Transcript of Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Adviser, Mr. Jan Egeland, 1 September 2016

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SdeM: Good evening. We had a very intense and long meeting as you can see on humanitarian side, of the Humanitarian Task Force. There was a lot to be discussed and I think Jan will be able to elaborate further on that, particularly because developments in various locations inside Syria at the moment.

So let me first of all try to give you an idea on where we are on the political process. The discussions are ongoing at the very senior military, security and diplomatic level between the Russian Federation officers, and American officers and representatives. They are taking place since yesterday and they are ongoing until probably Friday or Saturday morning. They are important, they are the follow up to what John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov indicated to all of you late on Friday, as you remember, after their own meeting. And they are important in the sense that they are part of these ongoing discussions between the Russians and the Americans on the follow up of what was the so called understanding which took place in Moscow between Sergey Lavrov, President Putin and John Kerry on how to bring a renewed and solid momentum to the cessation of hostilities.

So in that context, I think we should be wishing them good luck and hard work. We are supporting those discussions because we are very keen, as you can imagine, in ensuring that type of cessation of hostilities being renewed. Everything else is marginal comparing to that because even aid is being stopped or not reaching places because the intensified fighting.

Eyes probably are going to be very much focused on what maybe happening at the G-20 meeting in Beijing, which is just next Sunday. So we are all connected on that.

So taking into account what would be the outcome of what I just mentioned to you, we are planning to indicate quite clear political initiative during the week preceding the General Assembly. That is the right time to do it because the next real appointment is going to be the 21 of September when in the UN New Zealand has already, as president of the Security Council, indicated its intention, and the Secretary-General will be attending and present there, to have a high level meeting on Syria. So that is the target date for making sure that everyone is actively involved in producing some positive outcome on this conflict.

Regarding Aleppo, the 48-hour pause, the position is as indicated by me on the 27th of August and the message still stands: we are ready, we said it today, and we are ready to move any time as possibly indicated through the various sides, but Jan may want to indicate more about it.

Regarding other subjects, I just want to raise one thing, I hope that the Guardian will be generous enough and kind enough to actually publish on its own pages, and hopefully on its front pages, with equal relevance, the request that Stephen O'Brien has made for a reply to what is considered a very unfair analysis, without the opportunity for UN Staff in Damascus, who are risking their lives, to actually present their position. So I hope that will be happening, that’s an appeal to the Guardian on behalf of all of us. Thank you.

JE: Today is the first of September, so this was a stock-taking meeting in many ways, what we achieved in August, and we were only able to reach three of the 18 besieged areas in August, Deir-ez-Zor by air drops and then Al-Waer with two convoys and east Harasta with one. It is around one third or less of the population in besieged areas.

We also were expecting today to get an answer back from the government on our request to reach 1.2 million people in September, which we are able and willing to reach including the population in all of the besieged areas in the course of September. It is the first of September and we haven’t even gotten an answer back on that yet.

Probably the largest humanitarian operation on earth is available in and around Syria for the population. There are many trucks moving every single day to the areas where we have access, 590 trucks cross-border in the course of August. Even more through the operation in the areas that can be reached from Damascus and other areas inside Syria.

We are prevented from going to most of the besieged areas; and it is heartbreaking, and no place was more heartbreaking than the fate of the people of Darayya that gave up in this last week, after four years of being besieged, and only having been reached with one single convoy in spite of the weekly requests by the UN and other partners for four years to reach the population of Darayya.

We were not part of the agreement, a report was however given to the humanitarian task force by our colleagues who were asked to come to Darayya by the people in the community there, after the deal was made, and as they had been told to leave Darayya. Our colleagues were able to see that one group got to collective centers in the Damascus area, we have been able to hear from non-governmental organizations and community groups that another part of this community reached Idlib and are there now, and third part of the population of Darayya are now in Moadameya, another besieged area that we were not able to reach in August but we were requesting to go in the next couple of days. That will also allow us to meet with the people of Darayya which is in Moadameya and hear how did it go, and how the situation is.

The task force failed the people of Darayya, we all failed the people of Darayya, I failed them and it is really sad to think of what they went through over these years. There are now urgent fears of communities in Al-Waer in Moadameya, in Madaya and in Foah and Kefraya. They all fear for their future, and we need to break the sieges. A siege is not broken by the population giving up after starvation and after bombing, a siege is lifted by humanitarian access and freedom of movement, in and out, by the civilian population.

And that is the commitment of the members of the humanitarian task force. They were selected to sit on this because they have signaled that they had influence on the ground, they had interest on the ground. What we said today was, with all due respect their influence and their effectiveness to help us, a courageous humanitarian work on the ground, has diminished in recent weeks.

What was a consensus was that September must be better, it can be better, should be better. Aleppo is one of the areas where we are ready to go immediately when there is a 48-hour pause, but we are still negotiating the access road and the modalities of this, including with the armed opposition groups. It is urgent that we get an agreement, we were informed today that there is now 4000 food rations left that could be enough to feed 20,000 people and the population of Aleppo is quarter of a million. I am hopeful that we will have a breakthrough, it is not a failure of willingness and ability to go there, we have volunteers to go, always, even to the most dangerous places. Thank you.

Q. Concernant les réunions entre Américains et Russes, surtout en ce qui concerne la situation de l’arrêt des 48 heures. Est-ce que a ce stade des négociations, vous croyez qu’il y a un avancement, est-ce que nous allons aboutir a quelque chose ce weekend, selon votre vision ? Deuxièmement, le bureau de l’ONU à Damas est accuse par certains groupes de l’opposition d’affaires de corruption avec le régime, quel est votre avis ?

SdeM: Sur le premier point, les discussions actuelles qui ont lieu entre les Américains et les Russes à un niveau très haut et très opérationnel vont bien au-delà de la trêve de 48 heures. La pause de 48 heures était demandée par l’ONU pour donner du temps à la population pour que il y ait une trêve beaucoup plus efficace qui aille bien au-delà d’Alep, la preuve c’est Darayya. Donc, on espère que ces discussions qui ont duré trop longtemps puissent aboutir. Le temps est compté parce qu’on arrive au 21 septembre, et il y a le G20 le dimanche, donc la pression est forte.

Sur la question des accusations, ce sont des accusations tout à fait injustes et je donne la possibilité à Stephen O’Brien de pouvoir répondre parce qu’il a toutes les données pour le faire. Je vous donne deux exemples. Ceux qui portent ces accusations pensent qu’on est sur la lune ou dans une zone de guerre ? Est-ce qu’ils se rendent compte que nos collègues qui sont sur le terrain sont obligés de traiter avec ceux qui contrôlent le terrain ? Il y a 10,000 avions qui sont passés de l’autre côté contre la volonté du gouvernement. Je suis sûr que les gens qui contrôlent ces zones ont aussi voulu qu’on passe à travers certains groupes à eux, certains camions à eux, c’est malheureusement la réalité, en Somalie, au Soudan, en Afghanistan, en Iraq, partout. On n’opère pas sur la lune, mais dans une zone de guerre. Pour travailler il faut passer à travers ceux qui contrôlent le terrain pour arriver à la population. 13 millions d’habitants ont besoin d’aide. Un autre exemple, pour l’utilisation du téléphone portable, est-ce que vous croyez que l’opposition n’utilise pas le téléphone ? évidemment ! nous on les appelle à travers les téléphones portables. Qui contrôle ces lignes téléphoniques ? C’est malheureusement une réalité sur le terrain. Ils ont pas tous des Thurayas. Donc on paie les téléphones. Est-ce un crime ? Il faut opérer à travers ces téléphones portables pour pouvoir rejoindre les gens. Dernier point, on va à l’hôtel, quel hôtel ? L’autre jour on a commémore la mort de pleins de nos collègues a Bagdad, au Canal Hotel. La sécurité a dit à nos collègues que l’endroit le plus sûr duquel ils peuvent opérer, mais qui coûte plus cher, est l’hôtel de leur résidence actuelle. La vie de nous collègues nous est très chère, et nous ne devons pas être punis à cause de ça.

Q: Vous avez parlé d’une initiative politique avant l’Assemblée Générale, est-ce que vous pouvez clarifier la date, et puis est-ce que vous pouvez faire un commentaire sur la récente offensive Turque en Syrie ?

SdeM: Pour la question de la date et du contenu, je vous expliquerai tout ça durant la semaine qui précèdera l’Assemblée Générale. Nous sommes en préparation d’une initiative politique qui sera importante et qui va aider l’Assemblée Générale à regarder dans les yeux le problème syrien. Je ne peux pas vous dire plus. Pour la question de l’intervention turque, nous la suivons avec beaucoup d’attention, c’est une question que je devrai encore étudier mieux pour en savoir où ils sont et quels sont les enjeux.

Q. Mr. de Mistura you mentioned this political initiative in September, you have just missed a second deadline to resume the peace talks, you had aimed for the end of August, you had previously wanted to have it at the start of August, and now it sounds like you are just going back to the General Assembly to take up the matter. When we can possibly imagine a resumption of these talks, given this, and if you can please address, what I thought was a very frank comment from Mr. Egeland just a moment ago, about the failure in Darayya, the failure of the task force, we have all failed, I think it was the way that you phrased it. How much are you concerned that the ceasefire is dead, more or less dead, the talks are stalled, the humanitarian aid was slim to none in the last month and you showed very great anger about it, how concerned are you that your role is still relevant? And that maybe these failures need some sort of a jolt?

SdeM: First of all let me give you a feeling here. While you are seeing in both Jan and me and my colleagues in Damascus and in New York and elsewhere and in Geneva a strong feeling of outrage, and of disappointment. The more we see that happening, the more determined we are in not abandoning or letting the Syrian people down. So don't interpret please any of those events which are terrible and are sad, as an indication that the UN, ourselves, are by any way saying we are giving up on the Syrian people and on a solution. But at the same time, let’s be frank, it would be naïve, not even logical if we were coming up with any type of initiative that will be out of context or out of timing. Should we be ignoring the fact that there is clearly a strategy at the moment to move from Darayya to Al-Waer to Moadameya in a similar pattern? Should we be ignoring the fact that while we are all agreeing that there is a political solution there is at this very moment a militarization of the conflict? Should we be ignoring the fact that while this is happening there is a genuine, otherwise I would have said the different, there is a genuine serious attempt still between the two co-Chairs to come up to an agreement and me prejudging that one instead of using it as an opportunity for a political process? So you have an answer there. It is not about deadlines, about dates, about the first of August, it is about realities.

Q. I have a question for Mr. de Mistura, maybe for Mr. Egeland. I wanted to ask a little about the specifics of Aleppo talks, it seems to me that this is the microcosm of the whole situation. Is it contingent in any way to the outcome of the US-Russia talks? Are the US and Russia involved? Can you explain how the deal about the 48-hour truce is done, I mean is it the UN is talking to the two sides in Aleppo and trying to find a compromise and then you will announce it? I just don't understand how this is going to take place.

SdeM: I was just referring to it at the HTF. Context, Aleppo was and is divided into two parts, to a certain degree those two parts were in a static environment, still with a lot of unfortunate events, barrel bombs, hospitals being hit, you know the story and on the other side, what they called “canisters” hitting people. So it was ongoing, but in a rather static environment. Suddenly, the developments became militarized. History will be able to see who started first, I can’t really frankly be able to judge it but there was an acceleration of the military events, and the outcome of it was the closing down of the Castello road. Castello road was the life-line for eastern Aleppo. We always knew it, we always spoke about it. So the next step was that both the Russian and the Americans were discussing, and still are, the broader cessation of hostilities agreement but the UN who is expected and does care about the people said that while you are all discussing about the broader cessation of hostilities and while military activities on one side or the other attack, counter-attack, you know it, people should be getting aid, in particular those in eastern Aleppo because the road has been cut off. That's when the UN said that as an interim arrangement, we are saying can we not at least during this very unpleasant militarization events of Aleppo, give a chance, two days out of seven, to be able to pause for UN humanitarian assistance to the people. So at least two days, the other days unfortunately the conflict will be continuing. That's when we expected the Russians to say yes, and you remember they did, after they have proposed first three hours, and we were expecting the opposition, on the other side, to say yes, so that our colleague could be actually moving the trucks safely, they need both sides. That's when things got complicated, and I don't need to elaborate further, that doesn't mean that it is closed no.

You were asking how was all this linked to the overall American –Russian discussions? It is linked because Aleppo became a matter of a lack of trust, additional lack of trust between the two sides, in view of the sudden militarization of it. But it is not the whole picture. The picture of the discussion between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry is about a much more important and larger type of cessation of hostilities, and that's why in a way Aleppo needs to be seen in this context and not as the main issue being discussed at the moment between Russians and Americans.

Can we give a chance to Jan to explain a little bit more about Aleppo?

JE: I have asked myself many times is it worth it this work? You would feel that we are making so little progress. The reason I continue is that the only way we have to unlock the bars between us and women and children in these places is that we get the men in suit and tie, and uniform or with Kalashnikov to be convinced by members around that table that they need to unlock the doors so we are able to get in to those women and children and wounded and others who need us the most.

We are routinely blocked and we as humanitarian workers cannot unlock that door. The Russians, Americans, Iranians, Saudis, Turkish, other members of the task force can, and we made that happen, especially I would say, in the February, March and April period. We went to places we hadn’t been in years, that will happen again, I think, that's why I continue. We would fail them even more if we now said it is hopeless and turn our backs to the whole thing. It is not hopeless, we can get back there, but then we need these countries, sponsors of the actors on the ground, to help us more.

Q: Just to follow up, just to be clear, is it a matter wrangling over Ramousseh verses Castello road, or is it a much bigger problem? I mean are you optimistic that once you have sorted out the question of the access road for example you might come up with some sort of agreement or with thousands of troops pouring in from all over the place is it just yet another situation where there is diplomatic thoughts but the fighting is going on and on and there will never be a deal?

SdeM: Well I can’t contradict your feeling that as we said what is leading currently the situation in Syria is militarization. No doubt. But at the same time I hope you will understand that while we are all supporting and pushing for some type of cessation of hostilities, we will do all what we can to bring aid to the people so that meanwhile at least they are not affected but what we saw in Darayya. The rest I will be able to tell you more about it next week, because we have to give a chance to these meetings to take place and they are taking place. If they were not taking place I would have told you more. But they are.

Q. I got the impression from your remarks that you are concerned that Darayya is just the first in a whole series of potential [inaudible] and the opposition seem to fear that it is kind of the way things are going now. Is it your understanding that some people have reported that population of Aleppo is also calling for an evacuation from Aleppo? Do you see this trend gathering steam? And secondly, opposition negotiators say that while this situation develops militarization, there is really nothing on the table could persuade them to come to Geneva at this stage. How do you see the way forward? SdeM: First of all I concur with your fear and the indication that after Darayya we may have other Darayyas and that could be a strategy taking place at the moment on one side and that's why I think that it is very important to notice what Stephen O’Brien did as a statement about what are the implications of other Darayyas. And frankly even my own statement on Darayya, a few days ago. Regarding the outcome of all this, well I do not to prejudge obviously what I cannot control, in other words, the militarization of this conflict, that is clearly taking place and there is acceleration, no doubt on that, but I do maintain the fact, and I think many others concur, that whatever is the militarization of the conflict and whatever are this Darayya or the next Darayyas, god forbid, we will not have a solution to this conflict unless there is a genuine political process. You can take over a city, we already said it, you can actually destroy a city, empty a city, but then, what is the next step. That is why I am still quite hopeful that all this has a logic, why the Russian and American sides are still discussing intensely, and why a UN proposal for political talks, in spite of this, particularly if we do have some original ideas, may still be quite an indication of what way to go. Militarization will lead no way, it will lead to pyric victories and no end of the conflict.

For Aleppo, I have not heard of any discussions and there is no discussion on it.

JE: I would be more concerned actually with the situation now in Al-Waer, Madaya, where there is a [suspected] meningitis outbreak, and where we hoped we were going to medically evacuate people today and we couldn't because of the fighting, but of course when there are epidemics, when we hear about severe malnutrition in Madaya, it just shows that the situation becomes unbearable in many of these places and the indiscriminate attacks on some of these smaller places make them very vulnerable, but no, eastern Aleppo is a quarter of a million people, and I have not heard anyone talking about evacuation.

SdeM: if Darayya was a shock, Al-Waer is 75,000 people, ok? Just to give an idea. Thank you very much.

Geneva, 1 September 2016