Transcript of press stakeout by Mr. Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, 10 November 2016
The fifth war winter is starting in Syria. There is no doubt it will be the worst in this cruel war, and I fear it will be a real killer in too many places. Because in spite of a massive humanitarian operation, the largest in the world, ongoing in and around Syria at the moment, with hundreds and hundreds of trucks every single month to civilians in need in Syria, there are hundreds of thousands of people we have not reached, as we should have, in preparation for winter.
Some of the areas are freezing cold, horrible conditions, and people will be in need of digging themselves down in the ground in extreme cases, because we cannot reach them, and we are not reaching them because we are being blocked physically or administratively, or because of cross-fire or insecurity. No place are we as worried at this time as for the quarter of a million civilians in east Aleppo. The last time east Aleppo was reached with significant humanitarian supplies was in the beginning of July, in the middle of the summer. The reports we have now from within east Aleppo is that the last food rations are being distributed as we speak. There will not be more to distribute next week. Some families have not had any distributions, families in need of relief, have not had any distributions for several weeks already. So prices are now skyrocketing on the market, food-wise, in east Aleppo. We have reports of desperation in families and within communities. It is a horrendous situation. It is also bad in west Aleppo, where we can reach with humanitarian supplies, but also there people are dying every single week, civilians, from the continued fighting.
That is why we have a UN initiative for east Aleppo that has four parts. We have gone to the parties and translated our initiative into Arabic, so it is now with the parties, the Russian, Syrian Government side, as well as with the armed opposition groups. We are urging the following four things: medical supplies in to the kneeling medical facilities in east Aleppo; medical evacuations out of east Aleppo for the estimated 300 or so patients that are in urgent need of medical evacuation, together with their families; the third element is food and other urgent supplies, humanitarian relief in to east Aleppo, and the fourth element is more medical personnel in to provide medical relief in east Aleppo. None of the four elements are conditional on the other, and should not be dealt with as such. Having heard back in the task force today, we are hopeful that both sides will, since the situation is so horrendous as it is, grant us the opportunity to both come with supplies into east Aleppo, and evacuate wounded and others out of east Aleppo.
It has not gotten better in the other besieged areas, and it got worse in east Aleppo. The Four Towns that are under the special arrangement made by Iran and Ahrar al-Sham, all relief into the Four Towns and medical evacuations out of the Four Towns have been paralyzed because of the conditioning between the two parties. So one of the issues we faced is that since students cannot go out for exams from two of the towns, medical evacuations cannot happen from the other two towns. I am mentioning this total paralysis because of the conditioning of aid between the parties to the Four Towns agreement in the context of also east Aleppo. I have not seen a place where there has been so much politicization, manipulation of aid, as we have seen in Syria in recent months. It has to stop. Parties and members of the Task Force, which are the countries that are sponsoring the parties on the ground, have to help us more, help the civilian people in the cross fire in Syria. Thank you.
Q: Russia has put in a lot of heavy weaponry around the Syrian coast including cruise missiles, and it says that it plans to use them in an offensive against Aleppo, the ongoing offensive against Aleppo. Do you fear that a dangerous escalation of what is already a brutal war, and what the consequences of this would be upon peace prospects, a peace settlement for Syria as a whole, and also for your ability to get humanitarian aid into Aleppo, you are not successful in doing it now, will this aggravate the situation?
I do indeed fear it could become much worse. It is terrible as we speak, it could get much worse. There has been a very good pause in air attacks on east Aleppo as you know. But there has been tremendous ground fighting, and I repeat it is also into west Aleppo from east, and the UN is at the moment relocated from west Aleppo, we do not have international staff there because the hotel where we had our well-known headquarters was directly targeted in west Aleppo. I am fearing it could get much worse; I am hopeful that we could get our UN initiative going again. I do not think anybody wants a quarter of a million people to be starving in east Aleppo. I cannot see anyone wishing to see so many civilians bleed to death in both east and west Aleppo because of indiscriminate war. I hope and believe we will be able to begin a new phase in our humanitarian work in Aleppo, both sides.
Q: Two weeks ago, I asked about the lessons which were taken from the failure of the first humanitarian pause, now we see that the second one also is a failure. What is the reason in your opinion? And how many pauses should be announced by Russia that finally United Nations could use them and help people?
We are as disappointed as you would be that we were not able to do neither evacuations [out of] nor convoys of supplies into east Aleppo during the last pause. And there are many lessons drawn, and one of them is that it becomes too complicated when there are so many conditions, so many preconditions given. We are not giving up, we are trying again, but am just telling you, yes, I have not seen a place where it is so difficult to do basic humanitarian work and supplies because of political and military and strategic conditions, and here I would say all sides could help us more.
Q: Could you tell us when did you put in this proposal, this four point proposal, when was that submitted? What reaction did you have to it? And secondly, why do you believe that nobody is interested in seeing a quarter of a million people starving in east Aleppo? I mean the whole current strategy of the regime seems to be precisely to see that town submit and surrender.
The UN humanitarian initiative was launched last week and has been with the parties now for a few days already. We are tasked to flesh out more details on how to implement the various elements of this plan.
And you know, I am not giving up and I am not either giving up in the intentions of the parties. I do believe we will be able to avert mass hunger this winter. I think we will be able to get both supplies in and evacuations out, and none of the two should be conditioned on the other.
(Follow-up): As part of that plan, are you proposing a 48-hour ceasefire or one week ceasefire? What are the conditionalities that you are imposing?
What we need is very simple. First we need the green light from all of the parties on the ground. It is a very dangerous operation to cross, potentially, front lines several times. We need green light from all of the parties on the ground. We need security guarantees. One of the lessons learned last time were that we had from some groups, but not others. We had from Russians first and only after a while from the Government, etc. We need from all parties. After having that, we need about 72 hours I would say to prepare the operation and then we need a few days and nights to do all of these elements. Because it is a big operation to feed a quarter of million people and also to do complex evacuations. Evacuations should be going both to Government and opposition controlled areas, and that again means it is complex security-wise and logistically.
Q: I have a couple of questions on the humanitarian situation and the inevitable Donald Trump question. On the humanitarian situation, have you got the November plan agreed or rejected yet? Has Russia given you any pledges or information on how long it plans to continue its pause? And are the 40 trucks still waiting on the border to go to Aleppo like they were, was it weeks or even months ago?
It was actually 20 trucks two days in a row, 40 trucks. The 20 trucks for the first convoy was standing there until we gave up the 48-hour pause initiative. But indeed it will be trucks, both, I believe, cross-border from Turkey and cross-line from west Aleppo to supply east Aleppo. We need to start again now. And we are ready to start again.
The Russian pause. We are in continuous contact with Russian diplomats and military, and it is my clear impression that they are willing to continue pause in air operations and that they are actively looking at, and I really hope to have soon green light for our humanitarian initiatives as part of this larger one.
Both in November and October we had really, the vast majority of locations were approved. There was a lower number of beneficiaries approved in many of these areas which we protest, we do not like Government second guessing how many civilians are in need on the other side. And then, there was a couples of places not approved. And I am sad to say east Aleppo was not approved neither in the October nor in the November plan. But it does not stop us; if we can get agreement on the pause, we believe we will also get agreement from the Government to supply east Aleppo.
Q: As my colleague from Reuters just mentioned, I would like to just ask you if you have had any contact with any American official since the election of President Trump, soon to be President Trump, and if you can tell us whether or not you are hopeful that the United States under President Trump and Russia will improve the prospects of getting humanitarian aid into Syria?
I can only say that we need uninterrupted full engagement by the United States in our humanitarian diplomacy in Syria and for the civilian population of Syria. We need it from Russia and we need it from the United States. It is only when these two co-chairs have been leading that we have made progress, when they have not we have been completely stalled. I cannot see it not really continuing. Syria is the worst war, the worst humanitarian crisis, the worst displacement crisis, the worst refugee crisis in a generation. So, we expect US help and engagement to be continued, uninterrupted, in the coming months.
Q: So no contact?
No, except the US was as active and engaged today in the Task Force as it was last week.
Q: You said you do believe that you will be able to avert mass hunger in Aleppo. I am just wondering on what you can possibly base that faith on? And if you have got airdrops as a last resort if you cannot get aid in on the ground? You must be thinking on how you are going to do it if rations are running out now?
East Aleppo is the only one of the 18 besieged areas that we have not been able to reach since it became besieged. We must and we will also be able to reach east Aleppo with supplies. Because indeed Russia and the other members of the Task Force will help us in that. I am convinced that it will happen, must happen. The consequences of no help, no supplies would be so catastrophic that I cannot even see that scenario. When is it going to be green light for supplies, next week, the week after, or the week after that? I don’t know, but it has to come soon because food distributions stopped today basically.
Air drops, we have learned, is not really possible in heavily populated urban areas. You need the kind of a large open space that we do have in Deir-ez-Zor, where there has been a 153 successful airdrops. The only way to reach Deir-ez-Zor is by airdrops, because we cannot negotiate, we are unable to negotiate any form of access through IS territory. We are able to negotiate with both sides in Aleppo, so of course we will also be able to go by land there.
For the other areas that are besieged, except possibly Foah and Kafraya, also there is no space available for airdrops, it will have to be helicopter delivery and that is too little, too expensively.
10 November 2016, Geneva, Switzerland