Transcript of Press Stakeout by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, 30 August 2018

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SdeM: My apologies for the short notice, but I was waiting also for the Secretary-General’s statement and to gather more information. The purpose of this press encounter is basically Idlib OK? - nothing else, Idlib, we would be able to talk next week about the political process and everything else. But you can understand that when there is a perfect storm coming up in front of our eye, potentially, we need to address first things first. That’s why this meeting [stakeout] and basically also the concept that the Secretary-General has referred to, about his deep concern about this chilling military potential escalation in the area of Idlib, and the potential implications for military escalation beyond Idlib, and Syria.

So next week we will have a special meeting [press encounter] on the political process, but this needs to be focus, and our focus.

The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings have taken in the last few days, that’s why the Secretary-General’s statement of yesterday and the OCHA one the day before, and today my own - perhaps going a little bit more into details with some facts, some comments and some ideas too.

Regarding the facts, I repeat them but you know them by now, but they need to be in front of our eyes when we talk about this Idlib area issue. There are close to 3 million people, OK? - people who are estimated to be packed, as Jan Egeland was reminding us the other day, to the brim, in a relatively small area, in what is the last, I repeat the last, and the largest, Astana de-escalation area. I was there in Astana where all de-escalation areas where announced and there were guarantees given, there was clearly a time factor in it, but still, this is the last one.

The 2.9 million people, I repeat again, include 1.4 million who already have been displaced at least once, in other words, these are the people who have been moving from one place to another, we all knew and feared that one day this will be the case in Idlib, but these are the people who have already been displaced, many of them are women and children.

Of the 2.9 million people, we just referred to, 2.1 million are already, currently, even before the military escalation, in need, and receiving or trying to receive, humanitarian aid, before what they fear would be the battle for Idlib.

Now Idlib has another fact, and we have to recognise it, an extremely high concentration of foreign fighters and in particular the highest number of al-Nusra, al-Qaeda fighters, no one is questioning that and I will go back to that.

There is another point, no other Idlib, where can they go? Where anyone can go? So far, every time there was a crisis and there was a conclusion of that one crisis, there was a place where many could opt to go, there is no other Idlib.

It would be a tragic irony frankly, if at almost the end of what we consider at the moment in front of our eyes, a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians. This would be quite tragic at this stage having seen how difficult these seven years have been.

So, some comments: the first one, no one doubts, and I don’t see anyone doubting, except themselves perhaps, that al-Nusra and al-Qaeda are terrorists, and that terrorists identified by the UN need to be defeated, that’s what they have been trying to do with everyone elsewhere. And indeed, the estimates of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, whatever name they want to call themselves, is more or less around 10,000 of them, plus families. Now the people in the Idlib large area are 2.9 million people, so there is and can be no justification in order to fight, rightfully, terrorists, to not avoid using heavy weapons in densely populated areas.

The Secretary-General has clearly reminded everyone, and I am doing it through him, that the systematic use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas may amount to war crimes. Now, while no one questions, therefore, the right for fighting and defeating UN-identified terrorists such as al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, and no one doubts also the right of Syria to ultimately recover all of its own territorial integrity, no one is doubting it, at least in UN declarations, why such a hurry and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors, they are the ones who announced and provided guarantees originally for this last, but hugely inhabited de-escalation area.

While we are talking, there are some discussions taking place, and we hope that they will be fruitful but that doesn’t mean that we should be not worried, on the contrary, we are worried about any hurried escalation.

Now the Russians are arguing, and they have a point, that drones are trying to hit their own military base on a regular pattern, this is very serious any country would react to that, but can these drones be neutralized and surgically hit their own original location without having to have a massive military escalation? That is the question we are raising.

The Government argue, and have their own point, that they need to make safe, strategically important roads, now I will show you one [shows a map], but you are probably familiar with them. There are two important roads that everyone is looking at, here they are, the A4 and A5, these are areas in rose which are important for commercial and for everyone else to move. But in order to make those roads safe, do we need to have an all-out worst case scenario on the whole area of Idlib, with 2.9 million civilians, waiting and being squeezed between those who want to defeat the terrorists and those terrorists who want to stay and keep the population there.

Now, bottom line, as I said at the beginning, there is a perfect storm based on warnings, counter-warnings which is gathering around, and due to the dilemma, which is a true dilemma, on how to defeat terrorists in Idlib and at the same time avoid affecting a huge number of civilians. So, while we are aware that efforts and discussions are taking place to avoid the worst-case scenario one cannot ignore that miscalculations may indeed occur leading to unforeseen escalations and we are all very much concerned. We already went through that in the past, and we need to make sure that this will not happen again.

So, the issue of avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial and would be totally unacceptable. We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponised chlorine, that’s the one people are talking about, not sarin. Hence an increased concern by all of us, and everyone else, and alert.

Conclusion: there is no easy way to find a fair solution to the Idlib worst-case scenario, but one can also say: 1- We need to maintain the moral pressure to not hurry with any drastic military option especially the one leading to worst-case scenario, and 2- allow more time for a sustainable formula, a formula which could be in a way be linked to fighting, yes, terrorists but save the population. 3- We need to reduce the risk of unexpected escalation and definitely look with great concern on any potential use of chemical weapons or any type of weaponised chlorine. We need to see countries, who do have something in common, a lot actually, be united on fighting terrorists, protect civilians, and consider unacceptable any use or misuse of chemical weapons.

There are ways to save people but we need the government to actually cooperate and provide guarantees for their own well-being with humanitarian presence. I give you an example. One avenue would be to: 1- Not accelerate military escalation and give a little bit more time for this type of discussion, 2- Allow and facilitate a credible humanitarian corridor to allow civilian population to temporarily evacuate to a safer area, but that area is most likely is under government control, so that requires a constructive, effective government support and a UN presence. If that takes place, then that would give more time also for the three guarantors to work out something that would avoid the worse-case scenario.

You probably remember during the horrific period of Aleppo when al-Nusra did refuse my own offer to accompany them out, and they went to Idlib, and we lost two months at least and thousands of people died because of that. So, I am once again prepared, once more, personally and physically, to get involved myself, with the government cooperation this time because that is an area where they are in charge of outside Idlib, to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so they can then return to their own places untouched once this is over.

Thank you.

Question: The Russians are planning war games in the Mediterranean and I wonder if you have asked them to explain whether that has anything to do with the Idlib planning and whether they have given you any reassurances? And similarly you mentioned the Astana three, but you haven’t mentioned the Americans and I wonder if you talked to them about this situation and what they’ve said?

SdM: Yes, we are talking to all major players and the Russian Federation and the US are crucially important, especially because as you can see there have been warnings and counter warnings coming from both countries, and that is why we are touch with each one of them. Regarding their own positioning of military assets, or threats of using military assets, I would not make any comments on that, although anyone who looks at the map on the Mediterranean and around can be detecting that this is not coincidental. The word is not coincidental but accidental.

Question: M. de Mistura a réservé cette conférence de presse pour parler d'Idlib, cela veut dire que vous avez les informations que l'offensive est toute proche. N'est-ce pas si je me trompe? Parce que, donc, lié directement avec tout ce qui se passe sur Idlib, on a la sensation qu'on est bientôt sur la bataille. Deuxième chose, quand on parle d'une éventuelle utilisation d'armes chimiques, là il y a deux visions. La première c'est que les États-Unis, la France, la Grande-Bretagne ont parlé de cette éventualité il y a quelques jours. Donc là vous répétez pratiquement la même chose. L'autre vision, la vision russe et du Gouvernement syrien, qui dit que à chaque fois il y a une offensive on parle de cette utilisation et - donc, du point de vue gouvernement et Moscou, on a pas besoin d'utiliser d'armes chimiques tant qu'on fait des progrès sur le terrain. Merci.

SdM: Regarding the first point I don’t have any specific information about any imminent attack, what I do have eyes and information regarding preparations and build-ups and messages and declarations, and the fact that while we are talking two of the main guarantors, in this case Turkey and Russia Federation, are trying, and we hope will succeed, in avoiding the worst-case scenario but we are very much concerned because if that is not found as a formula, and a credible formula (as we said to avoid civilians and the same time address the issue about terrorists), then this warning and our concern today becomes eminent.

Regarding the use of weaponised chlorine or any type of chemical weapons I think I made a comment before and I will not go beyond that also because I do not have the competence to elaborate on that.

Question: Oui bonjour, Agence France Presse. La première question c'était concernant les couloirs humanitaires. Est-ce que vous avez fait une demande, est-ce qu'il y a une demande officielle auprès du Gouvernement syrien? Est-ce que vous avez déjà eu une réponse ou un message quelconque? Et puis si je peux me permettre, pour la réunion spéciale pour la semaine prochaine, est-ce que vous pouvez nous en dire juste un petit peu plus? Et je vous laisse aussi répondre en anglais si vous voulez.

SdM: Regarding the meeting, the political process, I will not say anything today frankly. We have ample time for that and there will be a meeting [press encounter] specifically dedicated to the political process. But you will understand if this explodes in one direction or another, everything else becomes if nothing else delayed or complicated I hope this will not be the case, we are working hard in avoiding that.

Now, we have not yet discussed with the government and with the guarantors the humanitarian corridor, I am making publicly my availability on it today through you. Why I have not yet discussed it, because we hope that this is one of the subjects that the three guarantors in particular, Turkey and Russia are discussing and Russia maybe discussing themselves with the government. But the moment I would have a feeling that this is potentially possible we definitely intend to discuss it very intensely with the government, they are a sovereign government, and they control a large part of the territory just outside Idlib. So short of going to Turkey those civilians have no other option in order not be where fighting may take place.

We are having on 10th and 11th September the dates of the first meeting, the so-called Astana ones instead the 11-12 because of some scheduling arrangements. The other one as you know is meant to take place on the 14th, that I can say without elaborating so we have the same dates in front of us.

Thank you very much.