05 January 2017

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

SdeM: Good afternoon and good to see you again.  I can’t say Happy New Year because, one, it is late and secondly because it started with a tragic event in Istanbul,  and I would like to, on behalf of the UN team here and on behalf of the whole HTF, express our horror and sadness and solidarity for, not only Turkey, which suffered again a tragic event, but also all those citizens of many countries who were affected by that horrific attack.

Now let me simply indicate one or two things regarding the political aspect, and then I would follow-up with two questions because I have to myself leave, but then Jan will be able to also elaborate on the issues of the humanitarian side.

So the first one, as you probably, obviously have noticed, today is the third working day of the new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and therefore we are in a middle of brainstorming, all together, with the Secretary-General, who is actively interested, involved and engaged in the issue of Syria as he has publicly said even before taking up this assignment.  And therefore we are in the middle of very intense brainstorming so I will avoid for the moment to get too many comments until we get through that.  What I can tell you is that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and you will see it, will be, and we are delighted frankly because that makes our job much easier, heavily and actively involved in the issue of Syria and its conflict.  

Second point, we have had two Security Council resolutions recently both unanimous, the one on Aleppo and one on let’s say, Astana plus, and that has certainly given us a feeling of hope that the Security Council may continue showing unanimous approaches to what has been an attempt again to try to solve  the Syrian crisis. 

Resolution 2336 in particular is very much welcomed by everyone in the Security Council and certainly by us, because any cessation of hostilities, which we have already had two attempts, and this is the third major attempt,  is indeed welcomed, not only by us and the Security Council but clearly by the Syrian people.   

The two guarantors are the Russian Federation and Turkey.  Our stand is that any initiative such as this one, needs to be supported, and we hope it will succeed and is definitely welcomed.  We will continue contributing, at the request of Turkey and the Russian Federation and the US co-chair, with some type of statistical information until they set up their own monitoring system. That means, however,  anyway that guarantors of the cessation of hostilities are going to be, and remain to be, and we want them to succeed of course, the Russian Federation and Turkey, who have been announcing the ceasefire.

There are incidents, we know about them, we are informed, and we are trying and hoping that the two guarantors, and we trust they will, succeed in overcoming them so that they reach the point in which the cessation of hostilities will be recognized and working this time.

That leads me to Astana. Preparations as you know for the Astana meeting are underway, and they are being led in particular by Turkey and the Russian Federation, with support I understand by Iran as well and certainly by Kazakhstan. We , the UN, welcome such effort, because we believe that any effort, again, that consolidates and that’s the expectation, the cessation of hostilities, and helps in preparing for a discussion that will take place here in Geneva in February, is certainly welcome.  And we are in particular looking forward to that, particularly in the context of our own meeting that will be taking place early in February here.

We plan to attend, as indicated, and we will contribute to it, in order to hopefully make it a success and producing deliverables that we can then use at the Geneva Talks. We are preparing ourselves, our February meeting, regardless of the Astana meeting, but will certainly we will take into account and make good use of hopefully any positive outcome that we hope will be coming from the Astana meeting and other initiatives in January that can take place in various contexts that we hear and that we will be working on. 
I will not go more in details on how January in particular will be quite an active month in terms of preparation for the February meeting, because as I told you the Secretary-General is himself now very much engaged in our own internal brainstorming, we had one yesterday, and I look forward to that to help us to even be more proactive between January and February.

I will take now two questions and then I will leave you. Thank you. 

Q. Turkish Foreign Minister blamed forces supporting the Syrian regime, particularly the Lebanese Hezbollah, and he said that if they cannot stop the increasing violations that Astana could fail, do you have any information on that? What are your messages for those supporting the Syrian regime and Hezbollah? 

SdeM: First of all I do not have further information than the one to which the Foreign Minister of Turkey referred.  What I can say is that it is clear although no meeting has  preconditions, that the Astana meeting in particular depends very much on the consolidation of the cessation of hostilities and the cessation of hostilities this time came, announced by two important and highly influential countries on the ground, one is the Russian Federation and the other one is Turkey. And that's why the expectation, the hope, the belief is that both of them will have the capacity of influencing, on one side, Russia,  the government of Syria and its allies such as the Hezbollah, and on the other side Turkey can have influence on the armed groups as they have been having in the case of Aleppo. 

Q: Mr. de Mistura, a year ago you had a pretty clear idea of who should be invited to the talks here in Geneva.  Concerning the upcoming talks in Kazakhstan, are you leaving it totally to the Russian and Turkish governments to decide or are you giving them advice and if so, are they listening to you regarding who should they invite? 

SdeM: Well, first of all you are raising a very valid point.  One of the challenges of any organized meeting in the context of the Syrian conflict is exactly the issue about invitations, and who are the opposition representatives? How many should they be? What type of status? Are we including everyone? Are we excluding anyone? We have been going through, with you by the way, through that challenge and certainly if both organizers of the Astana meeting will be asking for advice, we have a lot of advice to give because we went through a lot of experience on that.  One thing I can tell you is that the more inclusive a meeting takes place in general and in particular on the Syrian conflict, the more successful chances it has.  Thank you, I leave you with Jan. 

Jan Egeland (JE) 

JE: We had today a meeting of the humanitarian task force where we also did stock taking of 2016. 

We did reach close to 1.3 million people in cross-front-line assistance in 2016. We reached 420,000 in besieged areas in 2016, we reached them with 131 land convoys. 

We did 170 airdrops to Deir-ez-Zor. The airdrops programme organized by the WFP is unique in the history of humanitarian work. I cannot recall this kind of high altitude airdrop being done for such a sustained period of time. 

For besieged areas, there was progress, compared to 2015, but of course that came from a very low point. In 2015, we only covered 1 percent of the needs in besieged areas. In average, in 2016, we reached 21 per cent of the needs. So, in other words, 79 per cent of the needs each and every month were on average not reached. Some people got repeated assistance, some got none in 2016. 

We are proving as was December, two things: that men with power and guns are willing to go to any extreme to deny to women children, wounded and others basic lifesaving relief even. But also, it was proving that humanitarian diplomacy and local agreements and national agreements with parties and their sponsors can change things. In December, we had only one convoy going to one place one place only, Khan Elshih, and it became our worst month in that respect since the task force was created. But we also had the largest humanitarian evacuation. Some 35,000-36,000 people were evacuated from east Aleppo and that had not happened if there had not been the humanitarian diplomacy that involved the co- chairs of this task force, the other members of the task force and us in the United Nations. 

This evacuation was so close to fail many times through this difficult operation. So, this all proves that it has to change in 2017 and it can change in 2017. After five ruthless war years, we can have a year of diplomacy, of conflict resolution, and of protection of civilians, it can happen, and we were heartened to hear that Russia and Turkey both said in the task force that indeed they will facilitate humanitarian access to all civilians as part of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that they function as guarantors for, and we will actively hold them accountable for their promise to help us. 

We also had a report from Aleppo, the team in Aleppo were live through the meeting, and their report basically said the following: the devastation is beyond belief in this ancient city of Aleppo. There is devastation that it will take enormous effort to rebuild. People want to return, many are returning already, it is dangerous to return because there are unexploded bombs and munitions, and buildings are unsafe. There is however now a big humanitarian operation. 1.1 million people have gotten their water restored or repaired, 400,000 people get relief by UN and partners continuously, these are more or less exactly corresponding with the 400,000 displaced in a city of 1.5 million. 400,000 people are displaced within a city of 1.5 million. What is not happening is the reconstruction yet, that will be a very big future effort.

Finally, beyond Aleppo, enormous dramas are unfolding as we speak. One of them is in Damascus itself where 5.5 million people have had their water supplies cut or minimized because of the springs of Wadi Barada, which is just outside of Damascus and accounts for 70 per cent of the water supplies, have been broken. Because of fighting, or because of sabotage, or because of both. We have asked to get there, to go there to explore how to restore water supply to Damascus, already it is dramatic the consequences, there are now emergency efforts to ensure that schools, and hospitals, and bakeries, and other essential functions get water. 

Finally, our January [inter-agency convoy] plan has come back from the Government, and 5 out of the locations were denied in terms of access, 5 out of 21 locations were denied, and this is in rural Damascus mostly, where there is a lot of fighting, but also in Homs and in Hama. So it is not over, even though the cessation of hostilities is largely holding in large parts of the country, there are tremendous dramas for the civilian population still, and we are denied access still in too many places. 

Q: On the water issue in Damascus, do you have more specifics on who specifically is to blame for the lack of water? There are a lot of allegations from both sides on that. Also, the cessation of hostilities, what kind of humanitarian aid have you been able to bring in during the cease in fighting? What promises do you have? Thanks. 

JE: Well, it is very much a politicized and disputed issue. How much was caused by fighting or by bombardment, or by sabotage by armed opposition groups. There are a lot of allegations on that. We do not really know, because we have not been able to go there. We want to go there, we want to investigate what happened, but first and foremost restore water. To sabotage and deny water is of course a war crime because it is civilians who drink it, and civilians who will be affected by waterborne and other diseases, if it is not restored. I am disappointed that so far the cessation of hostilities that is holding in so many places is not increasing our access. Why isn’t there access? Well, there is a whole web of obstacles really; not only do we need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Damascus, we need it from the Governor’s office, from the Security Committee of the region, from the security forces involved, and from the armed groups inside. All of them have to allow us access, and it only takes one of them to deny us access. We are routinely still denied access, and we hope that the cessation of hostilities and the guarantors can change that. It has not so far. 

Q: My question was on the same issue, and maybe just for clarification, before the cease-fire was announced, you counted 18 or 17 besieged places besides Aleppo, and another number of hard-to-reach areas. So as of today, how many of these 17 or 18 places are still besieged, and how many of these hard-to-reach regions are still hard to be reached? 

JE: It is of course an active battle scene, Syria. The number of besieged areas will change, has changed. For most of last year, we were operating with 18 besieged areas. Then more or less at the time when east Aleppo was recognized as besieged, as the biggest one, there was a consolidation of the map, and we said there were all, including east Aleppo, 16 areas. Many of them were also smaller sub areas. We still operate with the 16 number, but of course east Aleppo is not de facto besieged anymore. But, the other 15 still exist, and of those I would say there are a couple we have not really reached. We struggle to reach all of the 15, and the last two months we have reached only a minimum of them, unfortunately. 

Q: Can you go back to Damascus, what are the consequences at this point? Are there hospitals that cannot function because they do not have water? And do you have a time table? What do you expect? When will water be restored? How many people are affected by a lack of water at this point? 

JE: We reckon it to be 5.5 million civilians now being affected by the water shortages, meaning that they would not have any tap water anymore, most of them. There is however some 30 per cent of the supplies that have been restored by the various emergency efforts, and that water has been directed to vital functions like public sector hospitals, etc. This has been the reality now for two weeks, it cannot continue like this, we need immediately to restore water supplies, since it is so enormous the number of people affected. But there are also a number of emergency efforts, so I do not know of any disease spreading at the moment, but that is certainly the fear, and certainly many people are now at subsistence level of having minimum of drinking water and nothing else.