JE: Thank you very much, we just completed a Humanitarian Task Force meeting. It was a meeting where we had some rare moments of feeling that we achieved, through humanitarian diplomacy, what we have so many times before failed to.
First, Rukban, since January we have tried and failed to reach this most desolate place on earth, where 40,000-50,000 civilians have lingered, just on the border with Jordan; it’s in the desert. Between 3 and 8 November, 78 trucks—it was a very large convoy— were able to navigate through some of the most dangerous areas of Syria. It was able to reach and deliver supplies, food, health items, sanitary items, water purification, health items, for all of the population for at least a month. It could not have reached the place without active and positive deconfliction, which is security measures by the Russian Federation, within the area controlled by the Government of Syria, and then by the United States in coordination with Jordan in the area controlled by six armed groups. All of the items were successfully unloaded and are now with the people in need.
What we heard today were reports of horrific protection challenges inside, protection crisis inside. There are very many people who suffer inside the camp, and those who suffer the most are women and children. So, it really stuck with me the story of the 13-year-old mother, 13-year-old mother, who was pregnant again. She had delivered once in totally substandard conditions, there is not a single trained doctor active that I know of in the camp. So, we are now working to have another convoy there before the mid of December, that is urgently needed because winter is coming on this place in the desert.
However, even more importantly are the meetings we now have with the Russian Federation, with the United States, and with Jordan—the three of them have the keys to unlock this trap which is now for too many civilians in Rukban. The message from community leaders, from women, children, men, civilians whom we have spoken with now several times inside Rukban is that they want to go out. They will certainly want to go to different areas in Syria, some want to go to government-controlled areas, some to opposition-controlled areas. We need to negotiate with the six armed groups, we need to have a plan for those who are civilian families, for those civilians who are dependents of fighters, and then these governments have to make deals that is some kind of an exit for an end to armed existence in Rukban for the six armed groups.
It will be difficult, it is very much needed, and now is the time to do that, because we have a good cooperation between three countries I mentioned, and the UN teams in both Amman and in Damascus.
Also on Idlib I mean we now celebrate two months without air raids. I feared that this month of November would be the most horrific war month potentially of the war so far and it hasn’t been. It’s been the most quiet two months for the last five years in Idlib. However, there is more shelling along the outer perimeter of the so-called buffer zone around Idlib. It’s very tense inside the zone, the civilians inside, 2-3 million of them, the 12,000 humanitarian workers and we here still have a million questions of whether this is quiet before the big storm or this is quiet before peace.
What both Russia and Turkey told us again today is that they will go to great lengths to avoid military action, to avoid escalated armed conflict in Idlib. As long as their forces and bases are not attacked they are working to avoid bloodshed, and that makes us nervous, but it’s my job to worry and there are many signs that bad things will happen unless there are further breakthroughs in the negotiations with the numerous armed groups inside.
Also, a note on, how it is to live under armed group control. Armed groups with or without beards, and always with guns, are not known for their good governance. So, in Idlib there are many instances of now infighting among groups, bad behavior by groups, recklessness and ruthlessness. So, it’s no solution to freeze the situation as it is now, the civilians need better, they need a normalization of their situation.
Two more issues, there is a forgotten military campaign happening in the very east of Syria. Very few seem to notice that there are hundreds of air raids on these final Islamic State enclaves in the Hajin area, which is in east Deir ez-Zor Governorate. There are indeed many ruthless Islamic State fighters there, but there are also 10,000 civilians, in our estimation in the area held by this so-called Islamic State. Twenty-seven thousand people have been displaced since the US-led coalition and the Kurdish-led SDF forces started this campaign.
One of the many concerns are that when civilians flee this area they end up in screening camps, which they cannot leave, which are just next to the battle zone. At least once, Islamic State fighters have come and torched such a camp. We told again the coalition to work to immediately have these camps moved out of harm’s way and also really not treat women and children as suspects, but as civilians who need help—they are severely traumatized.
And finally, hundreds of air strikes and many more you know grenades and mortar attacks on an area full of civilians—is causing civilian suffering. The civilians in an area held by terrorists have the same protection under humanitarian law and we asked for more action to avoid the loss of civilian lives.
Finally, we also brought up Law 10 at this meeting. The Law 10 is a law that was promulgated last Sunday by the President of Syria, it was agreed by Parliament just before that. I bring it up here because I told you in the middle of October that I was glad to hear from the Russian side that this law was withdrawn; it was not, it is now promulgated. It had three good amendments though, the time limit to make claims on property have been extended from 30 days (which was a joke) to one year, which is still a very difficult period for people who are refugees to comply with. Secondly that if property is registered in the official registry of the land then there is no need to submit a claim to your property; however, most property was never in that registry, and it doesn’t solve the problem for all of those who know that, and who also lack any piece of paper as they fled elsewhere. Finally, it’s also in the law, that the expropriations that can be allowed with the law, can also be challenged in normal courts. All of this is just a very, very worrisome development for tens of thousands of families who are sitting in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey, in Iraq, and elsewhere very, very worried that they are going to lose their house and land and property in Syria, and they also debate should I return, and if my land is going to be grabbed can I return, is there anything to return to? So, what we are begging, is that there is now, and Russia wants to work with us on that, there is an implementation of the law, which is not taking land away from civilians who fled from war, that there is an awareness campaign to explain what it is, how it is happening, and while we have that there is a suspension in the implementation of the law. We also recognize that there are expropriation laws in all member states of the UN and there has been of rebuilding and land expropriated under any war in recent history, but this law has now created unnecessary worries by people who have too much to worry of to start with. I think that’s it.
Question: You had described the Rukban situation, you said, if I understood well, that there are six armed groups there and that people’s families and other civilians are due to come out of this camp. So how feasible do you think is this negotiation to allow the civilians to go out and could you tell us the numbers of civilians, and how many combatants are inside the camp?
JE: Well the latest I have is that there are around 40,000 civilians and then a handful of thousand armed men. There are at least six groups, one bigger, that really controls the inner perimeter of the camp, and five other smaller groups. What we know is that civilians want to leave there, I cannot think a worse place on earth now for woman and children. Especially for women, we heard a number of stories, this is the place where the need to movement really was needed most on earth and where it hasn’t been started, so let’s hope that we can have now the US, Russia, Jordan and us come with a plan which then presupposes also that we have an agreement also with the six armed groups, and I don’t really know what their intentions are, I know that the intentions of the civilians are to leave.
Question: I have a couple of questions, on Rukban shouldn’t Jordan let these people in as refugees? The second question is, on Idlib, is it becoming any clearer now what is the likely fate or the plan for the banned armed groups, people belonging to Islamic state or similar, what is the idea of the outcome for them. And on Law 10, is this essentially a one year deadline for the refugees to come back?
JE: Well, not necessarily. On Law 10, if I understand correctly, they need to come with the property claims within one year, they can do that from a distance. But imagine you being a single mother with five children in a tent in Beqaa valley, how can you do it? How can they do it? I see this as being a really, tremendous obstacle for people who have lost everything including their land and their property and their house that they didn’t really have full registry on which is the case of most properties in Syria.
Now on Rukban, well it is next to Jordan, Jordan has made it very clear that they have taken more refugees than nearly any country on earth and they say these people belong in Syria they need to find their safe landing within Syria.
And the first question was on Idlib. The remaining question which makes me worried really for Idlib is that I haven’t seen a lot of talks with or signals from the listed groups, listed as terrorist groups, that they are going to lay down their arms or seek amnesty, or get amnesty or be integrated in any ways, so are we ending up with a fight with at least some groups that could control territory with many hundreds of thousands of people? It will be a complete disaster, that’s why we urge, I urge, in all of the meetings, Russia, Turkey, Syrian government, everyone who has influence, to talk with everybody, and also, I ask these armed men: don’t take with you the civilian population as you go down, let’s have sanity prevail for once in Syria.
Question: Law 10 again, are you seeing land already being expropriated and is there evidence or are you concerned that this law essentially being used as a tool to redistribute land to particular ethnic or religious population to somehow consolidate government control on particular areas?
JE: Certainly the worry of very many people, the worry when you talk to refugees and displaced is that indeed this can end up as a land grab against certain groups and certain sects. I have not had much evidence of that at all but these are early days, the Damascus government has declared that they have now an urban redevelopment plans for one area after the other, starting now at the end of 2018 and being completed around 2023, 2024. But of course, I know of no war where you haven’t had an urban development planned which led to expropriations. So, it would also be very wrong to say Syria: you are the one country on earth that cannot do this, there will be urban development, I have seen how destroyed cities are, they are not going to be recreated exactly as they were. We are asking now for a dialogue with the government, that international community does that, that Russia helps with that, so that everything is done according to basic humanitarian and legal principles, including that people are informed, have a right to claim that is easy to exercise, and that they are compensated, and that also they can fight any expropriation that is wrong.
Question: Follow up on that, do you for example see eastern Ghouta being included in these urban development plans? Is there a provision for populations that were evacuated at the time of the siege to return from say, Idlib to eastern Ghouta?
JE: The whole intention including by the government and the Russians is that everyone should return, they are actually urging everybody to start returning. In eastern Ghouta there is not much to return to, it is (inaudible), it is completely destroyed in many areas, so they will not return there until there is a real rebuilding of many areas. But I have also seen that many of the areas that are planned there are in the initiatives, that the Damascus government also plans to remodel and reorient areas that had always been held by the government, so it is not necessarily only opposition held areas that have these initiatives. So, all of this can become a good process, all of this can become a very controversial land grab, let’s hope for the former.
Question: On Idlib, you said that there are many signs that bad things would happen, could you comment on these bad things do you know? And on the situation of eastern Syria where there are those Islamic State controlling areas where there are 10,000 civilians, what did the members of the Coalition say about the air strikes? Did they say that they will stop their attacks? What did they say about the civilians and what they are doing there?
JE: Well, the worry in Idlib is very clearly that most of the underlying unresolved conflict issues including that they are under control of armed opposition groups, the population is under the rule of armed opposition groups including the strongest of those listed terrorist groups, shows that of course the worst case scenario is still horrific war across enormous areas, but the way that Russia and Turkey tell us of their plans and their intentions causes optimism really, I don’t see the big war coming any time soon to Idlib, thank God.
On eastern Syria, what the Coalition tells us, the US-led Coalition tells us, including in the meeting today is that extreme precaution has been taken in the selection of targets, that the hundreds of targets have been selected because of Islamic State fighters being there, that the mosque that we have brought up that was hit, was not a mosque was an Islamic State command centre, so it is very hard to really check what is happening, the way it ended in Raqqa makes me nervous for how it could end in the much smaller Hajin area, too many civilians died in that campaign and in this campaign the Islamic State forces using civilians as human shields, are violating every rule of the book, but those attacking have no reason to slack in their attention to this being full of also women and children, and if they are dependents of Islamic State fighters they are still have protection. So too many civilians are dying in this area, that is how I see it.