Transcript of press stakeout with Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, 24 November 2016

Geneva 24 November 2016

We just finished the meeting of the Humanitarian Task Force. It was another very somber report by our field personnel in Syria and outside, from Turkey. In the month of November, when we really needed to preposition a lot in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, cross-front line, we only could do one convoy so far in November. It went to Rastan in the Homs region; more than fifty large trucks with aid deliveries to more than 107,000 people. Numerous other convoys had to be aborted, could not move, could not be loaded at all because of either lack of facilitation letters by the Government, lack of security from the parties on the ground, lack of agreement on access roads, and endless problem on check points and with all of the many authorities in Syria that have to green-light even life-saving aid to those in greatest need.

We do hope to be able to go to the Four Towns this week-end, and it is urgent. In Madaya, I have seen images of stillborn babies because of malnutrition. According to these social media, the situation is also very bad in Foah and Kafraya, as it is in the other besieged areas.

We now have more than 900,000 people besieged in more besieged areas than at any time I can remember in this war in Syria. Why is there more besieged areas? Because the war has been changing, there have been offensives, there has been more encirclement of smaller areas and that means that they end up not only being hard-to-reach as they were, they end up being besieged, which is more than three months of no humanitarian access, no real freedom of movement for civilians, and full military encirclement.

These 16 areas besieged, with many sub-enclaves besieged, are in six governorates in Syria. But, more than in any other place, it is in Ghouta, east of Damascus city, where all of these new areas are located.

The largest besieged area is east Aleppo. We first presented our humanitarian plan to this Humanitarian Task Force that comprises all of the governments that are influential in and on Syria. We presented it on the 3 November, it is three weeks ago. About a week after, the detailed operational plan was prepared, and that one has been now with all of the parties for more than a week. We do now have written approval in principle by the armed opposition groups of east Aleppo. We have verbal support also from the Russian Federation on our four-point plan, we need written support, and we need unconditional support also from Russia, and we are waiting still for the answer from the Government of Syria. The trucks are ready. Humanitarian workers are ready. Courageous humanitarian workers will be able to go with hundreds of truckloads of medical equipment, food and all of the other things needed in eastern Aleppo city, and we are ready to evacuate hundreds of wounded to medical facilities in both west Aleppo and in opposition-held areas of Idlib. We are ready. We need approval of the parties and we need green light to locate back our staff that had to be taken out of west Aleppo city after the attack at our headquarters. I hope this can happen in the next few days.

It needs to happen in the next few days, because the last UN food has been distributed, there is no food left from the World Food Programme and the United Nations in east Aleppo city. And there is no medical facility that has not been hit in this war, the needs could not be more urgent in the medical sector. That is why we also discussed protection of medical facilities in the Task Force today. We want to try to launch a system that could get us out of this horrific situation in which medical facilities, clinics, hospitals, are attacked again, and again, and again. What would be the elements? Of course, monitoring of medical facilities so that they are not used for anything else than civilian and humanitarian use for wounded and sick. Secondly, marking of buildings very clearly and fully, and third is notification of localities of such clinics and hospitals to all of the military actors that are using air warfare to avoid any more attacks. Of course there then also has to be accountability for attacks. Under humanitarian law it is a war crime to deliberately attack medical facilities. I think that is my introduction.

Q: Russian Ministry of Defense said, answering I think your proposals, your plan, that it would be impossible to declare the new humanitarian pause. The United Nations should get guarantees from fighters from opposition groups in eastern Aleppo that they would not shoot, that they stop fighting, that is very important because it is impossible to do something without any guarantees. Before unfortunately it was them who were responsible, it is UN, Mr. Staffan de Mistura said here. What is your opinion on this statement?

In the earlier initiatives, we had the 48 hours pause initiative, and we had a medical evacuations initiative. We did not have the unconditional support and guarantees from the opposition side that we wanted. This time, I have seen now written declarations of support for the full four point humanitarian plan from the armed opposition groups. All that we have contact with in east Aleppo have said we support this initiative. So I think it is different now, we have that, and I believe this is all that we need. Of course, we will discuss operational details with all of the parties. So, we hope now to have full green light from both the Russian side and the Government of Syria side as well, and the signals today from the Russian side were positive. They say they support, our representatives in the Task Force, the four point plan, so we eagerly look forward to their full guarantees in the areas that Russia and the Government control.

Q: My first question is, you said hundreds of trucks are loaded and waiting to deliver humanitarian aids. So could you please give me the place where they are? So where are those trucks? And if you do not get any facility letters, if it takes a few days, it is urgent in eastern Aleppo, what is your Plan B for the next few days or next few weeks?

The trucks are there, both on the Turkish side, we will use the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and we will go with the supplies we have in Turkey cross-line; but we will also go with supplies and trucks that we would have in west Aleppo government-controlled areas. It is a combined operation. We need 72 hours count down from the time when we have green light from armed opposition groups, Russia, and the Government of Syria. If that comes in say 48 hours, or whatever, we can be there, we can start 72 hours later, with this big complex and dangerous operation.

What is my Plan B? I mean, let us realize plan A really. In many ways Plan B is that people starve, and can we allow that to happen? No, we cannot allow it happen. And let me just say what I also said in the group, I feel an enormous personal responsibility here, we have been working day and night every single day since we presented the east Aleppo initiative on the third of November. Clarifying, urging, begging, all of the parties. And I hear the voices from the civilians in the besieged areas are increasingly desperate, and it is not just east Aleppo, it is all of the other areas as well, they are increasingly desperate. This fifth winter will be by far the worst for the civilian population of Syria, and many of these areas have now been besieged for a very, very long time.