27 October 2016

Note to correspondents: Transcript of joint stakeout by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura and UN Senior Advisor, Mr. Jan Egeland

SdeM: Good afternoon.  We had just now the Humanitarian Task Force, and I must say, it was particularly focused on what has been the lessons learned from the medical evacuation that did not, unfortunately, take place from eastern Aleppo.  

Regarding the political aspect, political security, you are probably aware that the so-called Lausanne follow-up is ongoing and is still working and I cannot go into much more details until there is a clear outcome from it, but you should know that.

We ourselves are going next week also and the week after through a review of what the political options and initiatives are, in the context of a political process, while as you can see, many things are still fluid, such as the situation in Aleppo and elsewhere in the Lausanne process.

I am, like Jan Egeland is, quite disappointed frankly by the fact that the medical evacuations did not take place, but one thing I wanted to make clear, and I did last time, is that medical evacuations initiative was and has to be considered separate from the so-called UN or de Mistura initiative for eastern Aleppo, because there was a danger that sometimes the two things get mixed up. The so-called initiative of the UN regarding east Aleppo is a much more packaged one, this was supposed to be just evacuation of wounded people, hopefully with some additional items, such as medicines and food.

Regarding the discussion, there has been a temptation, you know, to put some blame right and left here, on why it did not work.  This is a dirty, ugly, horrible war, so we should never be surprised when things go wrong, over lack of trust, or pre-conditions that are put by either side.  But as China, I think, said very correctly, the Chinese representative has said time to stop to criticize each other for the lack of common grounds for basically trying to do the same thing, reaching people who are in difficulty.

I must say I particularly wanted to say how much the unanimous support was given during the meeting both to Ali Al-Za'tari, our Humanitarian Coordinator, who himself physically from west Aleppo had his own team trying to get day and night and to you, Jan, -and you should not be referring to that because it was about you-, but there was a unanimous support by everyone raising their hands, everyone, saying how much they appreciated the difficult role that you had to play in those circumstances, because the lead is in Ali Al-Za'tari’s hand, of course, the Humanitarian Coordinator on the ground, but Jan has been constantly stimulated to provide support, advice, whenever a vacuum was there, and you may want to elaborate on lessons learned.

I am afraid I have a further meeting starting few minutes from now, so if you do have two questions to me you can do that, but then I will leave it to Jan Egeland to continue the meeting.

Q. You and Mr. Jan stressed the very big importance of this humanitarian pause, and it really should be used to help people, but nevertheless it did not happen.  You said that it is not time to blame any other side, but some lessons should be taken into account.  If the same pause will be declared probably in the future, what should be done? What steps should be done before hand or during the pause really to organize this medical evacuation and to help people?

SdeM: Thank you.  I think that is a very valid question but the way you articulated it I think it really goes back to you Jan, because I know you were planning to do a little bit of an analysis on this.  I must say I did feel very surprised frankly when I saw, how would I say, the linkage of synchronizing the exchange of wounded people with either we get these wounded people out but then we want immediately at the same time food and medicines.  But there were many other conditionalities that came up that were disappointing frankly and complicated our lives.  But I will leave it to you to reply on lessons learned.

Q. Could you please elaborate on what you are going to do next week and the one after, on the political side, you said you are going to do several things, can you explain a little bit more? 

SdeM: Well, we are in a way also very much, unavoidably, linked to what is outcome of the Lausanne process, which is, in my modest opinion, promising, because it [meetings in Geneva] did follow up a meeting in Lausanne that could have ended there, but instead continued.  Secondly, there is no one who denies that there is an eye on what is also the outcome of the American elections which are coming up soon, and if that may have an impact on the way that perceptions are about the type of follow up on the political discussions between stakeholders.  Secondly we are doing an internal review, of course, on how to engage, and some of our friends, the EU and others are volunteering to do that as well, how to engage better the regional players who need to be constantly stimulated with some type of plan of what will happen if and when the conflict ends.  Unfortunately we are not there, but we need to constantly update our own analysis.  

There is one point, the Cessation of Hostilities Task Force, although as you know, cessation of hostilities is not really a major issue at the moment, but needs to be kept alive, in order to be able to make sure when and if it can be utilized, it is at the moment, based on this new arrangement, that the two co-chairs, Russia and the US, US and Russia, have delegated to the UN during this interim period, in which they are not having “bi-lateral”, -remember Lausanne is “multilateral” because there were other countries-, bilateral discussions, I have myself appointed Mr. Volker Perthes, who is one of my senior advisers, and has a substantial competence in the field of security, plus knowledge of the region, to act as an “Acting co-chair” for the CTF, for you to know.  I am just informing you.

Thank you very much.

JE: Exactly a week ago, I stood here and optimistically said that I thought we would be able to use the unilateral Russian pause to do three things: 

Evacuate wounded, an estimated 200 sick and wounded , with family members, perhaps a 1,000 people all together; Secondly, to get in medical supplies to the overwhelmed and severely curtailed medical sector in east Aleppo; And thirdly, also take advantage of the calm to bring in food and other humanitarian supplies.

We, in the next hours, had humanitarian workers deployed to west Aleppo, working from Gaziantep in Turkey, working from Damascus, working from Geneva and elsewhere together with humanitarian partners, the ICRC, the Syrian Arab and Red Crescent, numerous NGOs, including many medical. 

We had a large number of ambulances for the sick and wounded, buses for the family members, trucks with medical supplies, and trucks with food and other supplies ready to go into east Aleppo. And we worked day and night, a lot of humanitarians, in Syria and outside, and with a lot of diplomats that support the opposing sides in this war to make it happen and we all failed. 

We all failed at least up until now. There has not been a single organized medical evacuation, nor a single truck going in with supplies. There simply was too little trust, there simply was too much fear, there was too many misunderstandings, there was too many confusing messages for this very complex and very dangerous operation that included people going both to government and opposition controlled territory to take place.

So a major lessons learned process is now underway because we are not giving up. We are starting again today to try to do the three things. Evacuate those who have very high expectations, had very high expectations, to finally get out to get proper treatment, to have them evacuated, to get the medical supplies in, and to get the food and the other supplies in.

These are standalone humanitarian operations, they cannot be conditioned. You cannot tell Fatima, age 8, that she cannot get treatment outside the besieged area because conditions are not met on many other areas. But you cannot either say we only allow evacuations, we do not allow supplies, it is a violation of humanitarian law, both of them.

Now. Time ran out for us this last week. [Today] We had unanimous support from Russia, the United States, and from all of the other countries in the room to try again, on all fronts. 

It was a disappointment today that we learned that the government of Syria has denied, only two places actually in the November convoy plan for humanitarian supplies, humanitarian operations. We asked to go to 25 locations, all of the besieged areas and a high number of other hard to reach areas.

Two were denied fully and east Aleppo was among them, the other one was in eastern Goutha. Which means that we need to overturn that decision, because east Aleppo needs humanitarian supplies. They need it urgently. We have not been able to supply them in any large quantity since the end of June.

There are other areas where we have made progress. So actually in the last days, we have been able to reach over 180,000 people in  besieged areas. That is in Al Waer, Moadamiyeh, Duma, and by air drops Deir-ez-Zor. We have been able to reach those with supplies, notable exception surgical items is still not allowed in.

In the Four Towns, we still see this tit-for-tat between the two northern and the two southern towns, and where the parties, the armed opposition groups in the north and Hezbollah working with the government in the South saying we will still not allow you to do humanitarian supplies. This has also meant that 54 medical cases that are listed and where everybody agree that they should go, have not been able to do so. 54 patients, 27 in Foah and Kefraya, 27 in Madaya are waiting to be evacuated and they are not. One young person died in Madaya while they are quarrelling on other issues. 

What we hope is that this can change. The conditioning of humanitarian operations on all sorts of other things, it has gotten worse of late. A bitter war has become more bitter, a cruel war has become more ruthless. We need for the parties and the sponsors of the parties to help humanitarians do our work, if not this winter will be terrible, it will be the worst winter in now, the sixth winter that we have had in the conflict. We have just issued an appeal for more supplies for winterization.  shelter support and to keep the population warm. I fear it will be a very very cold winter for too many.

Q: Mr. Egeland, could you perhaps elaborate a bit on the November plan, you said there were 25, so that would include the now 19 besieged areas? Is that right? And the government has refused two of those. Do you have confidence or facilitation letters? Or just sort of an overall green light for the other locations?

JE: No, what we get in that initial plan is a government initial approval, and that is for the 23 of the 25 locations. It’s actually, (…) there are 18 besieged areas now, 18 not 19, because Daraya was sadly (…), left our list, east Aleppo was added. We do not need same approval for our air-drops operation to Deir ez-Zor, so that’s 17. 17 out of the 25 [locations] are besieged. It is the one area in eastern Ghouta called Nashabiyeh, in eastern Ghouta, a lot of fighting there, was not approved, (…) east Aleppo was not approved. Some of the areas was not approved fully, so all together, 69% of the close to a million people we try to reach were approved. It is like 70%, a bit more than 2/3.

Q: Mr. Egeland, do you fear that the tensions yesterday between Mr. O’Brien and Russia might have an impact in the coming weeks on the meetings inside the humanitarian task force? And maybe on the ability to further deliver some aids to some besieged areas and hard-to-reach areas?

JE: No, I think, I mean, the Emergency Relief Coordinator is just doing his job, he is saying things as they are, and he is frequently attacked. I held the job in previous times, I was myself criticized for speaking the truth. It was very clear today that the Russians want to help us with the November plan implementation, they would like to help us get access to east Aleppo. They just asked. The United Sates and the like-minded pledged to help us in our humanitarian diplomacy with the armed opposition side, which is difficult, and which in the case of the medical evacuations was not satisfactory, we lost a lot of time, because of all of the conditions that were raised also on that side.

Q: I would like to know your opinion on what happened in Qudsiya? It’s a city were meetings were held like Daraya, the military opposition left Qudsiya after dialogue with the government?

JE: What I know about Qudsiya is that it is very much on our list, we are very concerned for the civilian population there, we are working very hard to help both get access, and to an end of the fighting. So, it is very much on our list of places. Maybe also and, I forgot one thing here, UNICEF intervened in the meeting just as we were breaking up that they had two more cases of schools being hit in Syria. So five schools attacked in a week, in Dara’a , in Aleppo, east and west, in Idlib, and in Duma, today. So the war is getting worse, it’s getting more ruthless and it’s affecting more and more the children and the civilians. So my appeal is again, can please well-fed men with uniform, and ties and suits like me, with political and military positions allow us to reach children, women, and protect them better, assist them better. The trend is worsening, it is not improving. 

Q: On Qudsiya, do you consider that like Daraya? You remember you criticized what happened in Daraya. Now in Qudsiya, there was a dialogue between the military opposition and the government. A few days ago, the military got out from Qudsiya, and the government got inside. What is your opinion about that?

JE: I need to look into the Qudsiya, as far as I know, the UN is not part of the talks there, the deal there. Time, and again we see that the parties meet to do local deals that are lacking in humanitarian content and principles, and we are often asked after the deal is made to assist, which is very difficult and very problematic for us. That is actually also what’s happening in Qudsiya.