Transcript of the Press encounter of Staffan de Mistura and Jan Egeland on progress of Humanitarian Access Task Force, 4 March 2016

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SDM: Good afternoon, thank you for your patience, I will address a few points that are of overall relevance to what we are trying to do: the current state of affairs of the cessation of hostilities and secondly how that has an impact on the humanitarian aid. I will give the floor to you Jan, and I will make some comments about the resumption of the Geneva Intra-Syrian Talks. Everything is in one way or not connected.

So let me first of all address the issue about cessation of hostilities which, as you know naturally, has an impact on making as effective as possible the urgent need of humanitarian aid to reach everyone in Syria, but particularly besieged areas. It has been now 6 days of cessation of hostilities. That is quite a period in any type of ceasefire or truce, especially after the conflict of 5 years. Overall, I will repeat what the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said and I think we can still stand for that. The level of violence in the country has been greatly reduced. Ask the Syrian people, many of our colleagues have done so. In general, the cessation has been holding. This is good news for many Syrian people. Unfortunately, we have to admit, like in every cessation of hostility or ceasefire, and in particular in this one, there are still a number of places where fighting has continued, including parts of Hama, Homs, Latakia and Damascus, but they have been contained and the two co-chairs which, as you know, are the crucial players in order to control the cessation of hostilities, which they, themselves have been facilitating, are paying close attention to the situation in Syria, so is the world. They are, so far, insuring that these incidents are contained, and we need to make sure that it is the case.

We are working ourselves as secretariat to support this, with the two co-chairs, to identify any possible negative trends that could have a potential of shaking the Syrian confidence in this process and to quickly intervene in order to make sure that the parties on the ground defuse the situation. The situation therefore could be summarised as fragile. Success is not guaranteed but progress has been visible, ask the Syrians. We are committed, and certainly the two co-chairs, of showing it and I have seen it with my eyes every day in the operation centre, they are committed to making it work, and of course this is the hope of everyone.

Now regarding the issue about the benefits, the deliverables of this, one of them is clearly the issue of what Syrian people detect apart from not having bombs. They want to see food and medicine, and I will leave it to you to elaborate on that.

Now, the issue of political process, because both humanitarian aid and the cessation of hostilities are extremely important in facilitating the atmosphere and the credibility of them. But they are not preconditions, the precondition for everyone is to see that a political process and a political solution will take care of the tragedy of Syria, and therefore where are we on that.

Well, I have indicated as a pencilled date, the afternoon of the 9th. I wanted to explain this to you because I owe it to you. I did say the other day that we need to have a pencilled date okay? We need to make sure that everyone knows that this is not open ended, and we need to maintain pressure both on the success of the cessation of hostilities and the delivery of aid in order to make sure that they do give a feeling of credibility to the people in Syria who want to see the political process being connected with facts on the ground for them.

We have now been looking at also the logistics. You know that there is the car show in Geneva. You may say that it’s not vital, well it is important because that means hotel availability. We are bringing people by plane from different locations, visa arrangements.

We are having also proximity talks, and the it means that we have a lot of flexibility to make sure that the delegations can come. For instance those who come on the 9th are very welcomed; we will then have prepared meetings. Then, others due to plane [flight ] problems will come on the 11th, others perhaps on the 14th. Proximity talks give that flexibility. The important thing is to start the momentum reaching the point when the political aspect will be addressed because that is what will make the endgame a stable one in Syria. We will keep you informed on that. I will take one question.

Q: You mentioned that the violence has been greatly reduced, I would appreciate if you could be specific on that, particularly in terms of metrics, that you have and numbers in terms of reduction of violence, thank you.

SDM: You will have to bear with me. In about 22 minutes we will have a taskforce meeting on exactly that aspect. Today I was going to simply give you an introduction to put it into context, because what we need to talk about is actually the humanitarian taskforce. After that it could be a good possibility to be more specific. Ladies and gentlemen, the floor is with my friend Jan. Thank you very much.

JE : The lack of humanitarian access in Syria has been one of the greatest challenges for humanitarian organizations this last generation. More than 4 million people live in so-called “hard-to-reach” areas, which is a euphemism for desperate people only getting sporadic, if any, relief. Nearly half a million people have been living now in besieged areas. It’s become a symbol of the impotence of the international community and of the cruelty of the parties on the ground.

In the last three weeks, there has been a separate task force of the International Syria Support Group. Have we made progress? Yes, compared to what was achieved last year, there is progress. In the first three months of last year, zero trucks reached any of the besieged areas in Syria. In the last three weeks, 236 trucks have served 115,000 people, many of these have received several convoys like in the town of Moadamiya, that got four convoys, or three convoys plus another few trucks yesterday. This was a place that had nothing for one and a half years before that time.

Have we progressed in lifting sieges in general or in closing dramatically the hard-to-reach areas in size and scope? No, not so far. So, there is a tremendous job to do, and a tremendous challenge that is before us now. What we have now is a taskforce that is working, in the sense that in-between meetings we can now get to members of the taskforce that go to the Government of Syria and solve problems for us, other members go to armed opposition groups and solve problems for us. We never had that kind of a mechanism, and that is in part why we failed so dramatically in 2015.

We believe that the cessation of hostilities will lead to a big leap forward – the big leap forward – in reaching many more people, hundreds of thousands or more people in the hard-to-reach areas and the remaining besieged areas. Hopefully, before the end of the weekend, we will be able to serve all of the locations in Kafr-Batna, another three-four besieged areas will then be covered.

Finally, we also have progress on the general procedures for reaching communities both in the so-called hard-to-reach areas and in the besieged areas. Our people on the ground have had to go through multiple steps to be able even to fill one convoy. At times it’s taken many months before permits were given, if permits were given at all. Now, we have indications from our humanitarian coordinator on the ground, Yacoub El Hillo, that there will be a much simplified system that will lead within less than two weeks - that the steps will all be covered, and we can fill convoys, and that that is part of monthly plans for access. Again, this together with the cessation of hostilities could be the game-changer that we have hoped for, for a very long time.

Q: What are you going to do about Deir ez-Zor? Are you going to try another airdrop, or is there any talk of trying to break the siege?

JE: Well, I don’t know of any plans to break the siege as such, that would have to be done on the ground. We cannot fill any convoys to Deir ez-Zor, where there are 200,000 civilians, mostly women and children. But the work to do airdrops is proceeding. It is very difficult, there has never ever, in the history of humanitarian work, been such a high-altitude, big and continuous airdrop operation as the one we still hope to be doing. There is a lot of preparatory work, tests are being performed, we hope to be back with good news to you before long, but I couldn’t say how many days or weeks it would take before it could start.

Q: We haven’t really seen much progress though to the besieged areas that haven’t been reached. As you said, they were getting more convoys to places that have already been served. When is this breakthrough moment going to come that we see convoys hitting the areas that haven’t been reached at all? We’ve got a cessation of hostilities now, it’s been there for six days. What is exactly preventing convoys leaving for those places tomorrow? We get a sense that the Government is not greenlighting this.

JE: Again, three-four locations in Kafr-Batna should be reached in the next – tomorrow, or before the end of the week, which would bring the number of besieged areas serviced from six to possibly ten. Deir ez-Zor is only the airdrop opportunity. So what remains is Darayya, Douma, Harasta, Arbin, Zamalka, Zabadin, Eastern Ghouta area. Very challenging. We have requests with the Government now. We’re waiting for a green light from there. But it also requires us to get green lights from all of the armed opposition groups to be able to enter. And that can also at times delay convoys. That’s why we also have members of the taskforce that help us with armed opposition groups.

Q: Could you tell us if the Syrian Government has agreed to your requests as part of the facilitation letters, as I’ve understood that you have been seeking? Facilitation letters, as they’re called? And also, have you gotten any agreement – you said that progress has been made – but have you gotten any agreement that the Syrian Government forces will not be removing medical equipment from the convoys, as they have in the past?

JE: As part of the new procedures, we need to have the green light also for medical supplies. Medical supplies, including surgical equipment, have been taken off convoys even of late. Other places, they’ve gone through. We need to have the green light for medical supplies as part of this new system of improved procedures. I’m hopeful that we will get that. The facilitation letter is a pretty formal thing, it’s even a note verbale that has to be presented to the Government to be able to go to a place. Again, simplification is what is sought, time is of the essence, so if we can get it then within days rather than indefinite time limits, it would be a big step forward.

Q: The opposition has asked different elements - the implementation of the resolution 2254, but also, if I recall well, that a list of prisoners, and particularly women and children, that had been put on the table during the last talks taking place in Geneva. What about the prisoners, that aspect?

JE: In this taskforce, which is the humanitarian access taskforce, we are not dealing with the issue of prisoners, which is a very important human rights issue. What we are dealing with are possible humanitarian evacuations, which would be wounded, sick people. An area where some progress has taken place, especially with the four towns agreement, but still a lot remains to be done. Civilians have the right to leave besieged areas, and wounded and sick need to leave to get proper treatment.