SP: Thank you very much and good morning ladies and gentlemen, and members of the press corp. As you all know the Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura is currently still in Astana, and it is because of this absence, his absence, due to the Astana meeting, he had asked me on the occasion of Jan Egeland’s last day as Senior Adviser and Chair of the ISSG Humanitarian Task Force, to deliver a very brief, personal message, so what I am about to say now is a direct quote from Special Envoy de Mistura from Astana:
“Today is the last occasion for a HTF chaired by Jan Egeland... I was very much hoping to express my deepest gratitude to Jan in person, so, let me say the following:
You deserve the respect and gratitude of each of us for the constant and intense dedication in keeping the attention on the humanitarian and protection needs of the Syrian people and civilians during the last terribly difficult 4 years.
Your creative and concrete approach has immensely facilitated the task of the UN country team, member countries of HTF and NGOs and civil society organization who have been working in order to save Syrian lives.
I personally owe to you a lot: you have been day and night engaged and available to ensure that the UN mission could make a difference to Syrian people.
We are proud to have had you once again as a colleague and we are deeply grateful for your remarkable contributions to our common mission and cause.
Your friend and colleague
Staffan de Mistura, each one of the OSE team and all members of the HTF and the UN Country team are all genuinely going to miss you.
End of quote.
This was the message that UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, asked me to deliver in front of the media which was also delivered to members of the Humanitarian Task Force.
Thank you very much for your attention, I leave you with Senior Adviser Jan Egeland.
JE: Thank you very much Salva. I appreciated very very much to be able to serve with Staffan de Mistura and the Syria UN team here in Geneva. It was a privilege to lead the Humanitarian Task Force. I would like to say two three remarks on today’s meeting and then a little bit of a swan song after three years leading this humanitarian diplomacy.
This meeting was very much marked by Aleppo and Idleb now experiencing a worsened war situation. We are very worried for recent developments. Mortars hit west Aleppo, it was a heavily populated area and it was this weekend. Chemical agents may have been used, 65 to 75 patients were hospitalized many of them showed signs of suffocation. And therefore, the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will investigate, the World Health Organization has rushed medical supplies to the hospitals treating these people. If it is use of a chemical weapon, it is a war crime.
After this there were air raids, on two locations in Idleb, these are very serious because these are the first air raids since mid-September. We had more than two months without air raids, it was a rare period of calm. So over recent days we have seen provocations and counter-provocations, exchanges of mortars and grenades, across the line that surrounds this area that has this special Russia and Turkey deal, we have seen increasing incursions in both directions of armed men, more shelling, increased violence. This is the worst possible kind of action in the worst possible place. It is really playing with a gigantic powder keg in the middle of 3 million civilians.
I was therefore heartened that both Russia and Turkey say that the deal remains in place, the peace effort, the ceasefire, this special arrangement for Idleb and surrounding areas is still in place and it will be defended as such. This was also reconfirmed now by Astana partners, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
We also discussed the second convoy to Rukban. In Rukban there are some 45,000 civilians, winter is coming in this harshest of deserts. They had one convoy, which was a breakthrough for us, the second convoy needs to have green light in the next few days, to be able to have its slot time before the end of the year, when it will be very difficult to get permissions to do anything. So, we are still waiting for all of the green lights we need from the government of Syria, from the Russian Federation, from the United States that is militarily involved in this area, from Jordan which is a neighboring country. As we will need the arrangements in places with the six armed opposition groups inside. I had hoped and believed we would have all the green lights by this meeting, we still have more issues to discuss, we also got more questions from the Russian Federation that we will immediately answer, but the clock is ticking.
There is a mother of 13 there, she is again pregnant which just shows the needs of the people in Rukban are overwhelming, the protection against abuse is not there, they need help before the winter, and they need also this intentions survey that the UN will do, and an intentions survey is that everybody will be asked: would you like to leave? If so, where? And under what conditions? When we have that we can help undertake voluntary relocation of the people who do not belong in this inhospitable place.
Finally let me also mention this forgotten conflict in the far east of Syria, around the village of Hajin and surrounding areas, it is still held by the so-called Islamic State fighters. Civilians are still under cross fire and still those civilians who flee are kept in camps, they are too close to the fighting and they are kept for too long there. Women and children should not be treated as suspects, they should be able to relocate elsewhere.
Now if I may, a couple of general comments, because really the Syria war has been part of my life now day and night for several years. We have had well over a hundred meetings of the Humanitarian Task Force, I have done nearly a hundred press briefings.
My first question really has been there throughout: what made it so bad? How did we come to this, a war like no other in our generation? My answer really is: we allowed all hell to be let loose in the most populated civilian places of a heavily populated country. So, Syria’s more fire power discriminately hitting more defenseless civilians in more towns and cities for more years than any other of the contemporary forty armed conflicts. It is the fierceness of the fighting that made this so horrific. Hundreds of thousands died, many more were wounded, and 12 million were driven out of their homes. So, more people have gone hungry in Yemen, in Congo and elsewhere, but nowhere was the war violence directed at so many civilians.
So how did we then do as humanitarians in this? Well, our record is mixed really in my view. On one hand this is the place where we have had the biggest, the most courageous of assistance missions anywhere in the world. Millions had gotten assistance every single month now for the last more than five years. Tens of thousands of heroic Syrian and international aid workers had been active on the ground. Many people have been killed, many colleagues have been killed, in the line of duty. Where we failed was in protection. As humanitarians we have two missions, one is assistance and the second is to protect civilians. And we failed on the protection side because we ended up as impotent witnesses to the violence. Well-fed armed men besieged and often starved up to one million civilians and dozens of smaller and larger towns and villages. More hospitals, doctors, nurses were attacked than in any other conflict for a generation. Countless schools were attacked, children lost education. And we had the so-called Islamic State controlling millions of people with only sporadic relief and no protection for years.
So, the advocacy that was undertaken was not effective, and advocacy is really when we, thousands of voices, try to speak on behalf of the Syrian civilians. There was too little targeting of decision makers on an earlier stage to avoid all of these countries bringing fuel to the fire, either fighting along one or the other party, supplying the arms to men who never lacked arms, or being cheer leaders of one or the other sides. Too few really courageously acted to hold back the sponsors of the parties. And there was also, I felt, often too little support for those of us who tried to do humanitarian work on both sides. According to the neutrality and impartiality criteria of humanitarian work, even when you worked and how your worked for civilians became controversial.
Personally, I ask myself were I biased in my advocacy, in my work vis-à-vis you for example? I was often blamed for being biased especially in 2016 and 2017 I was criticized both by government’s spokesmen in Damascus as well as by the Spokespeople for the Russian military in Moscow. I still think I was not biased. I still think what we said was the truth. And here is the reason why. There is a difference between besieging and being besieged, there is a difference between having air force and having none of that, there is a difference between a barrel bomb with three hundred grenades being thrown at the civilian areas and one grenade or one mortar in the other direction. Nearly 90 percent of the people besieged were besieged by government and allied forces.
But then the other question, were we giving too little attention to armed opposition groups’ behavior in the areas they control or their behavior as armed actors? I think that criticism may be right actually. I felt too often we had too little information of what happened in these areas, those who could have informed us did not necessarily inform us either enough of what these armed men did when they took upon themselves to be rulers of great populations. There is, in my view nothing romantic about armed men extorting, intimidating, kidnapping civilians, or discriminating in terms of who should get relief. I never saw a starved soldier in any of these areas, there were too many starved babies.
I think it is also important to note how civil society has suffered on both sides, certainly very well known how many have been killed, detained on the government side, but Raed and Hamoud are the names of the two who were killed just now recently in Idleb, because they were journalists and they spoke the truth.
Now, three final points. One of the reasons it got as bad as it got was that everybody said that they were there on a war on terror, everybody as far as I could see. This notion that everyone is fighting terror fuels the fierceness and fuels the devastation that engulfs the civilians. So large parts of rural Damascus, of Homs, Aleppo and Raqqa, ancient centers of civilizations are leveled to the ground, because of this. So, some of the oldest and finest cities of our civilization looks like Stalingrad and Dresden in 1945. So, I often ask, why this use of enormous violence when there are civilians there and the answer was always: listen, you don’t understand, we are fighting the worst terrorists of our time, there is no other way. I think it is wrong. The principles of proportionate response and the imperative to protect civilians, schools and hospitals is there, whether people lived under this or that group, whether they are listed as terrorists or not.
So, I must say I pity the widow with five children, who may have seen yesterday that al-Nusra moved in next door, because she can be bombed by the Russians and she can see that the western donors are going to boycott her because they do not want to give aid into areas controlled by terrorists. She need protection and she needs assistance.
So, I hope now that the civilians will not be forgotten in Syria as some see the war as fading and the government taking control of more and more areas. I understand that it is controversial how to reconstruct, whether to reconstruct, whose responsible for reconstruction and isn’t it right that if you break something you fix it? That I would understand, what I don’t understand is if anybody now is less interested in giving humanitarian relief and humanitarian rehabilitation of homes, schools and hospitals to civilians just because they went from opposition control to government control. It is the same civilians; their needs are there, and they need help.
Now, the Humanitarian Task Force was a unique invention. The US and Russia said let us sit down with the UN Task Force where those who can influence on the ground, have one task and that is to ensure humanitarian access and also to protect civilians. So where else have Russia and the US, and Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and Iran sat at the same table –very few other places. And in no other places have we had full-time diplomats and military that have transmitted messages to the ground, come back with their messages, and stood face-to-face with us when we criticize them for not giving us access.
I think it became too big—the Task Force—23 countries around the table is too many, but I think that format needs to be used in other contexts—could be Middle Eastern, Africa, central Asia, etc., where the most important nations say let’s at least agree on trying to avoid unnecessary suffering for the civilians and enable access and protection. I think that’s my swan song.
Q: You said that there is still much at stake on the humanitarian front before the end of the year, so a very practical question on the framework and format, who is going to chair the task force in the next weeks, and will that format prevail after the arrival of the new Special Envoy?
JE: The new Special Envoy has told me that he wants to continue with this task force, like Staffan de Mistura, Geir O. Pedersen believes this is a very useful format and he wants to maintain it, maybe he wants to reshape somehow, reduce it in size, would be up to him; and they will name a successor and I understand they are in the final stages in naming my successor. But there will be a meeting on the 13th of December next time and we will, they will discuss Idlib, Rukban, Hajin, Hasakah as always, and at that point the Office will find someone to, probably Salvatore who was here to Chair, and then there will be from January a new Special Advisor.
Q: I had a practical question about what you said about you know the content of today’s meeting, you mentioned the recent flare-up in fighting in Idleb or around Idleb, were the armed groups involved in that, what we call you know the moderate opposition or was it the banned groups who are supposedly I mean they are a legitimate target and if so fighting them is sort of within the normal run of events or is it more of a confused picture?
JE: We don’t, we as the UN do not know who sent in the mortars in western Aleppo that may have included chemical agents, that is now being debated it is controversial, there are various theories about it. What is true is that a number of groups have sent a number of grenades out of the zone and that government and other forces have sent, as I see it, equal number of grenades into the zone. There has been increased exchange of shelling of late, and certainly it includes the listed groups that were supposed to have left the buffer zone.
Q: I will ask a general question on the Syrian peace talks in your last press briefing you said you failed in terms of protecting civilians in Syria, and you have participated in hundreds of meetings here, and we had witnessed here under the UN umbrella many Syrian peace talks, do you think the Geneva process has failed to protect civilians in Syria, are you optimistic for future that Geneva peace process will bring stability and peace in Syria? Are you really optimistic on that?
JE: Well, certainly the realities on the ground cannot be hidden, we all failed the Syrian civilians, all hell was let loose on them and no one was willing and able to shield and protect them. I happen to believe is that what happened here in Geneva helped cause some of the few really achievements also in protection of civilians as well as in extending the assistance mission. This is the first high altitude air drops in the history of humanitarian work took place because it was initiated by the Task Force to Deir ez-Zor. Those people would have starved without the World Food Programme then getting a mission, and a mandate and funds to do air drops from 5,000-6,000 meters. There were a number of besieged areas that were reached often after one or two years of besiegement. When we started at 2016 we got through to a majority of the besieged areas in those first months, the year before there had been 2 percent of people in besieged areas reached. So that’s why I say I think it was the only place with somethings were achieved, but certainly we failed because most of the violence was not curbed.
Q: You mentioned on Idleb that it was like playing with a giant powder keg, how likely do you think that this powder keg is going to go off and how does it feel now feel leaving in this situation?
JE: If feels badly to be leaving because it is not over. For the people in Idleb the next few days, weeks will be absolutely crucial. There is an escalation of violence and so many good agreements have faltered not because anyone really wanted it but because everybody was responding to something others did, it is worrisome that we had the first air raids, it is very worrisome that there is a barrage of mortars going into western Aleppo, and it may have, may have, included chemical agents. So today I congratulated again, Russia and Turkey, for having done this agreement, it is a rare moment of diplomatic triumph in this ocean of military response, and I was heartened that they both say, no we are still at it, we still believe in this, we will still push it. They cannot stop this of course, they cannot stop every single group, but they, Turkey can, curb the bad tendencies among armed opposition groups and certainly Russia can cease air raids immediately, and that’s what they need to do.
Q: Could you talk a little bid about Raqqa, you mentioned that you got criticism from Damascus and the Russian military, how much has the damage in Raqqa been overlooked? And maybe didn’t get enough focus, and does the United States government deserve a considerable blame for the devastation in this part of the country?
JE: Well, I think I have been trying to be very consistent throughout my 100 press briefings and saying that to me the devastation of Raqqa is not very different from the devastation of Homs or eastern Ghouta. It was full of civilians, it was also full of very despicable Islamic State fighters, and the devastation is complete really. They are still having a contamination of bombs and rockets, etc. caused in part by the Islamic State fighters, what they left behind as traps, but also by those attacking by the air and from the ground. So, I therefore include the US-led Coalition in those whom I say, I think the war on terror is not being done as it should be, but I should also say with the US we have had a fluid dialogue throughout and certainly they tried to listen to us when we asked for their help to reach civilians, they are the biggest and the most generous donor so of course it is mixed.
Q: Bashar al Jaafari the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York has said in Astana today that it is time for the West to begin lifting economic sanctions, you mentioned before how a widow who was suffering double being next to ISIS and also not being able to have access to foreign goods because of sanctions. Is now the time to end sanctions on Syria, from a humanitarian perspective?
JE: It is a very good question, and as an aid worker I do not comment on the more politically motivated and exerted sanctions, it has to do with all sorts of other things than the humanitarian file. Any sanction that hurt civilians is wrong, that is why we brought up, and the question has been: has there been unintended consequences for the civilians that should end sanctions, that was raised up in the humanitarian Task Force, so again it was a good format to bring up controversial issues. The argument there was from certainly those who support the government is that indeed it has been devastating for civilian life, from those who undertake sanctions, that the government is not asking for exemptions to the sanctions that can be given. So again I do not know whether it should be lifted, what I should say is it should be continuously studied and modified to avoid any of the sanctions hurting civilians, including those who might want to be returning now as refugees from neighboring countries, in terms of the US not giving funding to areas controlled by al-Nusra I would say, that I think is wrong, and I am glad that other donors, western donors, are not having that policy again it is a risky version of helping the true victims of terror, those who live under those groups, it is wrong, and it has to be fixed really.
I would like to thank you, I appreciated our press conferences, I don’t know if you liked it, and it was actually important, important part of our work that these statements that you then conveyed was all over the Middle East, all of the neighboring countries, inside Syria, in Russia, in the US, in Iran, all of the countries that were active there saw these statements, and that helped. Thank you.