialogue. We are going to pursue of course and follow-up any other options as well on how to facilitate a Syrian political process, which is at the end of the day the only outcome, apart from Aleppo being a signal, apart from meetings taking place about it. But we need a concrete signal and that is why, especially in Syria, we need to show that this year we are serious. That is why I am seeing you today, telling you that we are determined to follow-up on what we are hearing from everyone, a need for some type of serious attempt in 2015. Thank you.

Q: An actual concrete agreement, have you got an actual concrete agreement for this freeze in Aleppo, or is it just a proposal? What obstacles do you see in achieving it?

SES: Thank you. No we don’t have an actual agreement yet. That is why the negotiations and the discussions and the back-and-forth of our delegations and myself, both with the Government of Syria and the various opposition leaders, is still going on. There is a lot of distrust. And that is causing a lot of problems because no one wants to move first. And there needs to be simply one thing: a freeze. A stopping of the fighting, of the heavy fighting, between the two sides. That is what we need, not much more sophistication than that. Bear in mind the unity of the city needs to one day be coming back. Bearing in mind that no foreign fighters should be anywhere around anymore. That there should be one day also a return to normalcy. But at this stage let’s stop at least the heavy fighting.

Q: Bonjour M. de Mistura. J’ai lu les scripts que l’ONU nous envoie de temps en temps. Excusez, je pose mes questions en français, c’est possible ? Dans le script que j’ai reçu, vous avez fait des déclarations à [inaudible] lorsque vous avez rencontré les membres de l’opposition. Ils ont posé des questions claires et franches : pourquoi , Mr. De Mistura, vous ne travaillez pas sur la solution politique ? Vous avez répondu clairement : je n’ai pas d’instruction du Secrétaire général pour activer ce volet de la solution politique. Bon, vous avez parlé de l’initiative de Moscou. Lorsque Muallem, le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères était à Moscou, M. Sergey Lavrov lui a dit franchement : On n’a pas les disponibilités pour Genève 2 pour le moment. Ça demande du temps. Ça demande des préparatifs. Bon, on est dans l’impasse, M. de Mistura. Ni solution politique. L’ONU est incapable d’aider les Syriens, elle a réduit ses capacités de 30 à 40 pour cent par manque de fonds, comment trouver l’issue de cette crise ? Merci.

SES: First of all, it’s not totally accurate actually, it’s quite inaccurate, that the Secretary-General has not given us a strong urge for finding a political solution – that is actually our mandate. The mandate is to try to facilitate a Syrian-led political solution. No question on that. The issue is, we have already gone through Geneva I, we went through Geneva II which was a major and unfortunate disappointment. And therefore, in order to actually launch another Geneva III, we need to be very careful and make sure we don’t go through another disappointment. That is point one.

Point two. In order to make that happen we need to come up with some type of adjustment to what was the situation in Geneva II, having learned the lesson that without the regional players, that may not take place. Second, having learned the lesson that we need to make sure there is sufficient critical mass for both groups, the Government and the Opposition, to sit at the same table for a discussion.

While we are preparing for that - and I think I want to presume although we are not part of the organization of the Moscow meeting, we are not part of this except invited and as observers- I want to believe that any initiative at this stage, of wanting to put Syrian people to talk about how one could proceed on a political dialogue, can be taken advantage of by the UN in order to move it forward into any type of political process. Which political process is it? Well, I can’t tell you at this stage because it would be part of discussions with the Syrians on how they would like to see their future.

Regarding the humanitarian aspect, you are right but you are slightly outdated there. Because the 40 per cent reduction was an appeal that was made but has been recovered, as you know, very effectively by WFP. At the moment there is a concern for the future but the international community at least has recognized that the Syrian people, during this winter, for the fourth year, cannot be abandoned. So in that sense we should be giving to Cesar what is there.

Q: Hello it is nice to see you here. I would like to know whether you think President Bashar Al Assad believes he is winning this war? I ask this because when Mr. Brahimi was the mediator and the talks failed, one of the main reasons I believe was that he believed he was winning the war and there didn’t seem to be any incentive in his continuing negotiations. So why would you believe that he would agree to any political negotiations that were anything but another charade?

SES: Thank you. For two reasons. The first one is that at the time when Geneva II took place and Lakhdar Brahimi -I always pay a lot of respect to his valiant and intense efforts which were not far from achieving their goal. Since then there is one, two new factors. The first new factor is that ISIS – Daesh – is in Syria and is actually actively occupying and involved in at least one third of Syria. And together with al-Nusra, the other terrorist organization under the [Security Council] Resolution 2178, is active in the south and in the north. In other words, there is a new factor that is threatening the feeling of anyone in Syria, to win a war at the moment. Anyone, including Bashar Al Assad.

Secondly, there has been movements in one direction and another. Sometimes there are rumours or noises that one group is moving forward and then the Government is taking back and so on. But at the end of the day when you sum it up, and trust me we are monitoring everything, there has been no victory for anyone. There has been a stalemate. And there is a feeling that no one can win this war. And I want to believe that Bashar al Assad knows that quite well today. The only ones who are losing this war totally at the moment are the Syrian people. That is why we are making such an issue about a symbol, a signal, of the lost city, which is at the moment still there, which is Aleppo.

Q: Excuse me, have you been able to actually speak with the President or not?

SES: I have been meeting twice with the President Assad, and I could see how concerned himself was about this new threat of terrorism, and is ISIS/Daesh in particular. And don’t forget there is a new factor too which has been brought into the Syrian geographical environment which is the American-led coalition fighting Daesh. So there are many new elements into the geography and into the politics which are certainly different from the time of Geneva II. The only non-difference is that people are still suffering and wondering why on earth we should go another fourth year.

Q: Mr. de Mistura on ne comprend pas exactement où ça bloque dans votre plan sur la ville d’Alep. Est-ce que c’est les organisations terroristes, est-ce que c’est du côté du régime, l’opposition armée ? Quelle est votre position sur la zone de sécurité proposée par la Turquie et enfin on ne comprend pas exactement votre position concernant l’initiative de la Russie?

SES: Je commence avec la proposition de l’initiative russe. Notre position est que nous on n’est pas engagés, dans le sens qu’on a été simplement invités par le côté russe à être présent et on aura quelqu’un qui représentera mon bureau là-bas. Donc du point de vue logistique ou opérationnel je ne peux pas vous en dire plus parce que ce sont les russes qui ont géré la réunion et sont en train de la gérer. Ayant dit ça, nous la soutenons parce que nous trouvons que n’importe quelle initiative comme celle-là qui aide les syriens au moins à parler entre eux et à produire un momentum qui puisse être utilisé par l’ONU aussi pour élargir le dialogue est dans la ligne de vouloir voir un dialogue entre les Syriens. Parce que nous disons tous: la solution n’est pas militaire, il n’y a pas de victoire, et donc une solution politique ça doit commencer par le dialogue, pas par le refus du dialogue.

Pour ce qui concerne Alep, et le freeze d’Alep, le vrai problème, si vous voulez savoir, est hérité des années de manque de confiance d’un côté ou de l’autre. Et quand l’ONU fait une proposition tellement simple, tellement nette, tellement transparente franchement , en disant simplement la ville d’Alep doit au moins avoir un arrêt des grands combats, des bombardements d’un côté et de l’autre- car tous les deux utilisent des mortars et des barrells- à ce point-là, réduire ces combats et donner l’opportunité aux syriens mais aussi à la communauté internationale de croire que peut –être on a compris que la solution politique est la seule, et donc une confidence-building et une proposition simple mais le manque de confiance complique les choses. Mais notre travail est justement d’aider à éviter ça. Pour ça, on fait ce qu’on fait maintenant, des discussions avec le gouvernement et avec l’autre côté pour qu’on puisse comprendre que l’intérêt des syriens devrait être la priorité dans ces cas-là en particulier.

Q: Could you just clarify a little bit what you are going to be doing and what your deputy is going to be doing in the coming weeks? And secondly, have you got any tangible evidence that the Assad Government is actually coming on board this proposal for freezes? Has there been any progress, have you got integrated detail, have you got into specifics about freezes in Aleppo that gives you a real tangible sense that they are seriously following up on this initiative?

SES: Thank you. I went to Damascus… No, let’s start even before. I went to the Security Council and I indicated that the priority, while we are looking for a political formula that could make the political progress start for real and not just in words, we have to at least reduce violence. Secondly because the reduction in violence would send a signal to everyone that there is some genuine interest by everyone. And three, because by doing it may help everyone to focus on a current imminent danger which is ISIS.

I don’t know if I have shown you this map. [SES holds up a map for the media to see]. This map is in a way showing, the black area is where ISIS, Daesh, is present. Look how close it is to Aleppo. So while the two sides are actually fighting, the Government and the opposition, [the ones] who could take advantage of this - and that would be a major catastrophe, a tragedy - could be Daesh.

In this context, I went to see President Assad, who publicly indicated that he was interested in studying this proposal. But as you know and I know, the devil is in the detail. We knew it. And that is totally normal actually, in the level of distrust existing in the region and in particular in the country, both by the opposition and by the Government. That’s why we are fine tuning what we understand are the areas of concern both by the Government and the opposition, but with a very simple concept: are you in favour or not of a freeze? Are you really caring about the people? Are we going to wait until someone else takes advantage and does a massacre in Aleppo? Are we serious about wanting to send a signal that there is a political solution and that is meant to be also based on confidence-building measures, and that’s what we are discussing about.

Q: You say you are engaged in talks with both the Government and the opposition. Can you tell us exactly which factions of the opposition you are engaged with, especially we are talking about various and fragmented opposition forces. Second question, let us imagine and be practical, if both sides decide to freeze fighting in Aleppo, what are the guarantees that the fire might not come from behind the lines of the opposition, where 20 miles away is ISIL. My third question is have you any plans for any other Aleppo-style freezing of fighting in the future, if it fails there, would you move it to another city or governorate? Thank you.

SES: Thank you. First of all, our job is to never give up, in view of this terrible situation, so our task - when I say our task it is the UN- that is what we are meant to do and to be doing. So, I do not want to believe that we have to give up on pushing for the freeze of Aleppo because it would be a tragic outcome. But we have the intention of following it up anywhere else we can. The concept is to reduce violence. Second, we are talking to all possible factions, that is our access, we do have access to all possible factions. Having said that, you are right, there could be someone like ISIS/Daesh, to be the only one who may not accept the freeze, you are right. I think there is a resolution 2178 which addresses that aspect and 2172. Secondly, there is a possibility at that point to actually point out that the only ones who want the destruction of Aleppo is Daesh. I hope we will not reach that point.

Q: I would like you to ask you to say what are your expecting from the Moscow meeting, what will be useful for acceleration of the peace process, and one more question about the mission of Ambassador Ramzy, could you please evaluate a little bit more about this mission and when are you going to send him next time? Thank you.

SES: Thank you very much. First of all, what we are expecting from Moscow is something that you should ask particularly the Russian authorities who have been planning it and preparing for it, and I must say with a lot of urgency because it is happening very soon. We are hoping, more than expecting, that it will be a success, in the sense that it would be an opportunity for a genuine dialogue between Syrian representatives, but also Syrian authorities and Syrian representatives, about what could be a parameter for a further dialogue. We said it that we are in favour of any initiative and this one is a serious initiative, we hope. Why I say we hope, because we need to see when it takes place.

Now, regarding the further missions, well we will be doing a lot of shuttling as we always do, but we will do in it more intensely, in view of the fact that we would like to see a clear-cut answer by all sides on Aleppo in order to be able to assess the situation on the freeze. So, I am planning to have Ambassador Ramzy leaving early next week. We have been invited to come to Damascus, and we will then see how we follow-up on our side on that. The important thing, if we are promoting dialogue among Syrians, the last thing we should be is impatient ourselves about a dialogue that is dealing with such a delicate and complicated issue such as a freeze at the moment when everybody is still fighting. So I am not surprised, not disappointed, I am just determined and determined also to raise the fact that Aleppo cannot be abandoned because it is becoming the symbol of all what we said about 2015 in a way.

Thank you.