19 January 2017

Note to Correspondents - Transcript of stakeout by UN Senior Adviser, Jan Egeland

JE: Thank you very much.  This fifth cruel war winter is the worst so far for the civilian population of Syria.  An exhausted civilian population is still trapped, with no escape, we are still unable to reach hundreds and hundreds of thousands.  It is positive that this current cessation of hostilities is saving lives in many areas, however, fighting has been tremendous in other areas and thousands of new families have been displaced, including in the Wadi Barada valley, close to Damascus.
And in terms of humanitarian access, the cessation of hostilities period has been a disappointment, frankly.  This humanitarian taskforce started in February of last year, we saw immediate progress, we reached areas that hadn’t been reached for years. 
December and January so far have been our worst months since we started.  In January, only half of the populations that we asked to reach, we were approved for access in full.  Five locations were denied completely, they were in the rural Damascus region, including Wadi Barada.  But then after our monthly plan is approved, we now end up in this complete, hopeless, bureaucratic quagmire of having to seek facilitation letters, permits, security permits, having the governor’s office to agree on access, the security forces, the security committees, the armed actors, including the armed opposition groups, they all need to give us access and they are routinely doing what they can, all of them it seems, to avoid us helping women, children, wounded on the other side.
That has to change, it can change, we hope it will change.  First opportunity would  be the Astana meeting and I am glad that Russia, Iran and Turkey in the meeting today said that they will indeed push as guarantors for Astana, for the parties, including the government, to stop this present practice of denying courageous humanitarians who are able and willing to go to places with relief, to stop the present denials of access.
There are two areas I would flag in particular where we are extremely concerned.  The first is Deir ez-Zor.  Deir ez-Zor is a desert town, with some 93,000 civilians now by our best count.  It is in the east of Syria.  The Islamic State fighters, terrorists, have launched a major offensive, have cut the besieged area now in two and have captured, among other things, the drop zone for humanitarian supplies.  So it has not been possible since Sunday to drop new humanitarian relief to the Deir ez-Zor people who really do not have any other life-line than relief by air.
The other, of course, dramatic situation is the Wadi Barada area, it is very close to Damascus.  Thousands of families had been displaced from Wadi Barada, there is fierce fighting, many civilians killed, and it also holds the water supply to Damascus.  So now for nearly a month, 27 days today, five and a half million people have been without their normal water supply in Damascus.  Repair men are able and willing to go, went at one point, a few days back, when one of the negotiators was killed by a sniper, the whole repair mission was called off and the repair engineers have not been able to return.  So this situation is screaming for a cessation of hostilities that can hold and that can enable the repair of the water supply. 
Also in Aleppo now more than a million people are without water because one of these pumping stations is held in Islamic State territory and it is not possible at the moment to repair it.  To deny populations water, to deny repair of water supplies, is a criminal offense under international law.
Finally, in Aleppo a major relief operation is unfolding.  We have been helping some five hundred thousand people now in recent weeks, we will be able to reach now all populations, all over Aleppo, and that's a first for many months.  However, those who have been there, including our Humanitarian Coordinator, Ali Al-Za’tari, coming from Aleppo to brief us on video today, says that of course, the devastation is absolutely shocking and all of the unexploded ordinances make life very difficult in the city and still the Aleppo citizens are now wanting to go back increasingly and they need our help to rebuild it.
Q: I have two questions, with respect to the water repairs if I understood correctly after the repair man was hit by a sniper there has been no further work to restore the water supply in Damascus so effectively the situation remains as it had remained from the beginning of this crisis?  
JE: Correct, the repair engineers were able to access the facility and see that it can be repaired but when the General was killed by a sniper, the whole operation was aborted and they haven’t been able to return since.
Q: Do you have any sense of how long the people in the government controlled part of Deir ez-Zor can last without a resupply of food?
JE: Well, there is food for a few weeks, we heard today, maybe it was for half the population for up to a month, that was how they counted, the World Food Programme.  So it is absolutely critical, the situation, even worse today is that the one hospital that was really treating wounded had to be also moved because it came into direct fire and the situation in terms of treating wounded is also horrendous.
Q: I would like to ask you about the meeting in Astana, (inaudible) and how important is the outcome of the meeting with regards to the resumption of the Intra-Syrian talks here in Geneva on February 8th?
JE: So the Special Envoy is in consultations in Davos today, and the Deputy Special Envoy is in consultations in Ankara today and I cannot say more than that the role of and the contribution of the UN is being discussed as we speak. 
I do however, take it for granted that Russia, Turkey, Iran will understand the immense responsibility they take upon themselves now as guarantors of an agreement, of a process, to enable a new beginning for the civilian population of Syria.  The way it is now, it cannot continue, both the government has to change the way it is blocking our humanitarian access to civilians, but also the armed opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fatah, who are responsible for besiegement of Foah and Kefraya, they are also not helping us, at all, really, and of course we need agreements between all sides to repair the Wadi Barada water station.  So I find, again and again, you know, can we find one group of men with power and arms now in this place that enables our help to civilians on the other side? You know it is hard to find really, that has to change.
Q: You mentioned Foah and Kefraya, what about the 23 drivers that were trapped there? Are they still trapped there? They couldn't be released?  
JE: They are still trapped in Foah and Kefraya, and these were actually, you know, courageous bus drivers, who went there voluntarily, because it was a humanitarian operation, evacuating people from east Aleppo and Foah and Kefraya.  They are still stuck there, with their busses and cannot get out.  So those who can influence Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fatah have to help us really.  And the situation is terrible in Madaya and Zabadani, besieged by Hezbollah, but it is also terrible in Foah and Kefraya, besieged by Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Fatah and other groups.
The four-towns agreement is now a disaster, in terms of preventing access, it was made just over a year ago to enable access, we haven’t had medical evacuations for many months from these four towns and people are dying routinely because of lack of medical attention.
Q: Are you concerned about the situation of people in Idlib and the fact that they might come under a new attack or a new siege? And if I can tag in a question, I am just intrigued about the difference in the bureaucratic treatment that aid trucks seems to get or aid operation get when they are going for example to help with repairing water in Damascus, or when they go for example to help the people in east Aleppo besieged and they see bureaucratic hold ups for helping people on the rebel side, or as they go to the people on the government side, things go smoothly.  Are we talking about the same sort of bureaucracy, or it works in different fashions for different people?  
JE:  Well to that I would say, no, there is no lack of help in helping civilians that are on your side in this war, they are on your own side so indeed the government does what it can to enable our air drops to Deir ez-Zor for example, or enable those who are trying to repair water for Damascus, but they are holding up all aid to eastern Ghouta locations for months,  just like Ahrar al-Sham and others are holding up or blocking our access to people in their areas.  That's the shocking thing, is that no one seems to care for the age-old humanitarian principles, that the non-fighters must be helped even in the midst of the war, the civilians.
The first part of your question, well, 36,000 people left Aleppo in this very successful evacuation.  I still lay awake at night and think of all that nearly went wrong in that operation and that we were able to see the evacuation of the 36,000 people to Idlib was a good thing.  Now of course they ended up in a new war zone, there is still fighting in Idlib and it could be the quiet before the big storm, that depends actually on the talks that will be now in the coming weeks on the cessation of hostilities and a political solution, so Idlib would be the symbol of a place that can be, the people of Idlib can be saved if this becomes the year of diplomacy, 2017 after six years of failed diplomacy.