SdeM: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. As you know there are other very urgently important meetings taking place in Geneva today, and yesterday. We do have the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with us here, so I am sure that your focus would be on other issues, and I will be trying to be short, but let me address two points, in absence of Jan Egeland.
The focus on the humanitarian discussion we had today on the HTF in Syria was about: one, that the CoH is largely, largely holding, with some exceptions, but in theory that should be giving an opportunity for accelerating humanitarian access to besieged areas. Unfortunately that is not the case and therefore there has been a pressure by everyone in this HTF to insist on the fact that the procedures to get humanitarian access to the very areas which are besieged, now that there is not a lot of military activities, thanks to the CoH, should be an element of priority.
Then, the main area, as you know, of concern, is Wadi Barada. The water issue, which is affecting five million people in Damascus. The information we have is that five villages in the Wadi area have reached an agreement, an arrangement with the government. That is good news. But two villages, in particular, one which is the one holding the actual source of water, al-Fijah, until the moment, has not yet reached an agreement. And therefore there is a danger, substantial danger, imminent danger, that this may develop into a further military escalation, and the consequence of it, unavoidably, no water solution for the people in Damascus.
We consider the water, as you know, a vital priority for the civilians in Damascus, or anywhere else, and there are water engineers ready to intervene, but they need to have minimum security arrangements in order to be able to work on the source in particular.
Two meetings are taking place, both in Ankara and now probably in Moscow too, which will be discussing this aspect because of two reasons: the first one, water in Damascus is vital because it is affecting five million people, and B, because it does have potentially, if it escalates, an impact on the Astana talks and meeting, which is based, as you know, on the concept of a well-established, potentially even better established cessation of hostilities. So there is a sense of urgency linked both to water and to Astana and we are definitely in that direction too.
Now, concerns about two other areas, four actually, in particular Kefraya and Foah. You remember those two villages which have been constantly a reason of concern, because they are besieged by the armed opposition. These are the only two locations which have been actually, besieged so far by the armed opposition. In Kefraya and Foah there is an issue which is quite unusual: 23 drivers and buses are being held inside because they are unable to get out from there, by the armed opposition. These where the buses and drivers who actually moved, you remember, during the Aleppo evacuation and mutual evacuation, who went there and couldn’t leave anymore. That is not good and needs to be addressed and we are working on it together with, and we have asked those who have an influence on the armed groups to allow the 23 drivers to leave Kefraya and Foah.
Same concerns apply to Madaya and Zabadani. You remember one year ago we had terrible images in at least one of the two locations, the fact that the cessation of hostilities has not produced easy access to these two locations, is becoming an area of serious concern, because we have seen pictures both in Kefraya and Foah, and Madaya and Zabadani which are giving a feeling that the issue of food and essential items is a serious one.
Now on the political track or the political process. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is in town and of course naturally his focus will be/is on the Cyprus issue, but we will be having with the Secretary-General some consultations in order to be able to look ahead on what are the next steps of the UN contribution to the political process in Syria.
Astana. Astana is something that we have said and will repeat it, the UN is supportive of. Particularly when we see that the discussions between the sponsors, Turkey and Russia in particular, with Iran added to it and the Kazakh authorities hosting it, are continuing and progressing, with ups and downs, but progressing in the right direction. The UN is being kept informed and as we have said, and as the Secretary-General said, ready to contribute and support so that we have a successful Astana meeting on which the UN then can be using as a stepping stone, in order to be able to go in the direction of the Geneva meetings.
So far the focus, as you heard, will be most likely on stabilizing, on increasing, on deepening, thickening the positive effects of the cessation of hostilities with some type of political broad lines which we feel could be a good opportunity of linking them with and bringing them to Geneva for the meetings that we are planning on the target date which is still on 9th February, sorry, 8th February.
Thank you, that is all on my side.
- You mentioned that you have got concerns about Wadi Barada and that it may develop into a military confrontation, what evidence do you have that that actually may be happening, is there signs of military buildup that make you believe such a complication?
SdeM: Well, first of all the concern is confirmed by the fact that Wadi Barada is a strategically and from a humanitarian point of view, a crucial place, because water is fundamental and there are already substantial problems since 22nd December. Actually in Damascus the population is over five million. Secondly, there is, as I said, a discussion which has produced at least five of the villages having found an arrangement with the government, but two of them, no, and they are the ones where there are various armed groups, who seem to be at the moment, not inclined to want to do what the other five villages have done. And there are rumors about deadlines, in other words, deadlines that are being put by the government in order to get some type of clarity otherwise there will be military activities. We have not seen military preparations, but we have heard about these deadlines. That’s why I think the meeting which we understand is taking place in Moscow, which will be addressing, including also the Iranians, who have an influence on Hezbollah, who are very much involved in the area, and hopefully, on other groups that are internally inside these villages, will be hopefully deflecting or defusing the danger of that taking place. Military activities in that area mean also the potential of further damaging what has been water pumps and water supplies.
- On the subject of Wadi Barada, I just want to clarify, as far as you are concerned, are there any fighters there from ex al-Nusra, or Daesh, because that would be a justification to attack the area, and if there are no fighters from those groups, bad groups, then what would be the justification for carrying on those attacks on those areas?
SdeM: You are touching a crucial point, and I don’t have sufficient information to be able to confirm or not. What I do hear is what you have heard too, that there might be presence of al-Nusra in exactly one of the two missing non-villages yet, but I cannot confirm it.
- Have you been invited to Astana?
SdeM: You see I do not know whether you are following up the current preparation for Astana, but they are in the middle of it, actually, and I think this is what we have been facing ourselves every time we are organizing a meeting on the Syrian issues, a lot of discussion on how to have a substantive meeting. Therefore even the date which is so far I understand is the 23 January, is the date indicated. What I know is that we have been told that the UN is definitely invited. And in fact invited to be able to be proactively supportive. But if you ask me if I have a written invitation with a date and an hour, not yet, but I doubt anyone has.
Q: Could you go over the issue of the buses one more time, specifically whether UN personnel are somehow involved.
SdeM: Well, perhaps you will remember that during this very delicate, painful, to a certain degree, effective period when in fact it was avoided the final battle on Aleppo with the possibility of a major number of people being victims and the city being completely destroyed, there was an arrangement, and the arrangement was an evacuation and the evacuation which was discussed between Turkish and Russian officials and supported by us frankly, because it was avoiding a major tragedy, was at the last moment also linked to some conditions or requests coming from Iran, and one of them was actually evacuating people from Kefraya and Foah. Sick people, wounded people and there were numbers linked to that. And the evacuation took place to a large degree. But then some buses ended up going there for a second tour, and they were not allowed to leave. These are not UN officials, these are Syrian buses with Syrian drivers, and that is not to happen because this complicates then the tit-for-tat approach.
Q: Coming back to Wadi Barada, you mentioned that water engineers are ready to intervene, who are these people? Are they part of the UN supported elements that might intervene there or others related to the government institutions, and secondly, we had an indication that 30 per cent of the water supplies could be restored, is it still the figure you have been aware of, or is it more right now?
SdeM: Regarding the technical aspect of it, the technicians we are talking about are Syrian people, who belong to the Syrian institutions and have always been doing this type of job, supported by technical advice and perhaps even more than that from the UN. They have tried twice to actually do so and they have been stopped by the armed groups actually.
Regarding the 30 per cent, yes the figure is still that one, but it is concerning, because 30 per cent in a city of more than five million people especially at a time when the water has been now since 22 December and the possibility of diseases is a serious issue.
Q: Foah and Kefraya, the opposition groups holding the bus drivers hostage, are they elements of ex al-Nusra?
SdeM; You see again, you are making it simple, but it is not simple to be able to say how many al-Nusra persons are in a certain place, vis-a-vis the majority which may be other groups. My understanding is that around Kefraya and Foah there are various groups.
Thank you very much.