Geneva

01 March 2018

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

SdeM: Thank you, it is true I will be very short - not because of lack of politeness but I have a meeting which has already started with three members of the Security Council - but I wanted to come here directly now.
 
As you can understand our focus is on the humanitarian situation, there is no question, and that’s why I will leave Jan Egeland here with you and he will be elaborating more on what we have been doing.
 
I would like to say three things.  First of all I think the Security Council meeting yesterday spoke very clearly about where at least the UN stands.  What you heard from the humanitarian OCHA Under-Secretary-General and Jeff Feltman is the position of the Secretary-General and therefore also very much mine, so I will not add anything to that.
 
What I would like you to know is that the UN here has not and will not give up, in asking for the full implementation of [resolution] 2401, and we will continue asking until we are blue in the face for both sides - I say both sides because there has been on both sides shelling, not comparable in terms of proportion but there has been from both sides - to stop shelling each other’s areas, and for convoys to be allowed to get to Eastern Ghouta in particular.
 
We don’t have and we cannot afford the luxury of giving up, so any type of feeling that the UN is frustrated - forget it, we are not frustrated, we are determined because this otherwise becomes the copycat of Aleppo, and we saw it already happening.  And I was here, with you, on that occasion.
 
Now your question here is my main message because Jan will be able to elaborate more on what is being done, or not yet done, on the humanitarian side. 
 
The political process: well we are working hard at the moment, very discretely, on the follow-up not only on the meeting we had in Sochi but certainly what has been the 2254 mandate. But you will agree that today, the priority needs to be stopping the suffering and the tragedy of the civilians in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere.
 
Towards the next few days, you will be getting from me some indication of a clear initiative on our side - because by the way, yesterday was one month after Sochi, and in Sochi there was a clear declaration which meant that in Geneva a Constitutional Committee should be starting working soon.  We have initiatives, we have ideas, we will come up and we will share them obviously with you once we have also discussed them with the various parties.
So that is my main message, I don’t take questions because I think the questions will be mostly to Jan but I wanted to make sure that by not seeing me you will not feel that 1, somehow we are giving the feeling of frustration, or just wait and see, or just being sad about what is happening.  We are determined and we are constantly pushing for it.  We cannot see a copycat of Aleppo taking place.  And 2, is that while this is happening, since everyone will say there is no solution except the political solution, we know it, but we also working hard while we are doing it, but we are also aware that when people are dying the priority is to stop that.  Thank you.
 
JE: The message to the 23 member states of the Humanitarian Task Force was, I think, unusually blunt today, from colleagues in the field, from us who are humanitarians working with and for the United Nations. You are failing to help us help civilians in Syria.  The Syrian war is unique in two particular ways, I would say.  Number one, by the blunt force against civilians, I know of no other place that is even close to having so many children, families, innocent people being displaced, fleeing for their lives, being killed, being maimed.  The other thing that is unique about Syria that it is a place where parties have for a very long time specialized in denying humanitarian access to these civilians.  
 
So this is a story of an operation that had humanitarian resources available, trucks, warehouses, courageous humanitarian workers, and enormous civilians’ needs that parties on the ground denied being delivered to the civilians and also blocking even of children and the sick and wounded to be evacuated.
 
The Humanitarian task force was created to help us in the situation with all of the countries that are sponsors of parties, they have influence on the parties, to change that on the ground, and for a period it changed it.ButI felt something really happened towards the end of November of last year, we were then not getting through anymore. So is it because they were not able or they were not willing as sponsors of parties on the ground to help us, I don’t know, but something changed.
 
Now three weeks ago we said to the Humanitarian task force we cannot continue like this with weekly meetings, we had actually one hundred meetings since the beginning of February and for long it was actually effective, at times we had even great achievements through humanitarian diplomacy, but of late it has been very very little. Therefore we called for ad hoc targeted task force meetings with the two Co-Chairs, the Russian Federation and the United States, and then we called on other countries who had influence on the ground, like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and others, to solve the obstacles in Eastern Ghouta, in Idlib, with Foua, Kefraya and Yarmouk, three besieged areas we are  not reaching, Rukban which is a place next to Jordan we are not reaching.
 
So how did we do in these last three weeks? Well we did as bad as we have done in all of 2018, we had no success what so ever, so I had shared, I think, this score card of ours, on humanitarian diplomacy and it is has failed great on the score card, because we had one cross-line convoy out of 25 to 30 which was the capacity of the last eight weeks: one convoy.  It was able to reach 7,200 people in Nashabiyah, in Eastern Ghouta, which is less than 2 percent of people in the besieged area, we reached zero of the 2.5 additional million cross-line in hard to reach areas.
 
In the same period needs grew, so 2017 ended horribly, 2018 started worse.  This map is one showing the biggest forced displacement, what is forced displacement? When families fleeing for their lives really, many of them flee for the second or the third or the fourth time, and you would see that in the month of January alone, more than a quarter of a million displacements happened, more than 257,000 times a person had to flee in one country: Syria.  Nowhere else displacement is worse than in Idlib and Aleppo [governorates], especially Idlib in the north west, with 2.5 million people is a huge refugee camp really, more than half of the population there, 1.3 million probably more, are displaced, most of them several times.
 
Now, Eastern Ghouta is the place where the violence is at its worst, humanitarian law was created many generations ago to prevent attacks against civilians, many medical facilities protected people.  Eastern Ghouta is devoid of respect for international law.  24 attacks reported between the 18th and the 22nd of February alone, including 14 hospitals, 3 health centers and 2 ambulances, health sector.  Of course, in the same period there was a constant barrage of rockets and mortars going from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus.  It is often said by those who support the government side that we tend to forget to mention that, perhaps they are right, let me then be on record to say that it is an equal violation of international law to send indiscriminate rockets of course into Damascus.
 
But there is of course a difference between besieging and being besieged.  When we are not moving any convoys into Eastern Ghouta, haven’t been able to move any convoys so far into Eastern Ghouta at all, since the one little convoy mid-February, it is because we haven’t gotten a single facilitation letter by the government.
 
Now that can change of course, today we got reports in the task force that we may have the first facilitation permits from the government to go to Duma in a very long time, where we have 45 trucks standing by to go there, and full warehouses to load into the trucks as soon as we get the permit.  It was also reported that our colleagues in the ICRC is able to reach another place in Eastern Ghouta today [the UN Senior Advisor clarified at the end of the press stakeout that “our colleagues in the ICRC entered Afrin, not East Ghouta today”]. So maybe this was the bleakest hour, maybe it is now changing, maybe we can get progress.
 
We call again Russia, US and those countries who have influence in Eastern Ghouta and other places, to beg them to help us with several things: get several convoys per weeks to reach all places in Eastern Ghouta, get over 1,000 priority medical cases evacuated from Eastern Ghouta, and also to see evacuation of civilians out of the conflict zone.  All of this should be possible, if the Security Council Resolution became a reality.  Since the Resolution was adopted, and I was myself in New York when it happened, since it was adopted it did not get better, it got worse. 
 
Now, maybe at the end a word on the funding situation also in Syria.  We have a 95% underfunded humanitarian operation for all of Syria so far for this year, one of the arguments that has been raised by those who share our deep frustration by not getting to besieged and hard to reach areas and getting no cooperation from the government is that why should we fund an operation in Syria if the government does not help you reach those who are besieged?  I would think it would be an enormous violation of humanitarian principles if we stopped working for the millions in deep deep crisis in both government and opposition controlled areas that we are reaching every single month because we are denied access elsewhere.  Those men who sit comfortably in offices not allowing us to reach women and children in besieged and hard to reach areas, are not going to be punished, it is those who had fled violence, including violence by terrorist groups, who will be punished.
 
I said we may now be able to go to Eastern Ghouta in the next few days, we are also ready with the 45 truck convoy to go to Rukban, where we now have a short safety inside the area called the Berm in Rukban at the Syrian-Jordan border, we are just waiting for the facilitation letter, we are willing and able to go to Foua and Kefraya, besieged by armed opposition groups, and Yarmouk, which has a terrible situation, it is the Palestinian refugee camps, we just need the parties to agree and there is a lot of effort to make them agree in that three towns arrangement, and we are in Idlib begging for an end to hostilities and that is also in between armed opposition groups that are fighting each other.
 
Question: My first question, I did not quite understand what Mr. Egeland said about the bombs falling on Damascus and the bombs falling on Eastern Ghouta, what is the difference, I did not understand.  My other question is about the humanitarian corridor that Mr. Lavrov said was targeted by armed groups, what is your comment on that?
 
JE: Well in terms of the attacks on Eastern Ghouta and the attacks from Eastern Ghouta, well they are both deplorable, I saw an account some ten days ago that more than 800 grenades and mortars had gone from Eastern Ghouta to Damascus and civilians have been killed and civilians have been wounded.  It is contrary to international law.
 
The constant air raids, the other way, is of course much bigger in volume.  There is a difference, as I said, between besieged and besieging, and there is also a difference between having an air force and having no air force, so in proportionality the attacks in Eastern Ghouta is much bigger but they are both hitting civilians.
 
The unilateral Russian declaration of the five-hour pause to enable civilians to leave Eastern Ghouta is a unilateral declaration of a pause, it is positive to have pauses in all fighting, it is positive to try to let civilians escape a war zone, I called for pauses in Raqqa for example when there was really seemingly no escape for civilian population from Raqqa.  But I have to declare that I know no humanitarian actor, zero humanitarian actor, who thinks the five hours is enough for us to be able to deliver relief into Eastern Ghouta and to organize orderly medical evacuations out, so what we said in the meeting today was: can we sit down now with Russia and others and see whether we can help make this pause initiative meet humanitarian standards for a pause and for a corridor namely, that there are two ways that we can go in with supplies as well as people go out.  For us to go in we need government permits which we haven’t had.  Secondly, that it is long enough for humanitarian actors to do what is needed, five hours is not enough, and that it is also negotiated between the parties so that all respect the pause and we can influence groups inside, we have countries who can influence the groups inside with us.  So we are going to sit down with Russia and others, to see whether this could happen.  Of course what the Security Council had promised us was a month ceasefire.  There is a big difference between this and 5-hour pause.
 
Question: Did you receive the facilitation or permission from the government of Syria, to go to Eastern Ghouta?
 

JE: What I had said is I think we got a permit, getting a permit now to go to Duma, that is what we were informed in the meeting, so that is a positive sign, let’s hope we can go to all of the other places which is Kafr Batna, Afrin, Harasta, etc, there are 390,000 people, nearly all of those besieged are in Eastern Ghouta, it is a big place.
 
Question: On the humanitarian corridor, I noticed that in your introductory remarks you made absolutely no mention of the humanitarian corridor, so I am wondering whether you think this is a cynical ploy on the part of the Russians to have this pause and do you really believe that the Russians, having done this, and believing that this is an effective measure, that they will actually put the pressure or actually do something in order to help you deliver the aid into Ghouta and then on that as well, whether Sergey Lavrov blamed the rebels for blocking the humanitarian aid coming into  Ghouta, do you believe that that is the case?
 

JE: As a chairman of this group I have to explain what I have been told. The Russian side say that their pause declared is in direct response to the appeals from many international leaders for such pauses and corridors so their intention is indeed to help the civilian population that is their clear statement.  What I can say is that we were not involved in the talks that led to the declaration of a 5-hour pause and if we had been we would say that it is not enough.  The Russian side says that the reason that people are not using these two corridors and the five-hour pause is that the armed opposition groups are shelling the corridors and they are shelling between the five-hour pause between 9 and 2 p.m.
 
We need now to sit down and solve this it is not helping the civilians inside. For the sake of the children of Eastern Ghouta, we need to sit down with Russia, and all of those who can influence the armed opposition groups and get an agreement that will help the civilian population.
 
Question: On Duma, you said you may be getting your first permit, what time frame are we talking about do you think? And the other thing you say that the Resolution it did not become a reality actually it has become worse, since it was adopted, what makes you think that this resolution has any chance to work and how many hours do you need to get humanitarian aid that would make a difference, you say one month is a long time, five hours is too short, how much do you need?
 
JE: It is really for experts to say what is needed, indeed a lot of convoys had been able to go in, offload, and deliver within 20 hours for example but too many times you want to leave at 6 a.m. in the morning, it doesn’t go as planned, there are problems there are issues you go at noon, you hope to be back before sun set, and you end up coming back around mid-night.  This is Syria, this is not Sweden, so things go wrong all the time, I would say we need much more than five hours, the minimum has to be talked, we would like to sit down and talk to parties on what is needed, why do I believe we can have pauses, why do I was so optimistic when the Security Council agreed with this resolution, well I thought it was better pre-cooked really with the parties on the ground. This is no Tsunami, it is not a natural disaster, it is  man-made from a to z, and I think that the sponsors of the armed groups can do more to hold them back, so I am still hopeful for this ceasefire.
 
Question: My question is regarding medical evacuations; from Syrian doctors we have just been briefed by, they said that there is a demand for a prisoner exchange, meaning that prisoners will be released and allowed to come out in return for medical cases being evacuated, are you aware of this? And is it acceptable given that it is not in line with humanitarian principles?
 

JE: There are many lists now circulated of emergency and priority cases and they change all the time, out best estimate is that there are some 1000 cases that are a priority and need to be evacuated and then we can evacuate them, I was in contact with the World Health Organization last night and they reiterated again the ambulances are ready, the hospitals are ready, the capacity to take urgent cases are ready and their ability to go in with massive medical relief to furnish what is left there of medical services is also ready. Indeed the government and the Russian side is bringing up repeatedly their deep concern on the detainees in the hands of the armed opposition groups, and I am sure that they are right that among them there are people who are sick and people who are in terrible conditions and I really hope we can evacuate them. All of the sick and wounded have the right to be evacuated under the international law, but I will fight any kind of tit-for-tat arrangement, when children start to become traded with prisoners, you are in deep trouble, and we have seen indications of that in the past and it was not nice at all.
 
Question: I have a question about the proposal of the Russian Ministry of Defense, they said that there should be created a joint assessment mission to Raqqa including the United Nations and the ICRC.  ICRC said yesterday that they have the ability of doing this assessment mission by themselves, what about the United Nations, are you ready to go to Raqqa to assess what is happening there?
 

JE: We are ready, eager and willing to go to Raqqa what we need is the government permit and we need also a security assessment of the situation inside, I believe the government had said that they regard Raqqa and Rukban as being taken by external forces, being occupied basically. I am sure they will give us, with Russian facilitation, the permits and then we will go to Raqqa.  Let me also report something I know Russia is concerned with, the situation is not good in Raqqa, it is not good at all, we now have recorded 637 blast-wounded since October in Raqqa, 125 deaths, every week now. It is between 20 and 25 people being dead and wounded because of the explosives that had not yet been removed from Raqqa, it is down from 50 to 60 per week in December.  Indeed, that place was having such an indiscriminate attack from air, from land and there was so much booby-traps from IS left behind that it is a very very dangerous place.
 
Question: I must have not heard you, you said that the ICRC may have access to Eastern Ghouta today, is that what you said? Is that what they informed you at the task force today? Do you know anything about how this access has been secured and the parameters around it, and also there has been this request for the UN to oversee the evacuation of some fighters from Eastern Ghouta, that is an official request from some of the armed groups in the area, is this something that’s come around your desk and do you see a way for that to work?
 
JE: Again it is breaking news that we may have our facilitation letter to go to Duma and that we were informed that our good colleagues in the ICRC was inside Afrin with their convoy today, and I see both as a positive sign.  Maybe we did pass the very bleakest hour, let’s hope for that, it will be actually worthwhile to get confirmation from the ICRC on how their convoy is going.
 
Well, we are in contact with the armed groups inside, the office of the Special Envoy is, but I cannot comment on the status of any evacuation of fighters, I am not a party to that.
 
Question: Can you confirm that opposition groups inside Eastern Ghouta are shelling the humanitarian corridors? Second question, we just heard from doctors an appeal for international observers to come and monitor the humanitarian convoy and the movement of supplies in and medical evacuations out, is that a point for discussion? Do you see that as a practical step? Is it something that is on the table?
 
JE: I personally have no concrete information that there was direct shelling of those corridors but I have no reason to disbelieve information that this might have happened.  What I can confirm is that we saw no movement of civilians so in a way cause and effect here I wouldn’t say.  What we need is a pause negotiated with both sides, and facilitated and negotiated with us as humanitarian actors, then it should work and it is desperately needed.
 
International observers, well that is always a good thing, but we shouldn’t need it really.  We have been willing and able as UN and as Red Cross and others to go to active combat zones, throughout this war.  The way we do it is when we have green light from whoever is besieging an area, whether it is government or armed opposition groups, we negotiate with both sides, including the forces inside, and we get an agreement for the convoy.  We tell them where we are going, when we are going, how we are going, and then they agree with us, and we monitor along the way and we go in and we go out, we can do that without observers.  Observers often take a lot of time but again it would be a good additional thing if we can afford it and if we have the time.
 
Thank you.