Thursday, February 19, 2015

De Mistura's briefing to Security Council behind closed doors: Don't call me Mr. Freeze


17 FEBRUARY 2015

Mr. President, Members of the Security Council,
1. Since I briefed this Council last October, my Deputy and I have actively pursued consultations about Syria in the country, the region and in concerned capitals.  And I am just back from my third visit to Damascus as Special Envoy.  Earlier I met with commanders of Syrian armed opposition groups in Gaziantep, and have been in regular contact with the political representatives of the opposition, including in Istanbul.  During visits to Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Jordan, and additional interactions with Lebanese, Emirati, Kuwaiti and Bahraini officials, the LAS Secretary-General, EU Foreign Ministers, the US Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister among others, I have sought to identify the threshold for relaunching an intra-Syrian and an international dialogue related to Syria.  Such diplomatic consultations are bound to intensify now in the months to come as we jointly search for a constructive political process to end the conflict. A political process without preconditions for relaunching talks on the basis of the Geneva Communique aiming at a comprehensive settlement.  

2. The dimensions of this conflict have gone far beyond Syria's borders. Physical control of parts of the country is now divided between the government, armed opposition groups and listed terrorist organizations, with some warlordism and even banditry on the rise. The country has effectively turned into a fertile ground in some areas for radical armed groups from within and outside Syria. The so called Islamic State/Daesh has de facto erased the Syrian-Iraqi border we hope not for longer.  Its own  acts of horror have extended far beyond Raqqa. There has been significant spillover of armed conflict from Syria into Lebanon. Tensions have heightened with neighbors to the south. What we are discovering is in fact that failure to stop this conflict is actually dangerous not only for Syrians and their neighbors, but the rest of the world. Stopping it requires an intra-Syrian solution, but absent real international determination, in theory from the Security Council too, to make it happen, things will worsen - for everyone.

Mr. President,
3. Within Syria the situation on the ground has remained fluid. Neither the government nor the opposition, let's be frank, appear to have made strategic military gains - though we need to further assess the implications of today's major government offensive in villages north of Aleppo near a major supply road which if cut off could accelerate the siege of the city of Aleppo. Daesh and al Nusra on the other hand have made advances on account of moderate groups losing ground. Recent months witnessed widespread conflict and high levels of violence, from Quneitra to Aleppo, from Deir ez Zor to Rif Damascus and Idlib. The conduct of hostilities by all parties continues to be unfortunately often characterized by the pervasive disregard for the protection of civilians with indiscriminate aerial bombings, including the use of barrel bombs, shelling, mortars and gas canisters- some used by the opposition, as well as IEDs and VBIEDs.  Civilian infrastructure has been continuously attacked with basic services, including electricity and water, cut, leaving several thousands of Syrians affected. 

4. In the south, recent weeks saw a dramatic escalation in fighting.  In rural Damascus attacks intensified in several towns of Eastern Ghouta, particularly Duma, with heavy artillery fire, including surface-to-surface missiles from the government, resulting in an estimated 200 civilian casualties. These attacks triggered public outrage and appeals including by the SOC President Khaled Khoja and Moaz Khatib to the UN to ensure full implementation of resolution 2139 which demands an end to attacks on civilians, as well as the indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas.  In two attacks, Jaish al-Islam launched a barrage of mortars and katyusha rockets on Damascus, hitting civilian areas and causing dozens of deaths. On 1 February a bus carrying Lebanese pilgrims visiting Shia sites was ripped through in central Damascus by a bomb placed inside the vehicle, killing reportedly 20 and injuring scores of others.  Al Nusra claimed responsibility for the attack.  A large pro-government offensive in Dar’a and Quneitra led to significant displacement and limited access to the area by relief organizations. This took place in a context of heightened tension in southern Syria, further to the UNDOF-observed air violation from the Alpha side on 18 January, which coincided with a reported Israeli airstrike on the Golan. 

5. In Deir ez-Zor, Government forces carried out aerial bombardments of Daesh-held areas and engaged in ground clashes in civilian areas. In Hasakeh, the situation appears to have reverted to the status quo ante after clashes between the Kurds and the pro-government National Defence Forces. In Kobane, Dash remained on the back foot.  Operations by the US-led coalition intensified, including in the aftermath of the widely condemned horrific immolation of the Jordanian pilot- Muath al Kassasbeh.

6. Shelling and aerial bombardment continued in Aleppo governorate with dozens of civilians killed in opposition-controlled areas in January, while Daesh was largely responsible for the 50 civilian deaths in government-controlled areas. Despite these attacks, Daesh appears not to have made any major inroads to the west and has yet no presence in the city. Al Nusra has instead made considerable advances, coexisting with the newly-formed Jabha Shamia. Before today's -still unfolding and we are watching this-government offensive the lines of division had remained more or less broadly static and a complete siege of the city largely avoided, so far.

Mr. President, 
7. We have all repeated it, though not everyone seems to have internalised it, this war cannot be won by military means. Parties claim to be acting for fellow Syrians- but more and more Syrians continue to suffer. Syrian refugees are struggling to stay warm this winter; thousands inside Syria are besieged and short of food, trying to stay safe amidst bombardments, or are being arbitrarily detained and/or abused in prisons or other places of detention. This all points to the imperative that all parties to the conflict do their utmost to spare civilians.  And it reinforces the Secretary-General's  Human Rights Up-front agenda as the UN's guiding principle in identifying any opportunity for de-escalation of violence. This means at least ending indiscriminate bombardment in populated areas. It means ending the bombing of medical facilities and schools.  It means bringing arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, kidnappings, and torture to an end, with perpetrators ultimately held accountable. This is a message that the entire international community, including especially those with influence over the Syrian parties, must take up and repeat. 

8. It is with the immediate priority to stem violence in mind, that I put forth the "freeze" proposal. Defined both as a freezing of the fronts and - to start with - a halt of the most egregious tools of violence in the form of heavy weapons, the freeze is aimed at providing a reprieve for civilians and creating some space for accelerated and unhindered relief operations. Aleppo's prominence means that a reduction in violence there could yield a sign of hope and stability, a strategic de-escalation of violence that may be local in nature frankly but have a national impact. The unacceptable conditions for civilians, confirmed recently by Amnesty International, further underscores the identification of Aleppo city as a candidate for the freeze - there are frankly many others and we will try to push for them too- given the potential benefits for civilians. In many ways, Aleppo and its symbolic value has served its purpose in what the city has come to signify. The concept is and should be distinct from local agreements in that it tested the parties’ proclamations of acting in the interest of civilians and in favor of national reconciliation. For the freeze to stand a chance of success, in Aleppo or elsewhere, all parties involved must demonstrate some political will based on a desire to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. In the latter context, a recent poll revealed that in fact 54% of inhabitants of the non-government controlled areas of eastern Aleppo were in actually very much in favor of a freeze, even if they are - as we all are- doubtful of its sustainability. 

Mr. President, 
9. As I suggested in my press statement of last Friday in Vienna- and we know how press statements can go when one's defenses are down-  it is in this context that the Government of Syria, which is in control of the Syrian air military assets -and has substantial capacity in this regard- must partake of a solution to ease civilian suffering. This was the meaning of my statement. As you know I was in Damascus six days ago where the issue of the Aleppo freeze was raised with the Syrian authorities at the highest level.  I had a long meeting with President Bashar Assad. Following drawn out negotiations in the preceding months, am today in a position to indicate that on the basis of myrequest during this last visit that the Government of Syria assist the UN to implement a pilot project starting with a specific district in Aleppo, the Government of Syria and I am quoting coordinated language is willing to suspend for six weeks all, I repeat, all aerial attacks and artillery shelling throughout the city of Aleppo.  Based on this I now intend travel to Damascus in the coming four days and separately send a delegation to Aleppo no later than the last week of February to assess the conditions for a freeze in the contested district of Salahhadin  but linked to a halt of aerial bombardment in the whole city- following which I may be able to announce when the beginning of the six weeks will come into effect.  Any assessment would have to be carefully calibrated frankly in light of today's reports of an accelerated offensive by the government and pro-government forces, a stark reminder that it is the civilians of Aleppo city that need to be spared by heavy bombing and other continued hostilities. It is now with renewed urgency of course that I intend to actively engage the opposition to elicit their support of UN efforts in order to minimize the cost to civilians and for them too to do their part in avoiding any use of heavy weapons.

Mr. President, Members of the Council,
10. You have gone through lots of discussion on ceasefires and attempted ceasefires elsewhere in the world. In all frankness, we had not deluded ourselves that this was to be simply a glimmer of hope. What today's developments on the ground have only demonstrated is that words and expressions of willingness to protect those caught in the cross-fire have to be accompanied by actions. It is actions that the warring parties will be judged by, including by their fellow Syrians.  Today's reports also reinforce our belief that any initiative aiming at the reduction of violence, including the suspension of the most of egregious tool of violence in the form of aerial attacks and aerial shelling, must come into effect sooner than later.  Starting from a narrowed in scope area within the city of Aleppo, the freeze, should it gain traction, could generate movement towards incremental de-escalation and a gradual return to normalcy in the city. However, the freeze is not an end in itself.  I don't want to stay in your image as Mr. Freezze. The freeze is an entry point at a moment to work through the negative feelings that nothing can be done while we all wait and pray for peace. It is only a test. It is based on the premise of building confidence in an incremental fashion amongst the warring parties and by so doing create conditions for some dialogue.

11. Against the increased prominence of the counter-terrorism narrative in the political discourse, efforts towards attaining a freeze are consistent with the full and speedy implementation of resolutions 2170 and 2178.  These are important resolutions and we need to show that we want to implement them. But a purely military response to the threat posed by Daesh is not enough.The remedy and key goal is the same since 2011: a genuine inclusive Syrian-led political process that addresses the conflict’s root causes and its devastating impact.  And one that will require support of key regional and international players.  

Mr. President, 
12. Developing a shared vision for a new Syria is a daunting task, particularly given the competing narratives that have emerged from four years of systematic violation of human rights and continued conflict. Much shall depend on the new realities imposed by Daesh and its impact on the Syrian theatre in the coming months. A lot depends too on the attitude of the Syrian Government. Yet in this uncertain milieu, there are still some shared aspirations by everyone. Those pertain to the preservation of the Syrian state, and state institutions -as we learn to avoid a repetition of Libya, or Iraq. It is about preserving the territorial integrity. Intra-Syrian dialogue on such principles, whether through informal or direct talks, may help generate common ground to guide the future and more difficult negotiations on the exact form of a political settlement, which can only be decided by the Syrians themselves.

13. In this spirit the UN continues to assess ways to renew diplomatic efforts towards a process based on the international consensus enshrined in the Geneva Communiqué. Defining a political solution, and one that accounts for the new dimensions of the conflict, will involve tough decisions and compromise, with everyone putting aside their preconditions for launching talks.

14. As such, meetings last month in Cairo and Moscow we feel provided important openings. Cairo I was a serious attempt to bring together a wide range of opposition around a common set of criteria on the way forward. The Moscow Forum presented the additional advantage of offering a process that includes the government and opposition, in the hope that some confidence can be built between the parties by multiplying instances of interaction. These are but two of several proposed frameworks over the years.  Ongoing track II, civil society, women groups' initiatives too have been active in attempting to bring different groupings of Syrians around widely shared values. By hosting more inclusive and coordinated follow-up meetings with the Syrian actors in the next couple of months, coupled by signals of good faith, i.e. CBM like the one we have been desperately trying to produce in Aleppo with the freeze, Egyptian and Russian partners -and we are looking to them for this- can help us pave the way towards an initiative that brings all together under UN auspices. 

 Mr. President, Council members,
15. Since I took up my assignment the objective of my mission was to begin to relaunch a political process anchored in the Geneva Communique that would allow the Syrians to determine their own future. Now that we are about to make an initial step in implementing the freeze, and the Syrian opposition has taken some timid but positive steps to organize themselves around the Cairo and Moscow meetings, the time is ripe for the UN too to intensify its informal soundings around a range of issues for a more focused discussion informed by as many Syrian voices possible, building on Cairo an Moscow. 

16. This is not about us launching a separate top-down initiative within a prescribed timeframe. It rather entails: a) continuous exchange with civil society, locally and nationally; b) bringing all those amongst the opposition who have a stake into a process; c) informing the talks via constant UN regional engagement; and, d) garnering international governmental actors in a non-formalized setting, by way of sealing the emerging understandings.  The UN can only do so much without the concerted support of key member states, led by the Security Council, to which I will aim to report on progress once the beginnings of a substantive consensus have appeared.  

In conclusion, Mr. President, 
17. Let me summarize the bottom line.  I wish to reiterate that the meaning of my press comments in Vienna related specifically to the reduction of violence. There should be no misunderstanding on this point. Recent acceleration of military activities are a stark reminder that we must pursue "freeze" options to spare civilians. We are taking seriously the repines by the Government of Syria to halt for six weeks all airstrikes and artillery attacks over all of Aleppo city in order to allow the UN to test the benefits of a a pilot freeze area and hopefully produce incremental benefits. We hope the opposition will respond to the UN request positively to halt the use of heavy weapons in the city. We are not naive in deluding ourselves. Facts, not words, will prove if this is doable. Hence my intention to proceed back to the region. We will pursue the potential of a political process building on the Cairo and Moscow initiatives and aim at a UN enlarged initiative to promote a political solution to this conflict guided by pragmatism and the Geneva Communique.

Thank you.
Follow me on Twitter @NabilAbiSaab  


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