Notes to correspondents
Note to Correspondents: Transcript of press encounter with Staffan de Mistura, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, and Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative for the Syrian Arab Republic
Geneva, Switzerland, 9 March 2016
SdeM: Good morning. First of all, we had a meeting (of the Humanitarian Access Task Force), and I think it was a very useful meeting. You will be hearing more details, but you will see that what has been so far achieved is quite an achievement: 238,485 people have been reached, and more than 536 different trucks have reached… Last year, zero. We’ll go into that.
Now, regarding the actual talks. The talks are, as you know… officially today is the beginning of the arrivals. We are having proximity talks, because we’re having a proxy war. And the proximity talks mean we are staggering meetings, rooms, and dates.
For instance, today we’re having the first arrivals of our own people. We’re having a whole surge of UN colleagues who are actually helping us to make sure that we are going to be able to handle four things simultaneously. One: the proximity talks. Two: two taskforces, one humanitarian, and one on the cessation of hostilities, ceasefire. And three, as you know very well, a never-seen-before operations centre, where we have Russians, Americans and the UN, monitoring, observing, and trying to check and keep track of the ceasefire. All that requires some arrivals and some movements.
The agenda, the talks are therefore being staggered in terms of arrivals. We have people coming tomorrow, we have people coming on Sunday, there will be anyway on Saturday quite a few too, but then we plan to start having informal talks already in hotels or here, with whoever is arriving.
But the substantive, deeper part of it, after the first preparation, will be on Monday, God willing, the 14th. They will last not beyond the 24th. We believe that having a timetable, and a time limit is healthy for everyone. We don’t think that we can go on [with] procedural discussions for two weeks hoping to get into substance. We go seriously into substance as soon as we can. There will be also the fact that there will be then a period of recess a few days, a week perhaps, ten days – in order to give the time for delegations to then return, and for us to recap where we are on it, and then resume them, as we did in the past.
Now, the talks, as you know, were interrupted by myself, because there were various reasons that we felt justified it, and the proof is that Munich was a good response to the need of resuming the talks, by focusing on two important aspects: the humanitarian, and the ceasefire. That is beginning to be addressed. And at the same time, let me be very clear. When we start having the talks on Monday, God willing, the focus will be on substance, on the agendas; in other words on new governance, constitution, and elections, the future elections in 18 months’ time, both presidential and parliamentarian.
The issue about the ceasefire and the humanitarian [issue], in theory and, we hope, in practice, should not be addressed by the talks, because we do have the two taskforces, who are going to be simultaneously addressing those. And therefore, taking away the alibi, in a way, of those who may want only to talk about the ceasefire, and forgetting that at the end of the day, the ceasefire and humanitarian aid alone are not a solution. The solution is a political transition in Syria, facilitated, made credible to the Syrian people by incremental humanitarian assistance, and an incremental, more or less sustainable, we hope as much as possible, and quite unbelievable after five years of war, cessation of hostilities or reduction of hostilities.
That’s basically the plan. So, I will take two questions, but then I will leave the floor to both of you, because you’re the ones who have the opportunity of elaborating on what we did this morning.
Q: Mr. Kerry is going to meet different European ministers in Paris on Sunday. Are you going to attend this meeting?
SdeM: No, I am not. I think John Kerry is doing extremely supportive work to what we have been trying to do. It’s not a surprise that between him and Sergey Lavrov we were able to have the Munich understanding. My job is to actually try to prepare well the talks.
Q: There is a delay to the start of the substantive talks, you have explained that. Is there a danger of further delays?
SdeM: Well, you see, the good thing about proximity talks is that I am in a position of staggering the talks, the dates, the days, the meeting rooms, based on where and how they will be most fruitful. And from that point of view, in fact, any type of delay that I may decide to take will be based on how to make them more successful. But we are aiming for the 14th.
Q: We are very close to the end of two weeks of the cessation of hostilities. Do you confirm now that there is an extension for the cessation of hostilities for two more weeks?
SdeM: Well, let me really be very frank on that. I don’t know where this two weeks issue came up from an international point of view. I heard that some sides had indicated two weeks. From the UN point of view, and the Geneva meetings we have been having in the taskforce, and certainly the Munich understanding, there was an open-ended concept regarding the cessation of hostilities. Of course, the first days are always the most critical. And we’re reaching, God willing, two weeks, with grosso modo, by and large, quite a sustained reduction of violence. Incidents are taking place, no question, and there are – I’m expecting even worse incidents to take place, probably caused by spoilers. The secret will be whether the sides will be in a position - and so far, touching wood, it has been the case - to contain them, make them not becoming an unravelling of what has been, after five years, quite a change. So far insufficient, but quite a change for the life of every Syrian. And you will be able, Yacoub, coming from Damascus yesterday, to say so.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave it to my very good colleagues, and we will be in touch on all the other aspects. Thank you very much.
JE: Less than a month ago, the humanitarian taskforce was given the objective from the International Support Group for Syria, to open access to 18 besieged areas and even much bigger, hard-to-reach areas. In the four weeks since then, we have had the following progress. Ten areas have been reached by the UN and partners, several of them with multiple convoys. UNRWA has had progress in reaching people from Yarmouk, and the World Food Programme is systematically working to overcome all of the obstacles to be able to do airdrops to Deir ez-Zor. Through this, we have been or will be able to reach a clear majority of besieged areas, and, we believe, a clear majority of people in besieged areas soon.
The bad news is that we still have not reached six important besieged areas, including Darayya and Duma. That is the task that was given to members of the task force, homework as we call it in the taskforce. We need to have permits, we need to have security guarantees to be able to go also to those places, covering all of the 18 besieged areas.
We have also made progress on procedures. Procedures are too cumbersome, it takes too long a time, we spend too much time on asking for permission to go to places we’re not then able to go. April, next month, will be the month of new procedures. We believe by then, we will have a more rational, speedy, easier system that will enable us to overcome this very black stain on the conscience of Syria and of the international community, namely that people starve in besieged areas and hard-to-reach areas, while humanitarian workers have supplies that can reach them, and are prevented from reaching women, children, and other civilians in great need.
We also have this tremendous plan now to go to the other areas through the cessation of hostilities period, and Yacoub El Hillo, the humanitarian coordinator, will talk about that.
YEH: Thank you, Jan. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I bring you greetings from Syria, from Damascus, where the cessation of hostilities [is] now reaching two weeks, ruptured with violations and with incidents, but still holding. And it’s making direct impact on the lives of millions of Syrians, inside the country. So let’s keep the focus on that, but also let’s work together to ensure that it is not only extended for two weeks or two months, but for it to stay, and to stick.
Building on what Jan has said, looking at the horizon between now and the end of April, we are aiming to reach 870,000 people in hard-to-reach areas, but also the specific locations in besieged areas that we have so far not been able to reach: Duma, Zamalka, Arbin, East Harasta (this is in East Ghouta), and also Deir ez-Zor. But we are working on all of this, and the hope is that in the next few days, with the help of members of the taskforce, we will be able to complete deliveries and reach the thousands of people trapped in these places.
But beyond that, we have over 600,000 people to reach, between now and the end of April, that is in northern rural Homs, that is Rastan, Talbiseh, Al Houla, Tarmala, this is in northern rural Homs, but also in northern western rural Aleppo, as well as the eastern part of Aleppo. In the east part of Aleppo, we have no less than 300,000 people, who are increasingly becoming under what is a partial siege, although it is not totally besieged, in addition to thousands of people in Afrin, in Urem and in Beg Urem. This is the plan, and the horizon.
What we are talking about is still thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands of people. But let’s not forget, and this is my last point, since the beginning of this crisis, the United Nations and our partners have been hard at work, delivering every day to millions of Syrians in the country, and that continues.
So, the momentum that has come as a result of the outcome of Munich, the work of the taskforce, is creating additional space for us to do more and to do better. Particularly with regards to people in hard-to-reach areas and besieged areas, but we should not really be focusing only on that.
Let’s remember there is a bigger picture where millions of people are reached every month with food, with medical supplies, with winter support, with shelter support, with education support, water and sanitation, and protection, and so on, and so forth. Thank you very much.
Q: You said UN reached ten out of eighteen besieged towns in Syria. What is stopping you to reach the eight besieged town? Are you waiting for a green light from the Syrian regime?
JE: We have so far reached, as I said, ten areas, four of those in the last week alone, in rural Damascus Kafer Batna area. Deir ez-Zor will be reached by airdrops; UNRWA is reaching more and more people in Yarmouk. The six remaining places require government permission, which we have sorted. The UN team and partners like SARC are ready to go within seventy-two hours. We also need to have the security guaranties from the armed opposition groups in these areas. We are working on both fronts with members of the task forces.
Q: What can you tell us about potential prisoners’ releases? Is it likely to happen before the talks start?
JE: I’m afraid we have to say that it is not on the humanitarian access task force. I know it’s been evocated by others; you would have to ask Staffan de Mistura and his team.
YEH: Non-governmental organizations like my own and those in the neighbouring countries are doing cross border work to complement what the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is doing. We work with three hundred partners, NGOs both Syrians and International, partners such as Norwegian Refugee Council, but we also work with Syrian Arab Red Crescent. This partner is present in all parts of the country, when we go to these places, easy or hard to reach areas, we work in partnership with this powerful network of humanitarian actors.
In the case of besieged areas, there are also local communities and groups facilitating, supporting and delivering humanitarian assistance once we are able to reach the people there. So we work with a big and powerful mix of partners, it is not just the UN, it is also our humanitarian partners.
Q: Russia has sent you a list of besieged areas in need of an emergency access. Have you taken into account this list and how many are there?
JE: We have noted all the activities that Russia is doing, including the Russian military. We would take that into account as we plan our humanitarian work weather that is UN or the Red Crescent or NGO but we would not be doing that in direct contact with any country that are or have been involved in the conflict. But indeed we have noted the humanitarian program.
I would say that Russia has helped a lot in facilitating humanitarian access over the last weeks. So has the other co-chair, the United States. It’s been remarkable to see how the two co-chairs have worked ceaselessly to enable humanitarian access, so have other members of this task force. I wish we had it in 2015 when we did not make much progress in the besieged areas, I’m glad we have it now. Munich was the start of a new era, of actually member states helping us much more to get humanitarian access.
Q: Which side is military besieging the remaining six areas?
JE: I would say that within the seven areas that we have not reached, six are besieged by the Syrian government and one by Islamic State. The two areas reached by armed opposition groups in the north of Idlib are part of the four towns agreement, and we have been able to service those, as we have been able to service Madaya and Madamiya. So the six remaining, plus Deir ez-Zor, are besieged by the government and Islamic State.
Q: (In Arabic, interpreted in English): The first part of the question was about the modalities on how humanitarian aid has been delivered to Deir ez-Zor. The second part was about the nature of the meetings that are taking place in Hemeimeen airbase.
YEH: (In Arabic, interpreted in English): For more than a year, the UN and partners were unable to deliver humanitarian assistance to Deir ez-Zor, due to the sieged imposed by ISIS on more than 200,000 civilians. There were several attempts in the past to really reach this areas with various humanitarian assistance namely vaccinations, however without being sufficient.
This is why the UN team has now been trying to airdrop assistance to Deir ez-Zor, which was tested on February 24. There were many lessons learned for the future. We will resume in the next few days once practical and technical arrangements are in place, but the quest is to continue insuring we reach the people inside Deir ez-Zor with aid.
Reconciliation meetings taking place in Hemeimeen air base and in any other part of Syria are welcome. They enhance and support the efforts done by Staffan de Mistura and his team towards building peace in Syria.
Notes to correspondents on 9 March 2016