JE: Thank you. The main issue at the Humanitarian Task Force today was naturally the very important agreement reached between the President of Russia and the President of Turkey. We were informed of the details of the agreement. We were also informed that many details are being worked out and that the two countries, Russia and Turkey, will be in contact with us as humanitarians, to explain how we can ensure protection of civilians, access for the 12,000 humanitarians who are inside of the zone, and the many who will continue assistance both cross-border and potentially cross-line from government-controlled areas into this so-called zone.
We are relieved that the agreement came. It came in the eleventh hour really, there seemed to be a relentless countdown to a war that would potentially engulf 3 million civilians. I think it shows that diplomacy can win, must more often win, in this man-made catastrophe. This was man-made from A to Z. Diplomats should be able to prevent bloodshed more often and help us as humanitarians protect and assist civilians.
This agreement has also bought more time so that diplomats, politicians can still do their job and avert what still may be very bad developments for civilians inside of this area. Because what I understand is that the so-called war on terror is not called off, on the contrary there will be in the future air raids against the listed organizations. There will also be fighting between armed groups, armed actors and the so-called terrorists, the so-called radicals.
There is and will be many civilians in these areas, so our concern is still there, our preparedness is still going on, we could still see too many civilians, totally innocent and removed from this political conflict, paying a very high price for continued violence.
Our message is really to those planning air raids and those planning offensives on the ground: maximum precautions must be taken so that civilians are spared, and of course the message to those who have influence on these groups on the ground: do not take civilians with you into this violence, it is a war crime to blend into civilian population, to locate next to civilians, whether that beside schools or hospitals or any other places. And the messages have to go also to the groups.
There is a massive humanitarian operation in this area, it is one of the largest in the world. There are many trucks actually crossing the border from Turkey every single day, into Idlib, Afrin and Euphrates Shield area, this life-line must not be cut by potential future fighting that can still happen as part of this agreement. Hopefully even that fighting can be averted, it is totally legal and recommended to speak to armed men, even listed terrorist organizations to end the conflict without bloodshed for civilians.
There is now a great number of newly de-conflicted sites in Syria but also in Idlib. Altogether we have the main armed actors have now the heavy responsibility of having received the coordinates for 700 internally displaced camps, hospitals, schools, humanitarian warehouses, humanitarian offices, 240 of those in Idlib. There are clear indications that it is shielding those from attack that they are being deconflicted with the parties. I met with non-governmental organizations yesterday who are still afraid of what may come, relieved that the big war might be averted - some have deconflicted their sites, some are still not fully trusting the system, given how many hospitals and others have been hit.
Regarding convoy access, you would have assumed that the more the government control areas, the easier it would be to get permission from the very same government to go to these places. Still week after week we are not getting permission to go including into a please called east Harasta in Eastern Ghouta that has long been under government control. Also, other areas that have been retaken by government, we still have problems getting access for our convoys and that needs to change, these are people in great need.
Let me finally then mention a particular area where we have very, very deep concerns, and that is Rukban where there are 50,000 Syrians, who are at the Jordanian border in the desert to the south-east in Syria. In Rukban we tried to come with a convoy from Damascus now for months. The last real distribution there, through the UN, was in January. We had the famous crane operation, lifting relief over the border and into the camp. We haven’t been able to reach that place since January. Our humanitarian colleagues who have now succeeded in having a meeting with the community leaders, tribal leaders, women representatives, youth representatives, say that the situation have rapidly deteriorated in recent days. So, whatever had been able to trickle into the camp seems to be totally over, I don’t know why, but the situation had dramatically deteriorated of late.
There are obviously political games, strategic, military, interests that are making it worse for the civilian population. So, what we do now are two things: we demand to get the permission for this convoy, ready to go to Rukban from Damascus, and we need only actually a government signature on the facilitation letter and a Russian representative here said we will help you with that.
The second thing that has to happen, which was asked for by community leaders, is a plan for a safe, informed, voluntary, assisted return of those in Rukban, or safe passage of these into other safe areas, and get out of this place where conditions are terrible.
Question: After the Russian-Turkish agreement you sent a twitter message and urged Syrian regime and armed opposition groups to respect the deal. Do you really think that the Syrian regime will respect the deal, as it had violated ceasefire deals in the past? And we all hope that the conflict will not take place in Idlib, so what is the UN plan especially in Idlib and any other area in Syrian, humanitarian, social and economic plans?
JE: The Turkish and the Russian representatives in the Task Force said they were optimistic that this agreement can be implemented with the buffer zone, with all of the possibilities of de-escalation in large parts of Idlib. We are hopeful that this also is signaling that the big war was averted in Idlib, but what I am saying to you is that I see a great potential for a lot of fighting because one is saying we will go after the so-called terrorists, the listed organizations, the radicals, and we are concerned for the civilians in these areas. So it is not over, we will be watching and reporting on any military developments, any violence there and I am relieved to say that the last 48 hours have actually been quiet, very quiet, I fear that it will not necessarily be so in the future. Our plan is to continue a massive relief operation from the north. We have asked for additional funding, too few countries have really helped us in funding the preparedness plan that still is there for all of those who may be displaced because of the fighting that may still come. We will continue our humanitarian operations and we hope and pray that the diplomats will be able to succeed in their job which is to seek some kind of final agreement for this corner of Syria so that there will be peace there, this is not a peace deal, this is an aversion of whole-scale war deal as I see it.
Question: Many of the armed groups in Idlib announced that they will not respect or agree on the deal between Russia and Turkey. Do you have any assessment for what could happen for the civilians if these armed groups went into fighting with the Syrian regime forces or even with the Turkish forces there?
JE: Indeed what some groups have said is that they are preparing to fight and our message to them is: I hope, we hope you are not going to fight to the last civilian really, so whoever are now preparing to fight, and I hope that can be averted, let’s hope for also diplomatic deals with groups who now say they will fight, this fight must shield the civilians, there are also many voices inside Idlib who say that they are now hopeful for the first time in a long time. Hundreds of schools, there were spontaneous demonstrations and outcries from school children and others saying we don’t want this war, we are innocent, shield us. And I hope we will be able to shield them.
Question: Did you learn something about this deal this morning that you did not know before the day started?
JE: It was a confirmation of many of the things that came in the declarations, there were new declarations that we will be invited to be consulted on how to implement the deal, that we will have further conversations in the days ahead on the implementation but there was also indeed a clear message: we are still working, ourselves, on the details. Russia and Turkey, of course we invited Russia and Turkey to explain to us what is in the deal and the basic message was we are very optimistic that we, the two of us, can work this out, to minimize bloodshed, to avoid the big war, and we pledge to work with you, which they haven’t really so far, we haven’t been part of these talks, we learn about it now, we learned about it when it was declared in the press conference, we will work with you now on your concerns which are: the protection of civilians, freedom of movement and save passage for civilians, and access, unimpeded access for humanitarians, those are our three things. Our priority number one is civilians, that’s also our priority number two and three we are neutral to the political aspects.
Question: You keep using the word hope which is a great word, but I am watching you, your tone, your body language is expressing something different, so I would really like you to tell us how hopeful really are you, if we look at precedents for example?
JE: Well, I do have a problem controlling my body language, I always had. I am actually quite relieved. I would have hoped that we would have had an agreement saying: all armed actors inside, all armed actors outside agree to not fight at all, we will talk until we resolve every issue, that was what I had called for but the outcome here was the least bad of realistic solutions, as I see it at the moment. But it is very important, there is no more time really, so we will have to say: do not fight in Idlib city, Idlib city is a place where people would be rightfully concerned now because listed organizations are there. You cannot have war in Idlib city, it is filled with civilians to the brim, and it is full of internally displaced people, there has to be an agreement for Idlib city for example. So our message now is to diplomats: you need to continue, you need to do more to avoid civilians being engulfed in this war and I am also very fearful for us not being able to do that, that why we continue our preparedness plan.
Question: I was going to ask a very similar question to Ben who I think phrased it excellently, but just to understand a little more about this plan: what happens, is there any chance of a negotiated surrender with these so-called radicals and if so what happens to them? And also, there are tens of thousands moderate opposition fighters, who are as far as I know not a legitimate target because they are not covered by the UN resolution which singles out certain groups as banned terrorists, what happens to them? Are they expected to just remain there just under Turkish protection? Are they going to surrender? Are they going to move somewhere else? I am totally unclear about what happens to these various groups of fighters. Thank you.
JE: Again, what we have been informed is that, this deal means that only those groups that are called terrorists, at times radical, at times militant, those groups which I would see as listed terrorist organizations, and the HTS formally called Al-Nusra are among them. Those can be attacked, will be moved out of the buffer zone and that may signal more than enough war to have a lot of civilians being engulfed in wholesale suffering. However, it means that those who are armed opposition groups supported by Turkey, who are called moderate at times, and who are not listed, would not be attacked, and so it would then mean that a lot of areas would not see war, hopefully, but there could now be more clashes between armed opposition groups. It’s very important to be aware that - it has gotten little too attention - there has been a lot of clashes and fighting between armed opposition groups in Idlib. This zone has seen kidnappings of civilians, it has seen torture and murder of civilians as part of intergroup clashes. We have at times focused perhaps too much on the air raids, we also need to focus on these ruthless and reckless armed men in groups, both listed and non-listed terrorist groups.
Questions: Thank you, following up on that, so you mentioned there was relief in some corners about this deal, I would like for you to try as best you can, tell us what you’ve heard about the mindset of these armed groups, of the fighters in these groups, have you heard anything about whether or not, I mean it’s a little bit like what Tom was asking about whether or not you know it could be a negotiated deal, are you hearing that some elements more than others are willing to participate in this deal somehow let civilians have freer movement to be away from the fighting areas, or are there members of the militia groups that want to turn themselves in or lay down their weapons? And following up on what you just finished saying also, could you give us any more detail about the breakdown of control within Idlib by the HTS and the other sort of different armed groups, I mean a lot of people are talking about 10,000 and I think Mr. de Mistura talked about 10,000 militants, is there any way to break that down and tell us how much is actually HTS and how much is other groups?
JE: What I can say is only what I have been told, I do not know, no one really knows for sure, but the listed organizations, terrorist organizations have many, have thousands and thousands of fighters, but they would not be a majority of the fighters. They are in many parts of Idlib and among them there are many who say that they will fight until the end and that is very, very worrisome. Then there would be a big hope that also there will be talks among them, with them, indirectly reaching them, to get them to not fight to the last fighter and the last civilian in their areas, so again the promise is we have more time.
Q: Have you seen any signs of that, of any of these fighters that maybe, you said some are willing to fight to the last, what about others? Are there are others that are actually showing signs that they are not willing to fight to the last?
JE: Again it’s too speculative at this point, I hear lots of things and I think it’s a big discussion now on the ground, what’s our alternatives and what are our possibilities? I would say generally, it is not a good thing if you give desperate men with guns no alternative but to fight, and that’s what we are asking for now, there needs to be alternative ways of ending this, no one is asking for any impunity for terrorists there, we are asking for protection of the civilians, there are more babies than [terrorists] in Idlib as I have said earlier.
Question: I was wondering, so you just mentioned no one is asking for impunity for the terror groups, but we have seen in this conflict they’ve been bussed from one conflict area to another, so at what point do you ensure that they will not have impunity?
JE: Well again, I am a humanitarian so I don’t go into the justice issues, in general we would … there’s been a lot of war crimes, a lot of crimes against humanity in Syria, there should not be impunity for any one. The bussing arrangements is important because again, when people say of course we cannot talk with these terrorists, I say, well, you have talked with them, repeatedly, many of them were bussed to this area, so of course one can talk to them. But again, I see it’s more complicated there is no Idlib for the fighters in Idlib, presumably. That’s the place where you have to have a more definite agreement, but there can be laying down arms agreements, there can be many ways of ending this to the benefit of the civilians. One concern, and that is protection of civilians and I am going to do my utmost to protect them, to serve them, to help them, to defend them and then there are diplomats, military advisors, military negotiators, now, sitting in Ankara today, sitting in many other places today, planning for the next stages in the developments and they need to do their utmost to avoid more civilian bloodshed. But also those men should think of what kind of legacy there will behind them, were they there really to fight until the last civilian? I hope not because it would be a very bad legacy.