Transcript of Stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Adviser Jan Egeland, 17 August 2017
Geneva – 17 August 2017
SdeM: Good morning. There has been a while we have not seen each other so I think it is a good time for also sharing the broader picture with you, I will then take obviously some questions, and then Jan will be focusing on the humanitarian aspect and the meeting that we have been having just now. And we go from there.
So, let me start with some general comments. August and early September should be considered preparations for, in my opinion, , a very significant October/November. I will try to hint to you why.
Meanwhile what we are seeing is more agreements local agreements, as we call them, or coordinated ceasefires, which would probably be a better word. And you may be seeing or hearing about more of them, in the next days.
As you know the UN is in favor of anything that reduces violence, and we try to facilitate and support any of such initiatives, because that is what the people want. No more shooting, no more fighting.
Details regarding one in particular in the South are still being discussed, but we have already seen a reduction of violence in spite of the fact that it has not been totally concluded. And we are hoping to see, and actually today we saw, already, the first result while we were attending the meeting, with a convoy of 50 trucks led actually by our own humanitarian Coordinator, Ali Al-Za'tari, which reached Douma, reaching 45,000 people. So we are starting seeing some of the operational results of a letter, that you are familiar with probably, which I received in August from the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Mr. Shoigu, in which he was indicating that there was going to be an impact on the speed of allowing convoys to get through to areas which have been reaching a de-escalation agreement. This in order to make sure that it would be less complicated than in the past, by having military Russian observation points making the movement of aid quicker and facilitated than in the past. We have seen just today one of those examples and I am expecting and hoping that this will become a pattern.
Regarding new facts on the ground, well you are going to watch between now and October certainly an increase in the fight for the liberation of Raqqa and the areas around Deir ez-Zor and that is linked also to some concerns that we will be referring to regarding the civilian population in both locations, which need not to be suffering or to be stopped from leaving those places.
Now regarding aid, and you will hear many more details from Jan, there has been a trend up from six million, more or less, in January, there is now nine million people inside Syria who are been reached by aid. We believe and hope that the new Russian Federation approach, the one I have just referred to you, and the creation which we are strongly supporting of a problem solving cell in Damascus with the presence of our humanitarian coordinating team and Russian Federation military and government to make sure that this may would produce a much faster outreach of humanitarian convoys, the trend of which, we have seen today, but of course the “proof is in the pudding” and therefore we need to see more of that.
There is also the hope and it has a political implication that we have, in view of this new trend, the preparation of many trucks already loaded and ready to go to Yarmouk and to Kefraya and Foua. Kefraya and Foua in particular but also Yarmouk had become iconic, symbolic. In Kefraya and Foua, for instance, there are 8000 people, civilians who happen to be a minority of Shi’a community in the area, who have been waiting endlessly now, for some type of relief. We hope this will be moving. If this moves it is a good sign and we should in that case appreciate both Russian for contributing quite a lot in ensuring that this happens.
Now some political and general comments and a little bit on the possible scenario between now and October. The so-called Astana process , from our understanding, did produce some potentially significant progress. While Idlib is still a subject of internal and intensive discussions. Astana therefore, has been postponed several times, nothing wrong as long as we produce outcomes. And I think that the most likely, but it is up to them to announce it, opportunity for a next Astana meeting to consolidate what we believe is being some significant improvement or progress is likely, to take place just after the Holy Eid, in other worlds, early September. The date is up to those who organize it, to announce it of course.
Now this brings me to the technical talks. You might have heard, that we have been originally planning to have some of those technical talks next week, but like Astana, we too have the capacity of and the willingness to adjust to the environment and to make sure that whatever we do has a constructive impact. And you are probably aware of the fact that there are intensive internal discussions within the opposition, at the very time we are talking, in order to develop their own, perhaps new, or re-visited approach to negotiations, hopefully with a more inclusive and perhaps unified approach. We have come to the conclusion that the opposition, different identities, does require more time in order to come up with a more inclusive and perhaps even more pragmatic approach, and need more time to do so. And therefore we have postponed those technical talks. A little bit like Astana has been doing it too, we are adjusting to when is the right time.
Around the end of August the Security Council will be requiring a briefing from myself on behalf of the Secretary-General and I will be asking of course their guidance for the next steps including technical talks and the official talks. The official talks in Geneva are still being planned if possible just before the General Assembly because we believe it could be helpful, but we will be getting back on that, they are likely to be very short, because the timing before the General Assembly and the end of Astana talks and the Eid will make everything a little bit more dense. And we may be eventually focusing on the agenda for the real talks that we hope will take place in October.
So you will have Astana, probably, end of August. You will have early September the Holy Eid then you will have possibly the Geneva talks, if we feel the timing and the appropriate moment is there, then you will have the General Assembly High Level, which is a period which is taking place between the 18th onwards of September, where very likely there will be a discussion at quite at a high level, regarding the next steps about Syria.
So, October is going to be crucial and early November. By then, we may have developments taking place in Raqqa, where the liberation of Raqqa hopefully will be proceeding, around Deir ez-Zor and then the big issue about the future of Idlib. All three of them have a strong implication on what can happen on the humanitarian side. By that time probably we will see in October also a conference, which has been rumored to take place, regarding the future organization of the opposition possibly with a format that will be very inclusive and pragmatic and by that time hopefully also the government will be helped by those who have influence to be ready finally to start discussing and negotiating based on an inclusive credible political process.
Bottom line, a lot of moving parts between now and October-November and a lot which has been moving during this year, in terms of front lines, in terms of frozen front lines, becoming now much more fluid, and in terms of also a potential for serious negotiations.
I will stop there I will take four questions and then I will give the chance to Jan.
Question: Could you please elaborate on the dynamics within the opposition that you expect could move the needle, I mean sitting here I have to infer that they may be contemplating a softening on position of the President which obviously has been the stumbling block for seven previous rounds, what are the forces in play as those groups seek to get together at one table?
SdeM: I have lot of respect for the very intense current internal discussions which are taking place within HNC and within also the other platforms which represent the opposition, so I will not make any comment about what I am expecting from them. What I think you can do is wait a little bit and see how all this develops into what we hope a unified platform. If not a unified opposition, with a pragmatic, constructive but also principled approach, which will then be sufficient to take away the wrong perception that the opposition is not ready or prepared for negotiating. And also the government should hopefully be ready for serious and concrete negotiations. October, keep an eye on October.
Question: You made quite a point there, you say you appreciate the Russian support for aid delivery, you mentioned Iran as well. Could you be a little more specific about what this support is? Is the Russian military accompanying any of your convoys.?
SdeM: let me be specific here, I think you are quite right. First of all, I have the maps here but I am not in a position of elaborating on that, but the letter from Minister Shoigu, which was, in my opinion, significant, indicated that they were committing themselves to have Russian military police positioned on critical places along the routes where the convoys will be going into de-escalation areas and, from what I understand, highly selective military police, like as been the case as you probably have heard, taking place in Aleppo, where they have been coming from some type of religious and cultural background that would be making it easier for the local population to feel comfortable. And by being there, as we have witnessed today, in Douma, they have been helping the movement, whenever the convoys faced actual difficulties, which we had in the past (and we hope we will not see anymore) were being caused by whoever else was along the route, would actually be smoothed up. So they are not accompanying, they are not protecting, the UN will never accept to be protected or accompanied by a military entity, we are not the Red Cross but we do have rules that we want to maintain.But being along the road in order to facilitate and getting the trucks moving without being stopped and inspected and taking away the boxes and taking away some issues and items, that is a major contribution if it continues.
Question: Sir could you please clarify a little bit more about the conference of opposition that is going to take place, I don’t know where, is it in Geneva? And could you please be more precise about the time frame, if you have one, and also about the government would it also let us guess, that there will be a conference later on this year where we will see government representatives and the opposition at the same table in Geneva?
SdeM: First of all, regarding the first question, we are not organizing this conference for the relaunching of a pragmatic, inclusive negotiating team of the opposition. It is up to those who have been helping that taking place in the past. So, you must have heard, there have been rumors, I have no confirmation on the date, they can confirm it, that in October there is a potential likelihood that in Riyadh or somewhere else, there will be a major opportunity for the opposition to take stock of the realities on the ground, take stock of their own need to be unified and take stock of their own need to have a common platform for negotiations with the government. Regarding the government, we are counting very much on Russia, on Iran on anyone who has got a major influence and on the government of Syria to be ready finally to initiate, when they are invited to Geneva, a genuine, direct negotiation with whatever platform comes out. And therefore moving from what you have been witnessing so far, preparatory meetings, and believe me you will see one day that they were all very useful because many issues would have been addressed, but then getting into the beginning of a real negotiation. Of course, things can go wrong, they have gone wrong in the past, but that is a little more than wishful thinking, it is actually an aim.
Question : Monsieur, tout récemment, Madame Carla Del ponte a annoncé sa démission de la commission d’enquête sur le conflit en Syrie. Quel est votre commentaire ? Est-ce que cela signifie qu’il existe encore beaucoup de difficultés pour trouver une solution à la crise syrienne ?
SdeM: Merci. Avant tout, Carla Del Ponte est une amie et une collègue donc je ne me permettrai jamais de commenter les décisions purement personnelles d’une collègue respectée, et une amie respectée. Donc je ne ferai aucun commentaire sur ce commentaire. Ce que je peux vous dire, c’est que malgré la décision de Madame Carla Del Ponte de démissionner, comme le Secrétaire général l’a bien clarifié, la fonction, l’utilité, le rôle et la mission de ce groupe de personnalités qui font un travail très difficile va continuer parce qu’il est utile. Et un jour, cela va se démontrer encore plus utile.
Question: First of all, can I just be clear, the word from your office that there will be meetings here in Geneva between the opposition and the government in direct talks early September, are you saying now that that’s not going to happen?
SdeM: What I am saying is what I said. What I am saying is that the technical discussions that we had invited the opposition to. By the way, we didn’t invite the government because the government does not want to be at technical discussions, unless it is during official talks, you are probably familiar with their line, so it is only the opposition. Those technical talks among us and the opposition which were meant to take place next week have been postponed by my own decision because I have heard, and I have been monitoring and respecting, the fact that the opposition is going through a very intense, internal review and discussion.So why should I be forcing them while they are not yet being prepared?
Question: My main question for you is if you could please assess the de-escalation zones, are they working in your view and have they in fact helped President Assad to advance in key places for him?
SdeM: First of all, I would like to say that it is premature for me to make a global, complete assessment of the impact of the de-escalation zones. What I can tell you is that if it is true that what we have been seeing is a genuine, although imperfect, reduction of violence. Syrian people have been asking us while we are all striving to get a political process moving, they have been saying. “please while you are trying to talk in Geneva, while you are trying to talk in Astana, do get this bloody violence reduced”. Therefore, any de-escalation initiative and there are now several, which actually produce less violence or no violence at all, and we have seen that taking place, is welcome. And there have been discussions even recently, not far away from here, about new de-escalation areas, which have been not managed by us, but we have been, like always, in favor of facilitating them, because anything that reduces violence is welcomed. Now, the assessment from a practical point of view is so far positive but the final judgement will take place once we have the whole picture.
JE: A few points. The convoy that is now unloading in Douma is a hugely symbolic convoy, it is the first interagency convoy with UN, SARC, Red Cross, of this size to Douma, eastern Ghouta since the beginning of May. Took a lot of effort, a lot of negotiations and a lot of help from Russia and others to make it happen. To go to Douma, you have to go in a big circle from behind, which is actually next door to Damascus centre. And it shows how the conflict has affected rural Damascus, where most of the remaining besieged areas lay, of the 11 besieged regions still, 8 are next to Damascus.
Now we have been doing stock taking today in the humanitarian task force, we are in the second half of the sixth war year. How has it been really? Well, it has been a year of extraordinary upheavals for the civilians of Syria, they suffered under a trench warfare, for years, front-lines sometimes were frozen. This year has seen enormous shifts. Aleppo is now a place where people can return to, Homs [ city] is generally quiet, there has been, however, intensive fighting in Dara’a in the south, and has been in eastern Ghouta next to Damascus.
The worst place probably today in Syria is the part of Raqqa city that is still held by the so-called Islamic State. We reckon there will be 20,000 or 25,000 civilians there, they are encircled by the SDF fighters and they are used, assumingly, as human shields by the Islamic State. There are constant air raids by the Coalition. We have been in contact with many humanitarian partners who say that the situation couldn’t be worse for these women and children civilians who are now in this crossfire. We are therefore urging the Coalition, the SDF who we can deal with, to allow as much as they can, people to escape, to come out and to avoid civilian causalities, of which there have been many.
MSF told me that in their medical facilities people are not reaching anymore, because apparently they cannot escape Raqqa.
Generally, we do have this then contradictory trends. In terms of displacement, I thought it will be better than the previous years, it has not. 7,000 Syrians have been displaced every single day on average in the first half of 2017. Accumulated, this will be 1.3 million times a Syrian has been displaced. And this is the contradictory trends, never before has in this war, so many Internally displaced have been able to return to their homes, and to the ruins of their homes. Some 500,000 internally displaced have been able to return, and Aleppo is the number one place where they return to look after their property, to seek safety from unsafe place elsewhere in Syria, to rebuild, and we are now helping to rebuild there.
In terms of access, indeed the trend is that we are reaching more people in more places. So from 6 million in January to 9 million in June, which was a very good month, 7.6 billion on average during 2017 of Syrians reached. There are reached in regular programmes within Syria, from and within government controlled areas, cross-border from neighboring countries, and many into the opposition held areas, and in disputed areas.
We are now able to go, for the first time by road from Aleppo in the north west all the way to Qamishli in the north east. A truck would reach all of that distance and we have had 167 trucks by the end of July doing that road, can reach this destination for $50 per ton by road. When we had to go by air, it costs $1,200 for one ton, air lifting. When we had to use air lifting for Deir ez-Zor, it was more costly. So us being able to reach many more people by road is a good sign of effective humanitarian relief to more places.
Perhaps then two final points. We are still not able to reach the majority of these 11 besieged areas, but we have more facilitation letters as they call permits in the last few days than I can remember in recent months. So it can change, we have intensive diplomacy, negotiations with the Syrian government, with armed opposition groups and we have been helped by Russia, Iran, the United States, and the other members of our humanitarian task force. We are hopeful it could now change, the second half of the year, I am now more confident than ever before it will be better.
However, that’s the final point, we celebrate World Humanitarian Day this week, the toll has been enormous for us humanitarian workers, 21 UN Staff had been killed in this war, 65 staff members and volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, 8 staff member and volunteers of the Palestinian Red Crescent societies, many more from Non-Governmental Organisations , 7 White Helmet killed/executed last week. 28 UN Staff members are detained or missing. These will be remembered, they are not a target, and the protection of humanitarian workers have to become better, as we now go into the seventh war year. Thank you.
Question: I would like to understand why do you think the trend of IDP movement is still being so important, because as you said we could have expected that could have been reduced because there has been reduction in violence, so why people are still moving? And how many people are still living in the 11 besieged areas?
JE: 540,000 people still live in besieged areas, as opposed to nearly a million at the end of last year, half a year ago, so fewer people in fewer areas, but still 540,000 people. The reason there have been hundreds of thousands of displacements is because of the fierceness of the fighting, in the Raqqa area, 230,000 people displaced within the Raqqa area, it is not enough recognized how big the movements have been and how fierce the fighting has been with and against the Islamic State and others.
In Daraa in the south, in Idlib, in eastern Ghouta there has been a full blown war and of course at the beginning of this year we had the epic horrific battle of Aleppo. So it has been more of a battle year than many have understood, 2017, now it could be better, there are more and more quiet areas.
Question: I am going to go back again to the aid delivery again because it is your specialty. You talked about the battles and that it has been horrific, which we all know. You have the military, which bombed Aleppo, lining the routes of your aid convoys, yes you said not protecting, not accompanying, but there they are. I think it is pragmatic (inaudible) aren’t you all concerned about this concept which worried you so much about Afghanistan, so much in Iraq ten years ago of blurring the lines, between the military and impartial aid?
JE: How do you see them being blurred? I didn’t get that.
Well, those humanitarians who deliver in Raqqa take great pains, make sure that it is according to independent need assessments of the groups and the people they want to assist, according to needs. We are criticizing the SDF fighters for not allowing full freedom of movement for civilians, for example. We are engaging very actively with the Coalition bombing and saying that they have to avoid this indiscriminate bombing in areas with a lot of civilians, which they say they are. I do not see a lot of blurringlines here, as I saw in Afghanistan of military delivering assistance so far.
SdeM: In other words, since you are emphasizing this part, if we were asked to support military convoys carrying aid we would say no. If instead, along the road where our colleagues have been trying, and trying, and trying to go through, they found, always, either from the government or from the opposition, reasons for having to go back or not getting through. And the presence, instead, of some check points, with Russian military, deters or avoids either side to say no, stop the convoy, I want to get it all here, that is not militarization.
Question: Could you please assess the impact of the de-escalation zones, have they allowed for more aid to be reached? Mr. de Mistura mentioned earlier, if I understood correctly, that there has been an increase in number of people reached from six million to nine million, if I heard that correctly. Is that because of the de-escalation zones? And what message would you send to people who have been displaces you mentioned there are more quiet zones now, the people who have been displaced, either internally or abroad, is it time for them to try and return home?
JE: There is already a very big discussion among Syrians, is it safe to return home or not, can I return home, etc. As humanitarians, it is very important for us to ensure that the return is voluntary, it is informed, it is assisted and it is protected. There has not been a lot of return from refugees from neighboring countries, some there has been from Turkey. It has been the internally displaced who have returned, many of them returned because it is very unsafe where they are now, for example in Idlib. But others really got back now to rebuild Aleppo. There will be returns, many will return, some will not want to return, many will find it unsafe to return. In terms of the de-escalation zones, there has been de-escalation in the fighting in many areas, and what we have not seen so far is a tremendous increase in the number of convoys in those last four months, and that is because there has been lack of permits, because of discussing the number of beneficiaries in the area, where the government has not agreed on that, there is the access road is unclear, it is mined, we don’t have agreements with one of the parties etc. but in short now it seems to help us with access and we are hopeful that this is the time for it, and the letter could be that start.
SdeM: In other words, the Shoigu letter, I think was a turning point, of course, we need to see that solidified, because many of these blockages were recurrent and the answer was, okay, now we will be trying to help by being present so that those who block it will be less tempted to do so, and I think Douma today is a good sign in this direction, but we need, obviously, to verify it even more. I think the date of Shoigu letter was the 2nd of August.
Anyway, the test has taken place and I hope that it will be successful.