JE: I have done this work of leading the Humanitarian Task Force for nearly three years, there has been too many setbacks, we have failed more often than we have achieved what we wanted, but there have been also some positive developments and we have two now that I would like to mention:
First, Idlib. We have now had five weeks without any air raid, I can’t remember such a period for the last three years in Idlib. It is a calm through this very sensitive complex difficult area full of three million civilians, it is a welcome calm. We also have access in all areas, virtually all areas of Idlib, with assistance coming cross-border. The agreement and the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreement has, so far, not impacted our access we were reported today. However, as we explain to the Russians and the Turks and others we have still a million of unanswered questions on how the implementation of this agreement may affect the protection of civilians and humanitarian access. Because we are in the implementation phase we do not even have an exact map of how the buffer zone would be, the buffer zone which is also called the demilitarization zone, because heavy weapons and also listed terrorist organizations are supposed to be leaving this area and there will be special arrangements.
Inside of Idlib, as well as in the zone of groups building more fortifications as there are also signals that conflict may indeed engulf parts or most of Idlib, so the fair, the (inaudible) has not left Idlib we now have a window of opportunity to help people in calm. And that is important before winter.
The Russian and the Turkish sides have indicated that indeed more time will be given to implement the agreement, some of the first deadlines have passed, or is being passed. There will be more time for diplomacy, that is a great relief to us because if one is to follow a military logic, that has too often been followed in this war alone, it would be horrific news not only for civilians but also for humanitarians, of whom there are 12,000 colleagues in Idlib.
Also positive news is that all western donors have now said that the temporary restrictions on aid flow due to concerns about possible deviation of resources to listed groups, that has been lifted, all donors have resumed aid again. This is extremely important, because this was supposed to be the time when we use the calm to pre-position relief before winter and before possible fighting against listed groups and others.
Another piece of positive news is that the 45,000 to 50,000 people in Rukban in the desert next to the Jordan-Syrian border in the south-east of Syria, they will get a convoy. We have been assured that we will have all the green lights and the permits from the government in Damascus to send a convoy with food, with health and sanitation equipment, all that is needed for a population in Rukban that has had the most desperate pleas now in latest weeks for aid, I think one of the most desperate places in Syria now. The last time we reached Rukban was in January with a convoy, we hope within the next week we can send this long-awaited convoy of relief. There has been reports even of deaths inside because of lack of relief and the situation has been becoming increasingly desperate because the few trickles of civilian goods and supplies, commercial supplies and others that were earlier reaching Rukban has not been able to get through in the last couple of months.
One more trickle of positive news was that the Russian Federation said again that the very concerning law 10 promulgated in Syria is a law that enables expropriations from the housing, land and property, that may have been owned by displaced people and refugees, that law is withdrawn. We have had of late a number of very worrying report that indeed there is expropriation according to law 10 happening in Damascus area and elsewhere. When Russia says that it is withdrawn and that there were mistakes done when one had initiatives referring to the law, it is some good news, hopefully this will now be reality on the ground.
So, diplomacy can win, even in Syria. The military logic doesn’t have to be followed always, why hasn’t it been followed before? It is one of the questions I really carry with me, why wasn’t there more time given to more diplomacy to solve issues, so that we had more access and we were able to protect more civilians.
Finally, I think all of this also connected to Syria being a place where everybody declaring that they are actually in a war on terror. Now indeed there are many fighters who have extremist leanings and who are listed as terrorists, among them Islamic State, that has been fought as we speak in the east, in the region called Deir ez-Zor, where now a village called Hajjin, but also several other villages, with some 15,000-people including Islamic State fighters and their families, but also a lot of civilians there are being attacked from all sides, by Kurdish fighters and also by Syrian government fighters – 7,000 civilians with little attention from the world opinion have fled from this area, civilians are in the cross-fire and there are also reports that when they will flee they will end up like many others in so-called terrorists affected areas, treated with a lot of suspicion there is not enough freedom of movement, there is no full and free access for humanitarians to these people.
What would be a better way? Well number one, of course humanitarians have to show extreme care when we work in areas where there are terrorist organizations. Extreme care, it is my impression that all organizations invest all possible resources now to avoid any deviation of aid. But number one, there is no exception to humanitarian law, if you are fighting Islamic State or if you are fighting al-Nusra, or you are fighting any other terrorist group, it is not like there is another set of rules. Often I have the impression that the victims of terror, which is really the widow with five children, who did not ask Islamic State fighters or Nusra fighters or anybody else to move in next door, she is the real victim of terror, and she is more likely to be attacked because she’s got that neighbor and not another armed man next door, then we are not serving humanitarian law, and finally if donors have their anti-terror legislation meaning that it is so rigid in implementation that the widow with five children is much more likely to not receive assistance, if she is next to terrorists, she is also served so badly and is victimized twice, in the war in terror visit her and then being part of indiscriminate war on terror.
Final final point, what is coming up increasingly is that donors say they will not do reconstruction in Syria, I understand that, there is a political discussion around what is really reconstruction and whom should do it? What is non-negotiable is that humanitarian work should happen in all areas, irrespective of who controls an area, and we now need to meet the people who are under government control and who are earlier besieged and reached through indirect manners, as well now as we were before. Humanitarian work has to continue, and humanitarian work includes rehabilitation of schools, hospitals, electricity, water and sanitation. So, let’s agree we do humanitarian rehabilitation and we do it all over Syria.
Question: Yesterday the Special Envoy announced that he is going to leave at the end of November, he invited you to join, as a Special Adviser, does that mean that you plan to leave also at the end of November or are you going to stay with the next Special Envoy?
JE: I actually decided to leave at the end of November when I was renewed in September, so I am also leaving at the end of November, I think it is by very much coincidence that Staffan de Mistura, for personal reasons, is discontinuing his great service to our common cause, at the end of November. But there will be another team, we all leave a job half-done unfortunately and there will be continued action after we leave.
Question: Wish you well with your departure, we knew about that, could you say more about, you said Russia and Turkey indicated that there will be more time needed to implement the Idlib de-escalation, how much time are they giving? When is it planned to come to an end? And how much time they need or do you sense that it might be an indefinite state of execution?
JE: My role is to fight for an indefinite execution of those parts of the deal that they are now negotiating to solve, give time for the sake of the civilians, we have many questions on Idlib, these are the very questions, what happens now to the groups who are not moving? What happens with a group that is not laying down their arms and is a listed terrorist group? There shouldn’t be fighting, there should be negotiations, give more time, give time until there is agreement, and I was heartened to hear both Russia and Turkey saying they are optimistic that they can achieve much more through negotiations and they are generally positive on the implementation of this deal which is giving relief a pause in fighting to Idlib.
Question: You mentioned that this is a long lull in the fighting, the longest, is there any way that we can start talking about the beginning of the end of the Syria war, that’s the first question. Your comment earlier about the Russians saying that the law 10 is going to be withdrawn, that’s the first I have heard of it, can you tell us a little bit more, did they just tell you that today? What are the conditions of that? Can you just elaborate on that?
JE: Well on Law 10 we were also informed some time back that the law is withdrawn as a specific legal initiative then I and others brought it up again because we heard of, you know, so-called urban development initiatives in the great Damascus area and elsewhere, that were very concerning, and then Russia came back today saying No we can confirm it is withdrawn and if anyone refers to it, it is a mistake, this is what we have to watch now because the hundreds of thousands of families who will debate now, very difficult debate, in their tent or in their hut this winter, should be return next spring? They need to know that they are not from their housing, land and property, they left something behind, they want to return to it.
For the first question, I will not paraphrase Churchill here, because, the big battles have ended in most of the country, that’s for sure. Idlib is a huge question mark still, and Idlib could still become, perhaps the worst battle yet, it still could become it, then there is horrific fighting that no one seems to be caring about, in the very east, with 15,000 people in cross-fire between the Islamic State fighters and the attacking forces. And then when war ends in more and more provinces, is it peace? No, it is not peace yet. Peace will be built through human rights, through the implementation of the rule of law and when there are opportunities for return in safety and dignity for those who fled.
Question: Coming back to what you have just told us that you are going to leave in November, could you tell us why? And if you already know if you are going to be replaced? And by whom?
JE: The reason I am gone at the end of November is that it has been a very exhausting additional job, I am the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is one of the largest humanitarian NGOs. I took that job in the autumn of 2015, when one was trying to have working parties on humanitarian access and protection of civilians, with the parties, that did not happen, chronology of that is the Humanitarian Task Force and the Ceasefire Task Force came out of the ISSG, International Syria Support Group, I have chaired that now since February 2016, it has been very exhausting really because there hasn’t been an evening or a weekend where we have not been dealing with Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, Eastern Ghouta, now Idlib, Rukban or some other issues, so that is the issue, and I presume I will be replaced by somebody better, and that they will continue with the task force, because the job is not even half done.
Question: I was wondering if you can give us some readout, if there was any details given to you by the Russians and the Turkish delegations concerning the withdrawal of the so-called UN-listed terrorist groups, if they are going to move out of the Idlib area, where would they go? And the estimates are that they are over 10,000.
JE: They did not go through that, they have said now and earlier that there is good implementation of the agreement, the agreement means that the listed groups should leave the buffer zone and everybody should leave with their heavy guns from the buffer zone, which is called de-militarized zone even though there is supposed to remain a lot of both armed groups and the Turkish observation posts will stay in that zone. Of course the groups will then go into Idlib itself, and what will happen with them there? So indeed, if there was only fighting against the listed groups, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and other groups, would it be a million civilians then engulfed in the fighting? Would there be more civilians engulfed in the fighting? It would be catastrophic. So, I repeat, our message is: this is a fantastic deal so far because it prevents bloodshed, it has to continue like that, if there is fighting, if there will be war, and even if it is only against the listed groups, it would be completely catastrophic and we, as humanitarians, would have a life-line that will be broken to too many.