JE: I think it was very clear today at the humanitarian task force that we are entering a new chapter in this very long, very bloody, very cruel, very bitter war in Syria. Hopefully we are seeing the beginning of the end to the big war. There are signs that we may now have access to people we were fighting to get access to for a very long time, and that some of the cruel practices of the war may be coming to an end. Let me give a couple of examples: besiegement has been a cruel way of starving people into submission for years in Syria; the humanitarian task force was born in February 2016 when people were dying in a number of the besieged areas, including Madaya very close to Damascus. The two last of the besieged areas Fouah and Kafraya were fully evacuated in July, so as of today the UN do not see any areas that fulfill the criteria of a siege in Syria and that is good. The way it ended, however, was not good. The Shia villages Fouah and Kafraya were evacuated in full in July - 6,900 people - meaning that the family has to leave the land, the house, the property of their ancestors not knowing when and if they can return; and this is how too many of these sieges ended, not by a lifting of the siege through negotiations but by an agreement where there was a military logic behind it and not a humanitarian one.
Now the convoys that we have painstakingly tried to negotiate to besieged areas and to hard-to-reach areas should also come to an end. A convoy needs to be negotiated, cleared with parties when it crosses front lines. In most areas, you do not anymore have to cross a front line to reach people, reach people in need; so us still having to clear with the Government of Syria inter-agency convoys is a practice that should just end. We should have full and unfettered access to all areas where there is not an active conflict line to cross, and I hope the normal access routine of the regular humanitarian programmes can take over all of the areas where we still need permission to go.
The battles have also largely ended in the south-west where we have had hundreds of thousands of lives at the abyss has largely ended that battle. We are now able to reach more and more places from within Syria and with the work of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the UN. Our concerns are not over at all, the suffering is not over and the fear is not over. Many humanitarian workers and civil society activists, your fellow colleagues – reporters in the area are still very fearful that they may be arrested, that they may not be able to regularize their work for the same civilian populations, others have been able to do so. It’s a good thing that Russia have military police now allocated to many areas, and they work to ensure that there are no reprisals against people that just did their job under opposition rule, but the fear is still there and more protection guarantees are needed.
Now the one remaining, tremendous worry is Idlib or rather the north-west because it’s the province of Idlib and adjacent armed opposition group areas are of deepest concern. This meeting was dedicated to discuss Idlib, preparedness for what could come if there is conflict in more areas in the north-west, but more than anything, a strong call from us humanitarians, that the war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib. Idlib is a very special place, it is the place where people fled, it’s the place to where tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands have been evacuating, it’s a place filled to the brim with refugees and internally displaced people. So, half of the 2.9 million people in Idlib province and the border areas in Hama, Latakia, and Aleppo – half of them are internally displaced to start with. I know of no area on Earth where half the population was already displaced. If you add the northern areas to the west also not under government control (Afrin, A’zaz, etc.) you get another 1 million people and another 400,000 internally displaced. So this area is screaming for diplomatic solutions, its yearning for the best diplomats, the best military negotiators to sit down between each other and come to agreements – knowing that there wouldn’t be another Idlib to be evacuated to, this is where it should end, with peaceful negotiations and agreements that protect civilians.
The UN is preparing now preparedness plans for further displacement on top of what is there already, but the cross-border humanitarian life-line is already serving 2 million people, it’s very hard to take on more mouths to feed and there is no shelter available; there is not even shelter available to many of the people who were recently evacuated from the south-west and elsewhere to Idlib, so again, we cannot allow the war to go to Idlib – we must learn from eastern Ghouta, from Aleppo, from Homs, from Raqqa and elsewhere, it is no way to liberate an area by levelling everything to the ground. I know of course there are many bad guys also who carry arms in Idlib and others who went to Idlib. There could be thousands of armed men that are designated terrorists by many countries and by the United Nations, but there are hundreds of times more women and children and other civilians in this area. So, if we say there are 4 million people there altogether, you can safely assume that 3 of these millions are women and children, and the remaining million, a small minority are those whom would be seen as terrorists. So, again it would be no excuse for sending the war to Idlib that there are some people on terrorism lists there.
Now we have prepared, deconflicted 235 sites with the Russian, Turkish and US military, this includes 75 medical facilities and 36 schools, meaning that there are actually many more humanitarian sites that have still not been deconflicted, I mean the coordinates have not been voluntarily handed over by the humanitarian actors. The reason for that is that there is still little trust with many humanitarian actors that they will indeed not be attacked if coordinates are handed over. The only way to get a functioning protection system going is to get a deconfliction system working and we are pushing as hard as we can to get it to work. We were briefed today by General Zorin who is one of the key military commanders and in charge of much of the negotiations locally in Syria. I was heartened to hear that both the Russian Federation, Turkey, Iran - the Astana 3 - say that they will do their utmost to avoid war in and for the civilians of Idlib. We urged those westerners and Gulf countries who have influence on the armed opposition groups to do more to avoid these armed groups to continue reckless behaviour, violent behaviour, behaviour that is totally contrary to humanitarian work and principles in many of the areas. We need to have a lot of attention to what these armed groups are doing, with and on the civilian population and humanitarians in the areas that they control.
Q: So your strong declaration that the war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib seems to be in defiance of events happening on the ground this morning: There’s shelling and the consensus from multiple reports is that this is a preparation for a larger advance, so maybe the real conversation is not the war can’t go to Idlib, it looks like the war is going to Idlib, maybe you can talk about the contingency plans, evacuation plans, humanitarian response plans? And as you said there is no place else to move these people, there is no new opposition area where they can go to, so what from your side is going to happen?
JE: I am not giving up my work to avoid the big war to go to Idlib. It’s perhaps not been understood that there has been regular bombing, shelling and so on continuously for years in Idlib and it is continuing against those groups especially those that are on the terrorism lists, it’s bad now, it could be a hundred times worse - we need to avoid that scenario. There is intensive diplomatic activity with Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syrian government and armed opposition groups to avoid escalation in the de-escalation zone, but of course there is conflict every single day there. The preparedness plan is one in which the humanitarian actors now look at how much more they would be able to do, and the scenarios vary from relatively few additional displaced, to hundreds of thousands of additionally displaced people within this area that is the north-west of Syria. I saw that there were figures of more than 150 Syrian national humanitarian groups active in the north-west, there is 40-50 international non-governmental organizations there, there are 12,000 humanitarian workers belonging to non-governmental organizations, and there are 11 UN agencies active with hundreds of people just serving the cross-border pipe-line. They are all over-worked, they are all barely coping with what is the humanitarian case load today.
Q: Mr. Egeland do you think from what you have seen this morning in the meeting that a negotiable solution for Idlib is a possible thing for the moment, because what has happened in Ghouta before was the same scenario; typically, the UN was talking all the time warning about the situation in Ghouta but finally what has happened was a real war in Ghouta? Another question, there were talks this morning about Sweida, to transfer the armed groups, the fighters to Sweida in the south by the regime, do you have any information about that and do you expect we will have another pocket for the armed groups in Sweida?
JE: In Sweida which is the remaining enclave where there is still fighting, and civilians there are particular people then under the control of organizations that are on terrorism lists, that situation is still ongoing, there is still fighting and we have great concerns of what will happen there. In the south-west, there were a horrible war engulfing civilians, too much civilian blood spilt, but it wasn’t eastern Ghouta, it wasn’t Raqqa, it wasn’t Aleppo, there were many agreements that came early enough to save a lot of lives, so tens of thousands of people have been able to return to their homes in the south-west. So am I hopeful for Idlib. War village by village, street by street, one square kilometre to the next would be horrific, that must be avoided, there must be agreements and that there are groups with whom there may not be agreements should not preclude a lot of humanitarian agreements that can protect the civilian population.
Q: You said that Russia, Iran and Turkey want to do their utmost to avoid a battle with civilians at the centre in Idlib, but what is the alternative if there are thousands of people as you say, who are referred to terrorists there, what is the alternative to a battle and can you put a number on what you referred to as terrorists there? I mean how many thousands of people are we talking about? And is your Idlib plan or the humanitarian plan for Idlib based on displacement within the area, internal displacement or is it based on people being made refugees and going into Turkey?
JE: The plan is really for the scenario that we really need to avoid and the cost which is the big war coming to civilian areas and hundreds of thousands of people being displaced among the three or four million, depending on which areas you take, within this area, within the north-west. There is of course only one way to escape this if you’re not going to cross front lines into government controlled areas and that would be to Turkey. So of course, our appeal is to what is already the most generous nation on Earth, I think, in receiving refugees which is Turkey, that they will hold their border open for civilians who will seek protection should the need arise. I cannot see evacuations to other areas, other opposition controlled areas in Syria, but most of the people will seek to stay and have their existence then protected after agreements, local agreements, regional agreements, that’s the way it is hopefully coming out in the south-west.
Q: So, the alternative to a big battle is a small battle?
JE: Listen, how many people on these lists, well, there are thousands of fighters, I have large and have small numbers of fighters, most of the armed groups, the vast majority of the armed groups in the north-west are not on terrorism lists. Just like in the south-west it’s a mix and if it was possible to have agreements in the south-west, there should be possibility to have agreements also in Idlib. My concern is with the civilian population, I want agreements that protect civilians and those agreements need to come among armed actors, and that is still possible for Idlib.
Q: Just to be clear: the alternative to a big battle is essentially an agreement to stop the fighting, the rebels or terrorists or whatever you want to call them surrender or maybe some people go to Turkey, is that the scenario?
JE: Demilitarization, that the armed actors agree to not fight each other and then there is a million ways that they can agree to end the battle, and of course with those groups who are not on terrorist lists it should not be so difficult. Those who are on terrorism lists, well, still it’s possible to end battles with negotiations all over, if you like. The fighting that has been there of late, as has been explained to me, against groups like what was formerly called “Al-Nusra” in many other areas it’s been more calm in Idlib.
Q: You said we can’t have a war fought street-by-street, village- by-village, the fact is that it is how this war is fought, that is for the last 7 years, so how can you possibly think Idlib will be any different? I know that the UN would like to guarantee that there be no bloodbath in Idlib, but you can’t promise that, so failing that promise what you do say to the civilians in Idlib, what is the UN’s message to civilians in Idlib?
JE: Our message to the civilians in Idlib is: we are not going to forget you in your hour of greatest need, we are planning to try to gear up an already large humanitarian presence and large humanitarian effort, we will fight for your right to protection according to humanitarian law. We will push Russia, Turkey, Iran which are the Astana 3 that have big influence - all three of them - in Idlib, as well as western countries, Gulf countries, who also have influence with armed opposition groups there to say: learn from East Ghouta, learn from Aleppo, learn from Raqqa, there must be talks, there must be agreements, this war must end not in a bloodbath, but by agreements. It could be local agreements, it could be larger agreements, I don’t know, there has to be agreements. I’m hopeful that that could still be, can and will still happen.
Q: Surely what people who are fighting have learned from Aleppo and Ghouta is that their tactics works?
JE: Who would say that?
JE: Well, but again there are other areas, many areas who have now had local agreements, where there was a peaceful negotiated end to the conflict, there are as many areas who have that as those where it ended badly in my view, by bitter conflict until the very end. We need to avoid that, look at how Douma is today, look at how Raqqa is today, look at how too many areas are today, and look also at areas in south-west where people are returning to their homes and continue their lives because there was agreement.
Q: What will happen, if there are negotiations, to the fighters in armed groups, will they just be killed, is there any other outcome, what is foreseen?
JE: I am very much removed from political talks, I am an advocate, I push those who do political talks in the direction of humanitarian law - no one should be killed if you can avoid it. There can be agreements with anyone, it could be everything from a mutual agreement to just lay down arms and continue existence in local places as before. The civilians have to be spared, and as I said there are many armed actors in Idlib, I hope that the finest diplomats and the finest military emissaries will sit down and discuss how to avoid civilian bloodbath, and I am hopeful that that will happen - the alternative is just too gruesome.
Q: You say there is intensive diplomacy going on, is this diplomacy underway, can you shed some light on exactly what’s going to avoid the bloodbath?
JE: I lead the humanitarian task force, what I say to you is exactly what I say to the Member States and of course what they say is that, these are the things we are discussing, as Astana partners we are discussing in Sochi, we are discussing with each other, with the other armed actors in the region, and again, Idlib is not removed from international politics, there are many Member States who have influence on what will happen in Idlib. This is no tsunami, this is a manmade crisis from A-Z. So the Member States have to help us get the humanitarian life-line continuing, 2 million people are served every month, that life-line has to be expanded because there will be new people in need, because there is some fighting happening continuously, and finally there has to be protection of civilians, including hospitals and others. And to get the protection deals that we want, we need agreements with the armed actors and that’s what we need them to push for, and of course UN is available and actively pushing for agreements as well.