Geneva, Switzerland

19 May 2016

Note to Correspondents: Joint press stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Adviser, Jan Egeland

Near Verbatim Transcript

Joint press stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and
UN Senior Adviser, Jan Egeland

Geneva, 19 May 2016
Special Envoy de Mistura: Good afternoon. I am here to explain, because it is the first opportunity following (Vienna), also to explain to you what happened in Vienna and elaborate further. I owe it to you. You are in Geneva. My base is in Geneva and then link it to what has been the discussions today. So I will be a little more elaborated and stay behind even for the questions. So let’s address at the beginning the issue about the ISSG meeting at the ministerial level which took place in Vienna.
The first point, you do have the statement, I am sure you do have it. It is quite an important statement in spite the impression there was at the beginning that it was basically a replication of the Russian-American public statement. If you go through it, there are some areas which are quite a strong message.
Regarding the cessation of hostilities, I would suggest that you look carefully on page one, the last part. You will see that regarding the support to making sure that things need to happen has increased substantially in terms of messaging. Then came the issue about humanitarian aid and that is linked to the Intra-Syrian talks and I will address that.

Let me be very frank. I was in the meeting -- I cannot reveal all the details but there was a profound unhappiness, I would say impatience, regarding the fact that not all the besieged areas were being reached and that we were constantly coming up with a reminder that all besieged areas need to be reached and that was not happening. And the last drop, let’s call it like this, was Darayya, when we very close to do so, and baby food was not reaching, stopped by grown-up, well fed soldiers, and those were stopping baby food to actually go to Darayya.

And that applies also to other places, such as Kafraya and Foua, where not the government, but armed opposition, has been stopping the UN to be able to go there, where we know that there are 20,000 at least people in need of assistance, an assessment of that.
So that was the triggering element. And there was an identification of areas where there, in fact, was an urgent need of showing that the patience of the international community in repeating constantly the besieged, medieval besieged technique/approach by the government and in some cases by the opposition and in one case by Daesh, need to be stopped.

Al-Wa'er, we have not reached it since March. Moadameyah substantial malnutrition, substantial problems there. Darayya, do I need to repeat it? There are 4,000 people there, we know it. There are civilians, there are children. And Kefraya and Foua, and Hasakah.
So the bottom line was, if by the first of June there is no substantial progress in humanitarian access to these areas, in particular, but of course aiming at all of them, then the option of air drops and air lifts, in other words, bringing even to those areas where can be airports, such as in the Hasakah area, needs to be concretely, solidly, seriously taken.

WFP, the World Food Programme, was tasked to prepare concretely for these air drops and air bridges. But you know and I know, we all know that WFP is a very serious organization of the UN which never says no. At the same time we need and it is clear, that the whole membership of the ISSG, in particular the Russian Federation and the US, should make that possible. And if WFP finds a problem in doing it, they should then be involved in making sure that it happens.
So the top priority is that one. Now of course when you look at Deir ez-Zor where in fact six weeks of air drops have been actually bringing the equivalent amount of food of one convoy, you will understand that the cost and the benefit of it, comparing to the airdrops by convoys on land is unquestionable. So the air drops are the last resort. But we are getting close to it, that is why we need to send a strong message, we, I mean the ISSG, and they did it.
It took a lot of effort to actually organize Deir ez-Zor, but that doesn't mean it cannot be done elsewhere.
Bottom line, it is clear that both the government and the opposition need to be, based on the decision of the ISSG, in no doubt, that if, by the first of June no progress on land deliveries take place, and both can do an effort on that, the air bridges, air drops will become the focus of the international community.
If the government is capable and ready to support the air drops to Deir ez-Zor and there are 110,000 people reached there, with the contribution by the Russian Federation, US, Canada, Netherlands and WFP organization, there is no reason, no excuse, to consider any other citizen, civilian, anywhere else, not deserving the same treatment. Hence the message of the ISSG.

Two other points, one which I am sure you are planning to ask me, and what about the Intra-Syrian talks and the dates for it? It was clear in the message that we discussed at the ISSG that the dates were left to me and to the Secretary-General of course, I report to the Secretary-General, and for me and the Secretary-General to inform the Security Council. Based on that, I can tell you that obviously we are in clear hurry to start re-introducing the next round of the Intra-Syrian talks but the message was clear: if we don't have the atmosphere conducive for increasing the cessation of hostilities tenure, which has gone down from 80, 85 to 50 [percent], and we do not get what we have been asking, and everyone has been asking, a substantial improvement on the humanitarian access, then the credibility of the next round of talks will be in question and I do not want to expose that. Therefore I am not going to give you a date, yet, but we will constantly adjust depending on the circumstances, bearing in mind that I am determined to call the Intra-Syrian talks soon, but there needs to be some type of message as a follow-up to what we have seen today and the other day in Vienna.
Last point, today, we did introduce to the Humanitarian Taskforce Eva Svoboda, who is the new Senior staff member assigned to the detainee and the abducted people issue, in order to be involved in supporting us, me, in following up on what is clearly a message that we got also from the ISSG if you look at the last paragraph.
I will give now the floor to you Jan, following that we are ready for questions.

Senior Advisor Egeland: JE : Thank you very much Staffan. Just a couple of additional points. One small glimmer of hope in the darkness which is now the humanitarian realities of Syria. Yesterday the besieged area of East-Harasta was reached with food and other humanitarian supplies for 10,000 people. The last time that this place was reached by the Red Cross/the Red Crescent and the UN and the partners involved was March 2013. We have now reached 13 out of the 18 besieged areas as compared to reaching two of the besieged areas of last year. But that is the end of the good news really, because May was, and is, one of the most difficult months we’ve had this year. We reached more than 40 percent of the people besieged last month with humanitarian supplies. This month of May, so far, we have maybe reached less than 5%. So it has to change and that is really the homework of the members of the ISSG. They have to change this reality. We were supposed to meet the needs of more than 900,000 people in May, that was our capacity, we are not even close to reaching half of that. We also asked to deliver the June plan today to the government, it is an even more ambitious plan, reaching more than 1,1 million people with inter-agency convoys. All of the people of the besieged areas and 750,000 people in so called hard to reach areas. Indeed the place of Al Wae’r is now meeting all of the criteria for being a besieged area. An infant died a couple of days ago because of malnutrition and lack of humanitarian supplies. Nowhere was the disappointment as big as it was in Darayya, when the convoy that we told you about exactly one week ago from the same podium, returned because of the soldiers not accepting the nutritional element, the famous baby milk powder, to go through. I can only imagine the disappointment of the mothers in site. The final image is that we have brought to the ISSG today is that we really have to stop that kind of images that too many have in Syria, that it is bad guys against bad guys, bad guys with arms shoot at other bad guys with arms. Besiegement means that well-fed bad guys keep food away from babies and mothers. That is the image of besiegement and that’s why we are happy that the ISSG say that all sieged have to be lifted, that is our ultimate goal. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

Question: On air drops, are you thinking that air drops or air bridges can go ahead over the objections of the Syrian government, if necessary? And also just to understand, are you saying that talks could be abandoned if the truce and the humanitarian situation does not improve sufficiently and where would that lead?

SdeM: Ok let me answer first the second point. Clearly talks are not going to be abandoned, frankly, ever, because they are the only avenue for a political solution. It is only a matter of timing and the timing is important in this case, because when we had 95% or 90% of cessation of hostilities, you remember, and humanitarian aid incrementally augmenting all the time, the atmosphere for making the talks credible became in every case much more effective. So we need to maximize that effect, and therefore I am waiting for the outcome of the first gestures or follow-up to this international gathering in Vienna, in order to be able to fix a date. The date cannot be too far, and we are taking into account Ramadan, but I am not announcing a date until I see some of this progress taking place in order to take that into account. Bottom line, we all know that there is no solution unless we have the talks. In other words, a political negotiation taking place. But we also know the humanitarian aid and cessation of hostilities alone cannot sustain themselves without the talks, the two come together.
Regarding the first point, I think, let’s see what is first of all the assessment by WFP. Let’s see what is the assessment and the involvement of the two Co-Chairs, who were part of the decision of indicating that the last resort but a concrete resort will be air dropping and air bridges, and then we go beyond that. So, I will not comment on anything else at this stage, will be speculative.

Q. (Interpreted from French into English): Mr. de Mistura you have mentioned the Ramadan month in Vienna, and today as well. If we don’t manage today to set up a date before the beginning of Ramadan we automatically have to wait until mid-July, and we will get closer to the deadline of August. What is you plan if we don’t manage to go through this? Will cessation of hostilities hold until then? What is the responsibility of the two co-chairs regarding this? Thank you.

SdeM (Interpreted from French into English): Our respect for Ramadan is huge, so we are fully conscious that Ramadan has an influence on all we do in the region in particular. But you are right, if people are willing to fight during Ramadan, there are no reasons why we shouldn’t have reliable people who could speak during Ramadan. So the question of Ramadan is only about the crucial dates at the beginning and the end that we have to respect, to be in the same time, able to continue the talks.

Question: I’m a little confused as to whether or not you still feel you have a negotiating partner on the humanitarian front. You go to Damascus and Mr. Egeland you previously mentioned getting provisional green lights to reach certain areas, then those pledges mean absolutely nothing when the convoys are on the road. So, where does that leave you now - other than where my colleague suggested – conducting airdrops without the government’s authority even if they say you can reach ‘x’ number of besieged areas? Those promises have already proven to be hollow.

SdeM: Well let me first, and then I think Jan should comment on that. You heard from Jan Egeland, we have reached a lot of people. It is not that nothing had happened. When you compare it to the past, it is quite substantial, but time passing by and there is a moment when we have been seeing that in spite of some permissions, there has been some back-tracking, both from the government and frankly from some areas of the opposition, so what you need, in this cases, you tell me, leverage, you need to upgrade the pressure, the message and the intentions. But of course what we have seen so far is reaching, at least, what, 250,000, 260,000 people in the besieged areas and we have been aiming at reaching more than a million together with the hard to reach areas. But leverage, pressure, meaning that we mean what we say, especially at the ISSG, is an important factor.

JE: I am among those who still think that it will improve now and I think that the option of air drops will actually help us get in much more by road, which is the one way we can save lives. Also in the places where we haven’t reached since March, Moadamyeh, is a place of 40,000 people, we reached them the last time in March. We need to be able to go there every month to avoid a horrible situation. You can drive to 14 out of the 18 besieged areas within an hour from Damascus. So we believe that the Russians and the Iranians, and the Americans and the Saudis, and others, who have influence on the ground in Syria, will now enable our land access and we do believe that the option of air drops will actually make it possible for us to go by land in the next weeks.

Question: (inaudible)

JE: I don't think anybody wants air drops really so that would enable us to go by land.

SdeM: What we mean “no one”, let me correct that otherwise they will misquote you. It is not that no one wants air drops. We want to bring aid to everyone. If the food cannot be brought by convoys, the alternative is air drops. But air drops is the most expensive, the most complicated, the most dangerous option and therefore we always aim at having first by land, but the option of air drops is clear and is there, and there is even a time table for it.

Question: I was wondering what your comment will be on Saudi Arabia’s “B Plan” if the cessation of hostilities does not get back on track? Do you have a comment on that?

SdeM: Well, I only am aware of Plan “A”. I am not aware of a plan “B” frankly. Plan “A” is the one we are trying all together through the ISSG and the international community to persue, which is the one based on the Security Council resolution 2254. Thank you.

Question: What was the “snag” in Vienna that prevented you from holding the round of talks ending June 9 in Geneva? I understand that came up on the table but wasn't agreed. Can you elaborate on that? And secondly I have a question to Mr. Egeland on the recent revelations of corruption by major aid agencies that are partners to providing aid to the Syrian people. I’m thinking of the suspension of three aid agencies by USAID. Is that a problem in such a serious situation? Thank you.

SdeM: On the first one, there was no “snag” really. What we all concurred that in order to be able to announce a fixed date for the renewal, resumption of the talks, we all agreed that the cessation of hostilities which had become fragile and in danger, and the humanitarian access which had become, through Darayya, and other examples, in danger, needed to be put in better condition, that’s all. And then the date will be fixed.
JE: The aid operation continues cross border and cross line, but both operations have increased problems because of insecurity and also being blocked by armed parties, government and even armed opposition groups. So, it has become more dangerous, more difficult, but humanitarian partners continue like before. I don't know the case.

Q. (inaudible)

SdeM: Regarding the consequences, if you read the statement, it is quite firm regarding the cessation of hostilities. And after every meeting like the one we had in Vienna, you must give the time for the percolation of the messaging from the big players, from the stakeholders to everyone else, so you should not expect them, no one expects a miracle the day after. But the message was quite clear, let’s see when it percolates. Regarding air drops and any other air operation, let us comment about it once WFP has made its assessment and b, once we will see whether the clear message about the air drops being a clear option will instead, as we hope, produce an increase of humanitarian aid by road. If it doesn't we will talk about it again, because the message was clear, it was not just a comment.

Thank you very much.