24 August 2017

Note to Correspondents: Transcript of Press Stakeout by UN's Deputy Special Envoy for Syria, Ambassador Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, and Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria


Geneva, 24 August 2017

Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy: Good afternoon.  As usual we will give you a very brief political update, not much has been happening as you know in the past week since the Special Envoy delivered his political update. 

The Special Envoy and the team have been in continuous contact with many of the interested parties, within the context of our outreach, yesterday and today the Special Envoy has been in Paris, there will be contacts with regional countries in the near future, and we continue to engage with Syrian parties. 

An important development that has taken place over the past few days is the meeting of Riyadh between the various oppositions, we continue to receive information, we will assess the situation once the picture is clear to us, it is still in the process of being assessed, so it is important because based on our assessment of what has happened in Riyadh, we will decide as to how to move ahead in the future.

Another important development is the establishment yesterday in Amman of a monitoring centre which includes the United States, the Russian Federation, and Jordan.  We hope this centre will contribute to the speedy stabilization of the de-escalation zone in the south-west of Syria. 

Now I think that is basically the broad outline of where things are on the political side.  Before turning to HTF, and of course my colleague Jan Egeland will give you a detailed account on the meeting we had today, which was quite useful.  But before I do so, I would like to inform you that the Special Envoy has asked me to reiterate his support and appreciation for the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) Humanitarian Task Force, and the concerned Member States and regional organizations – with influence on all sides of the conflict – that have made contributions towards the goal of facilitating full, safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria.  This has been the focus of the Humanitarian Task Force since its establishment on 12 February 2016 but much more needs to be done.   

With reference to the ISSG’s ministerial-level statement in Vienna on 17 May 2016, the Special Envoy recalls that a mechanism was agreed by which any disagreements involving the work and outcomes of the Humanitarian Task Force could be jointly channeled, in agreement with the two co-chairs of the ISSG – the United States and Russian Federation – to the UN Security Council through the Office of the Special Envoy. 

As access challenges remain, the Special Envoy encourages all concerned, when acting as members of the Humanitarian Task Force, to fully utilize and respect its agreed mechanisms and to continue focusing collectively on its valuable role in seeking to make a difference for all those civilians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria.  

Jan, you have the floor now.

Jan Egeland: Thank you very much Ramzy.  There are still 11 besieged areas in Syria. 11. Still 540,000 people live under sustained besiegement, many more are militarily encircled. By besiegement we mean: no humanitarian relief, no freedom of movement for civilians, and encirclement for more than three months.

Of these 11 areas, 8 are besieged by Government of Syria forces, the two Foua and Kefraya in Idlibare now effectively besieged by Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra.  And still the ISIL forces are besieging Deir ez-Zor that we are still reaching only through high-altitude air drops, now more than 160 of them.

8 of the areas had been reached, once or more so far this year, three areas have not been reached at all.  Most of those people besieged and most of those people not reached are within, I would say an hour, 90 minutes’ drive from down town Damascus.  They are in the rural Damascus area, many of them are in the Ghouta area.

We were able to go cross-front-line with one large convoy to two places on Saturday, Talbiseh in Homs and also to rural Hama.  80,000 people were reached, since a long time ago that we were there the last time, regrettably surgical materials, select medicines and some medical equipment were reduced in quantity or not allowed to be loaded at all.  That convoy again experienced something that we have seen repeatedly that is, fighting when our convoys go, because these are areas of cross fire to start with.  The Talbiseh convoy was having a very close call, we were very afraid of them, it was late evening and effective, however, humanitarian diplomacy and intervention by Turkey, Russia, the US and Qatar on either side of the front lines, helped us to get the convoy in and out safely. 

We hope to go to two of the areas not reached so far, to Barzeh and Qaboun. We had just received facilitation letters from the government, we are ready to go.  We will also go to another three places in the coming days, if we have security, and if none of the parties do anything to prevent us.  

It was heart-breaking however, that we were not able to go in the last week to the people in Foua and Kefraya.  There are many thousands there, maybe 12,000 altogether in Foua and Kefraya, who are besieged in Idlib.  We were informed that there was an agreement reached by the parties besieging Foua and Kefraya and by Yarmouk, which is a Palestinian Camp close to Damascus, that we could go simultaneously to the places and we got the facilitation letters to go last weekend.  We had the trucks loaded from the 17th of August until yesterday, the 23rd of August, then we were informed that there was not anymore agreement between the armed men besieging this area of how many people we could reach, go to, in Foua and Kefraya and in Yarmouk, and these refrigerated trucks with medicines and everything, had to be off-loaded.

We will do new attempts to go to the estimated 12,000 people in Foua and Kefraya and the 1,000 people in this part of Yarmouk, but then we need really to appeal to the humanity of those besieging these areas – let us come in, we are delivering to women, children, civilians.

In Raqqa, the five neighborhoods now held by the Islamic State, of the city of Raqqa, is an area where the needs are beyond belief and the protection concerns are acute.  These people seem to be concentrated in this area, civilians, maybe 20,000, maybe more, by the so-called the Islamic State fighters.  There is heavy shelling from the surrounding and encircling SDF forces and there are constant air raids from the Coalition.  So the civilian causalities are large and there seem to be no real escape for these civilians.  So now is the time to think of possibilities, pauses or otherwise that might facilitate the escape of civilians, knowing that Islamic State fighters are doing their absolute best to use them as human shields.  I cannot think of a worse place on earth now than in these five neighborhoods and for these 20,000 people.   

We are able to reach those escaping Raqqa city, I was impressed to see that more than 260,000 people were reached in July alone, of people who have been displaced within and from Raqqa.  We give now assistance to some 50 concentration points for internally displaced, whereas inside Raqqa city, on both sides, conditions are very bleak and it is very hard to assist in all areas.

Of course, Deir ez-Zor is also a town where forces are now closing in from outside, they are closing in and reducing the area held by the so-called Islamic State fighters.  We are concerned for the civilians in the areas controlled by ISIL and we are also concerned for our life-line to the people inside Deir ez-Zor, some 90,000 people and they only have our air drops.  So extreme caution now also there has to be exercised, not to make it in anyway worse, for the civilian population.

A word at the end also on Idlib.  There are 2 million people living in Idlib, controlled by non-governmental armed opposition groups of various kinds, including, to a large extent, by the HTS [Hayat Tahrir AlSham].  The cross-border assistance from Turkey is continuing and we are making enormous efforts to ensure that the assistance is to be given according to humanitarian principles.  This life-line across the border is what they have in many areas in Idlib.   

Question: Ambassador Ramzy, Astana talks have been postponed till the middle of September, do you have an idea why? And can you tell us if the Geneva talks will take place or not next month? Thank you

RER: Yes, as you have correctly pointed out, Yes the Astana talks that were previously scheduled, I believe, for the 6th and 7th have been postponed to the middle of the month.  Our understanding that was done on the basis of a request by the host government, the Kazakh government, because they do have other activities that would have coincided with the original dates, so there is no other reason beyond that.

As to the talks during next month, we continue to assess the situation, we are waiting to get a full picture as to what happened in Riyadh, and we will have further consultations with the interested parties and on that basis a decision will be taken as to when these talks will take place.

Question: Mr. Egeland, could you elaborate on what you meant about pauses to facilitate civilians’ escape from the neighborhoods of Raqqa, are there any possibilities to get civilians out of these areas? Are there any ideas on the table that have been discussed with the SDF, with whom you have contact? And very quickly to Mr. Ramzy, I didn’t quite understand your briefing when you said that the Riyadh process is still ongoing, our understanding is that meeting ended and there is no agreement between the HNC, Moscow and Cairo platform to come up with a sort of a unified delegation, you seem to be suggesting that it is not a closed chapter, thanks.

JE:    On Raqqa, our urging today from the UN side to the members of the Humanitarian Task Force, including the members of the Coalition that is helping retake Raqqa, is that they need to do whatever is possible to make it possible for people to escape Raqqa.  You know, boats on the Euphrates must not be attacked, people that come out cannot risk air raids when they come and where they come.  Is this the time when you also announce a humanitarian pause, which we did for many other places including in Aleppo and elsewhere?  I say this also recognizing here and in the Humanitarian Task Force that the difference between this situation and Aleppo and other besieged areas is that we do not have contact with those holding those neighborhoods in Raqqa.  There is not a two-way communication, and there seems to be a very deliberate policy of holding people, and using them as human shields.  But this is the time to try anything to allow their safe escape.   At the moment, few people leave because they are afraid for their lives, really.  They fear certainly from those holding those areas, but they also fear for shelling and air raids.

RER: On the Riyadh meeting that concluded yesterday, let me just try to clarify something.  The meeting did conclude and as we can tell from the press reports there were various statements made indicating that it was not successful.  I think it was a useful meeting in the sense that, first, you had the three platforms referred to in 2254 meet together in Riyadh.  I think that is something that you should not underestimate.  Second it was an opportunity for all three to exchange views with the Saudi government, I think that is also a very important point that you should bear in mind.  Three, as far as we understand the purpose of this meeting, it may have had more than one, but one is to prepare for the Riyadh conference that is supposed to take place in October.  This is an initiative of the Saudi government of course, and it is up to the Saudi government to decide how this process will unfold in the future.  

Question:  What is the plan for the whole month of September in terms of humanitarian assistance? Have you submitted anything to the Syrian government?  

JE: Actually we are in the middle of this August-September plan, to reach around a million people in besieged and hard to reach areas, of which we had gotten green lights to go to nearly all, however, since on many of these areas there has still been a debate, which I think is unworthy really, on the exact number of beneficiaries inside.  The UN would have another number than for example the one the government would have.  We hope to be able to rectify the too slow progress during the August-September plan, to reach all people in all besieged areas and in most of the hard-to-reach areas, we hope to rectify that in the remaining week of August and then in the month of September.   We are ready to go.  Let me give you one example of our capacity.  We can reach at least 300,000 in these cross-front-line convoys every single week.  Last week, we reached 80,000, we could have reached nearly four times more.   

In some of the weeks we had been using maybe 10% of our capacity.  We are ready to reach all of them and that’s what we hope for in the coming weeks.   

Russia is interested in creating a problem-solving cell in Damascus, where the government, them and us sit and try to solve all of these problems that we have in reaching a place, where there are too many hurdles, administrative, bureaucratic, security wise, etc., hopefully that could speed things up.  We may be able to reach four important places in the next 4 or 5 days for example which I had just mentioned.  It remains to be seen.

Question:  A question now regarding the use, last week, of the Russian Military Police at the checkpoints for the convoy that went to Douma.  Are you expecting to extend that and make use of that? Was that the case in the weekend convoys that were returned?  It that still alive? Is that happening?

JE: I think with the Douma convoy especially, which was a hugely symbolic convoy going through very contested areas, there was facilitation by several parties on the ground, including Russia, which is a party on the ground and we have a normal humanitarian diplomatic relationship with as many as we can of the armed actors on the ground.  There should not be need to go to that measure, but the Russians were willing and able to provide postings on the way and that was able to facilitate the convoy.  I hope it is not needed for the other ones, but it could be needed.

RER: I apologize, I forgot to inform you also that the Special Envoy will be briefing the Security Council next week on Wednesday, the 30th of August.  Thank you.