Note to Correspondents – Transcript of press conference by UN Special Envoy for Syria (SES) Staffan de Mistura


Geneva , 10 October 2014

SES:  Thank you.  Good afternoon to everyone.  Good to see you and my apologies for keeping you waiting a little bit today and previous days but I was looking for this opportunity to meet you.  At the same time, I was thinking it was going to be a normal opportunity but what happens regarding Syria, nothing is normal and therefore first things first and that’s why I am giving you just a short concept of what could be the mission which the Secretary-General has entrusted to me and then go straight to what is the current event which perhaps can put to a test what we are trying to do.

So the broad line and I am just being, because it was expected to be anyway a broad line, at the beginning: at this stage we are not obviously talking about Geneva III or any type of major political momentum.  What we are working on is listening, being in a listening mode, being in a position of understanding where is the current regional, global and national environment regarding possible political process, political process, if and when that can be started and facilitated by the UN. The second is to make sure that any type of action that the UN can be promoting or facilitating regarding the reduction of violence should be implemented and applied.

The next point is to make sure that whenever we can find any type of opportunity of reducing the suffering of the people and increasing their access on a humanitarian side, for the Syrian people have been suffering enough for the last three and a half years, we will try to do so.  And last but not least, any opportunity, any opportunity, which may be given by the international community or by the local or regional environment to initiate or facilitate a political process –  because as you all know, there is no military solution to this conflict – will be applied. I have been going to Damascus, I met President Assad, I have been talking to everyone I can in the region and I will continue doing so inside and outside Syria.  And that is basically the starting point of a minimalistic if you want, but concrete and realistic approach, what the UN can do at this stage. But I can tell you the Secretary-General was very clear with me. He said any opportunity we have to take it grab it in order to make sure that what is being perceived as an ever-ending conflict should be assisted to be ending and meanwhile anything we can do reduce the suffering should be applied. That leads me to the issue of the day.

Kobani –Ayn al-Arab- used to have 400,000 people. It has been under constant attack by ISIL -Da’esh- for the last three weeks. It has been an announced attack. It has been an attack which has been constant and not like in Mosul which had caught everyone by surprise.  Its inhabitants have decided to resist and they are resisting until now.  The latest figures we have is that about 10,000 to 13,000 of them are in a certain border line area just outside Kobani –Ayn al-Arab- between the border of Turkey and Syria, nearby the city.  They are there and there are at the same time about 500 to 700 mostly elderly people and civilians still inside the centre of the city.  The coalition, which has been created on the basis of resolution 2170, has been increasingly hitting positions in at least 20 and more locations and occasions in order to deter the constant well-organized attack by ISIL. But they themselves recently have admitted that this may not be enough to save the city.  The Turkish authorities have met with generosity and efficiency more than 200,000 people, refugees, into camps inside Turkey.

But all this may not be enough in order to avert a clear humanitarian tragedy or catastrophe. We know, we have seen it, what ISIL is capable of doing when they take over a city.  We know what they are capable of doing with their own victims, with women, children, minorities and hostages.  After Mosul this time, it is announced and one reason more for actually looking at it in a different way.   If Kobani –Ayn al-Arab- falls and this could happen , I will show you a map and here it is.  You can see the areas which are…this is based purely on our own analysis . It is not an official, a military analysis, it is the UN analysis.  But based on what we are getting from our own reports, the areas which are circled are the areas which have been hit through the coalition airforce attacks in order to reduce the pressure on the city.  The green area, what you see here, is what is currently still the perimeter of the city. But what you should be particularly looking at it is this.  This is the last entry point or exit point, which you have for the city. And if you look at where the coalition has been hitting, you can see that since they have been trying to hit where ISIL is present, the city is literally surrounded except for this.  If this falls, the 700  – plus perhaps if they move a little bit further – the 12,000 people civilians apart from the fighters will be most likely massacred.

You remember Srebrenica? We do. We never forgot.  And probably we never forgave ourselves for that.  I was in the area. I was not in Srebrenica but I belonged to the generation of UN secretariat staff who felt terrible when they realized they were focussing on Dubrovnik, on Sarajevo and Srebrenica fell. You remember Vukovar, you remember Rwanda. We have been telling ourselves, based on the principles that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been more and more emphasizing, i.e. Human Rights Up Front, that when there is an  imminent threat to civilians we cannot, we should not be silent.  There is a lot of political reasons, strategic reasons, that may indicate that it is difficult to do something about it. But the Secretary-General has clearly made a statement saying anyone who can do anything should be. Please take action to protect the civilians, in this case of Kobani –Ayn al-Arab. Do we have an internationalscenario to justify any type of action? Well resolution 2170 speaks very clearly.  Everyone who can should be doing what he can in order to control and hopefully stop this atrocious terrorist movement, especially when they are clearly indicating where they are going. There is humanitarian law. There is Srebrenica. There are the images that we don’t what to see, we cannot see, and I hope  you will not be seeing of people beheaded, of the defenders and civilians. This should in theory produce enough traction.

So the question is : what can be done?  Well while respecting obviously, and the UN cannot say otherwise, the broad parameters of international law and integrity and  sovereignty of Syria, because this is Syrian territory and the Syrian Government has actually come up publically and said that they too support the Kobani citizens and would like them to be not under the terror and horror of ISIL. We would like to appeal to the Turkish authorities in order to allow the flow of volunteers at least and their own equipment in order to be able to enter the city and contribute to a self-defence operation. And if they can, to support the deterrent actions of the collation through whatever means from their own territory.  I know that Turkey has been going through very difficult times. It is a great country which has gone through enormous pressure because of the Syrian crisis. They have been extremely generous and active.  1.6 million people are every day being taken care of by them. And they are under enormous pressure due to the fact that all this is affecting them. And I understand and we heard they have important preconditions which need to be analysed not only by everyone but also in the international context and probably are being analysed and may require discussions in international fora. But this may require time and Kobani, in our own opinion, does not have enough time.

The request by the Secretary-General to all those who can do something to protect the civilians is still there. Hence our appeal to Turkey to take some specific additional actions to stop the advance of ISIL. We need that because otherwise all of us, including Turkey, will be regretting deeply that we have missed an opportunity of stopping ISIL and sending a signal that that cannot continue. If Kobani – Ayn al-Arab- falls, there will be  close to 400 km of the Turkish border to be basically under control of ISIL out of the 900. And what would be next ?  Other villages? Even Aleppo ? Apart from political considerations, that are there, and strategic considerations, our appeal is based on the principle that the UN will not after Srebrenica ever give up on which is Human Rights Up Front. Thank you.

Q.: You are asking for more concrete action from Turkey. So what you are saying here, you basically want to ask Turkey to let the fighters go in, the Kurds going to fight. You know there are hundreds or, not, thousands of them waiting; they closed the border crossing and what you are saying, your message to Turkey is “Let them go in”: is that correct? But they don’t only need men, they also want weapons. So are you saying also, do you also think that Turkey should arm them, should arm the Kurds? Should they go in with the ground troops, something they said no to yesterday? What are you concretely asking from Turkey?

SES:  I just said I think, but I will repeat it, perhaps. First of all, Turkey is a sovereign great country and whatever decision, should be theirs. That’s why I am not requesting, I am appealing on behalf of the UN secretariat. But it is a serious appeal based on serious concerns.  What they can do it’s up to them. What could be taking place without going into too much of an international complicated environment – which may be pursued but needs international time and fora, since Kobani is likely to fall if this is left unattended – is to allow at least those who want to go and do self-defence, which is an international human rights right, to do so with sufficient equipment to be able to fight and defend Kobani – Ayn al-Arab from  ISIS.

Q:  So that means also arming them?

SES:  I said what I said. Equipment can be many things.

Q:  I think your demand from Turkey is not fair. Why? Because there are two conflicting parts in Kobani.  One is IS, one is the PKK, a brand of terrorist group still fighting inside Turkey and still fighting in Iraq.  So we cannot say the fighters in Kobani are civilians. So there are two terrorist groups there.  So if Turkey let the militants of the PKK inside Syria, it’s kind of supporting terrorism. So I am coming to question.  At first, it’s not fair.  So Turkey is fighting against terrorism and you are saying here that “You should let them, the terrorists or militants in Turkey to enter Syria”, so it’s not fair. Then I am coming to my question. Will you think or decide to take the question to the General Assembly or will you take more countries to take part in that fighting against IS?

SES:  I appreciate your comments.  Fairness, unfairness are many ways to look at it and I have been looking at it, on behalf of the Secretariat , on the concept of human rights.  Of course the whole situation – otherwise probably it would have been solved earlier – is very complicated and we are, I am particularly aware of the complicated decisions that Turkey is going through and has been going through. That’s why it is an appeal to them. But if we look at fairness, the most unfair thing would be if 500 or 700 civilians (military or fighters is one thing; and they are also human beings)  but then, and the 10000 who are just on the edges would be massacred, as people were in Mosul and in other places. That would be the ultimate unfairness. Regarding Security Council or General Assembly  – I see more Security Council – it is up to the Security Council.  As it is up to the government of Turkey, sovereign country for which I personally,  and the UN and the Secretary General have the highest respect, it’s up to them to decide what to do to. But it’s up to us to make a very specific appeal.  Thank you.

Q:  Sir, if you permit me, I’d like just to understand what is the relationship between what it’s going on in Syria now by ISIS and the political process to have peace in the country between the government and the opposition.   My second small question: when we talk about a political process in Syria, is our basis still the Geneva communiqué or the presence of ISIS in Syria and what’s going on will chance this basis? Thank you.

SES:  It is a little bit premature for me at this stage – I have been in this job for the last three weeks – to elaborate about details on what type or format or framework may or could take place in terms of a political process.  What I can say – and that facts on the ground and political facts have taken place after the Geneva conference.  There has been a presidential election in Syria; there has been an ISIS taking suddenly the scenario of the preoccupation of everyone .  There have been changes in terms of also the way the regional partners and countries have been obliged, like all of us, to look at Syria and Iraq in the context put forward by the new threat of ISIS.  All that needs to be compounded, otherwise we would be unrealistic . That doesn’t mean that Geneva I, which was a successful event and produced a very unified position, cannot be the basis or the framework for further refinement, depending on what would be the reality at the time when we will be finally meeting in Geneva or elsewhere , Insha’Allah when things will be clearer rather than when they are just purely hypothetical.

Q: You talked about taking whatever measure could be taken to reduce the conflict. Short of a major international peace process do you see specific opportunities emerging now as a result of your discussions with President Assad for perhaps promoting localized ceasefires and ending some of the sieges?

SES: The short answer is yes. The long answer which is yes, because what ISIS has produced, as any crisis, can be and should be used also as an opportunity, is producing certainly a major concern by everyone -including by President Assad -about this new factor and the factor of the response to ISIS.  And that all may, and I hope we would be able to facilitate that, increase the possibility of local ceasefires and decentralized ceasefires.  But we will cross that bridge… But certainly there is a window that we should not be missing. Thank you.

Q:  I am just trying to digest your statement. You started off by saying there is no military solution but you appear not to be sticking with the Geneva communiqué possibly. At the same time you are advocating war against ISIS. Have you stopped being the person trying to fix Syria back together and become the coordinator of this self-defence or this attack on ISIS? You know, I don’t really understand, you seem to be advocating a military solution while saying that you are not. Can you try to square the circle?

SES : I will try. And in order to try, you should also try to put yourself in what is a UN person and principles related to a crisis. There is only a political process for a political final solution for Syria. Obviously no one will win, no one seems to be winning this conflict and it is unlikely to happen. And we put that aside. Then, when there is a humanitarian tragedy or there is a major threat, in fact announced and clearly wanted and proven to be taking place like we have seen through ISIL, it is the duty for everyone to stimulate the possibility for these people to survive. Is that done by force, by self-defence, by any type of national or international intervention ? I just bring you back to Srebrenica. So I don’t see a contradiction in that because when you look at the imminent danger, it’s not through UN resolutions that ISIL will stop attacking Kobani.

Q: Can I just follow up briefly? Would you talk to ISIL if they wanted to talk? Obviously now they are beheading people so it may not be the best time, but are you prepared to talk to them ? Do you think that is a necessary part of the solution?

SES: The UN and myself, in many capacities as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General in very difficult places with very complicated interlocutors, has always been authorized and expected to talk to anyone if that produces some benefit either to a political solution or a humanitarian relief. I cannot list to you how many people who my mother would not be delighted to know I shook hands with I have been doing it over the past 42 years. But that is exactly what the UN is supposed to do. But I am not proposing, I am not planning and they are not asking for meeting any one of us.

Q: Could I just come back on the earlier point? You say there is a window of opportunity. Are there specific proposals regarding specific locations on the table under active discussion where we should look for some kind of movement in the very short term?

SES: I am not in a position of elaborating on that. We are working. Thank you.

Q: What do you expect concretely from the government of Bashar Al-Assad in this precise case of Kobani?

SES : It is the territory of Syria, Kobani – Ayn Al Arab- But apparently from what you can see on the ground, if ISIL was free to do what they have done, it means that the government of Syria has not been able to control or to be present in that area… In that case, I cannot expect what they cannot do because they are not there. Thank you.

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