The International Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura denied, in an interview with Al-Hayat, his intention to resign from his post, expecting that US President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin will continue their efforts to reduce the level of violence and to increase humanitarian aid till the new President elect Donald Trump takes office early next year.
De Mistura said that the fight against «Daesh» whether it is Russia or any other party fighting «Daesh» is right and understandable, because all parties are potential victims of Daesh, “but in fact defeating Daesh does not only require coalition, but also an inclusive and representative political solution, because Daesh exploits the frustration, anger and marginalization of some groups, including the Sunnis, who feel that they are not involved in Iraq, and even more in Syria, where they are the majority”.
He pointed out that the European Union and the World Bank are ready to support with the reconstruction in Syria if a credible political process is launched, leading to political participation and a broad-based, representative government.
Here is the text of the interview with Al-Hayat conducted by telephone:
Q: Is it true that you requested the Secretary-General of the United Nations to relieve you from your duties?
SdeM: We issued an official statement saying that I did not resign, and that the information is not correct, second, that I am fully engaged that I have not boarded, and the information is not correct. Secondly, I remain fully engaged in my mission because the situation in Syria is very serious.
Q: What do you expect from President Barack Obama at the end of his term? And what do you expect from President-elect Donald Trump?
SdeM: Let me start with President Obama, I expect that he will continue until the last day of his term trying to achieve what has sought to achieve so far: First fight «Daesh» in Raqqa and elsewhere. Second,, through the diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Secretary of State John Kerry, to find any chance for agreement with Russia and the regional players to reduce violence and increase humanitarian aid. Obama’s legacy is based on first, fighting Daesh, which is true, and second, seeking to reduce violence and increase aid.
As for the President-elect Trump, I can not prejudge his position. We just heard statements and positions and we do not know who the foreign minister is. But if I were to judge from what was said in the statements, it is clear that his top priority is to fight «Daesh». In this regard, he had pointed out that he will look for more cooperation and partnership with Russia, which also fights «Daesh», and which was also noted by President Putin as a priority.
To say that fighting «Daesh» in Syria together with Russia or any other party involved in this fight is right and understandable, because all parties are victims of Daesh, but defeating this organization in fact requires not only a military coalition, but a comprehensive, representative political solution, because Daesh exploits the dissatisfaction, disappointment anger and marginalization of some groups, including the Sunnis, who feel that they are not involved in Iraq, and even more so in Syria, where they are the majority.
If this approach is not carried out, and Daesh was only dealt with militarily, and thus there is a risk that there will be another “Daesh” and another one growing like fungus based on the anger of those who do are not included in the general political framework.
Q: Until Trump is sworn in, you sought to fill the vacuum via regional and a visit to Damascus and you put forward the four-point plan. What was the result?
SdeM: The conclusion, we must admit that when you look at Syria, the priority is the military solution. This is what we are seeing on the ground. We not see political debates, but attacks and counter-attacks from the government or from the opposition in Aleppo. Aleppo has become a symbol for the last battle in Syria. In this context, the focus of the four-point plan is based on the fact that when the new US administration comes there will be hope in its having serious discussions with the Russians and the regional countries, and there should not be at the time a human tragedy in Aleppo. Therefore, the proposal, from a humanitarian point of view, includes medical evacuation of the wounded, providing assistance to those who cannot be evacuated, helping children, out of 275 thousand civilians, and providing doctors so that civilians do not become victims of what appears to be a conclusive attack on the besieged eastern Aleppo.
Q: Are you worried that the Syrian government forces want to control the east of Aleppo? Are you worried about repeating the example of Grozny?
SdeM: I am very worried about the prospect of the resumption of the bombing to the level before the Russia's decision to stop the bombing for 24 days, and we should applaud Russia in this respect. If the shelling continues (from the Syrian regime forces), nothing will be left of east Aleppo by the beginning of the year, there will be 200 thousand displaced people on the borders of Turkey, a human tragedy and international alarm. My fear is that this is what is going to happen if the decision is a complete attack on eastern Aleppo. I hope it does not happen.
Q: You met with President Putin, do you think he does not want to repeat the model of Grozny?
SdeM: Yes, I met him with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. And I received a clear message, which was reaffirmed during the meetings between Kerry and his Russian counterpart (Sergey) Lavrov, that President Putin has no intention of fully destroying any city in Syria. This does not mean that President (Bashar) al-Assad does not want to escalate the attack on eastern Aleppo. For the Russian, I have a feeling that he does not have the intention nor the desire to do so. This may happen if the government decided to do so.
Q: Does this mean that there is a difference between Moscow's approach and the approach to Damascus to east Aleppo?
SdeM: Yes. This is really how I feel. The evidence is that when I submitted a plan to reach a temporary solution to the east of Aleppo it was completely frozen and destroyed. The proposal was based on first, to halt the shelling east of Aleppo. And second, to exit al-Nusra fighters with their weapons from east Aleppo with. Third, to maintain the local council. Fourth, to deliver humanitarian aid. The Russians have agreed, but the Syrian government has felt uncomfortable about it.
Q: You suggested maintaining the local council in east Aleppo and Damascus rejected, because, as it said violates the unity of Syria?
SdeM: Let me explain. When I said to maintain a civil council it was not as incorrectly interpreted by the government that I proposed to establish “local administration” such that of the Kurdish administration or “self-governance” or “autonomy”. I did not suggest that, as we are all committed to the unity of the Syrian land. The proposal is to maintain the local council and not change it, which is in the interest of the population, so that it continues its work when al-Nusra fighters leave, which is a temporary procedure, not “self-governance” or “autonomy”, but maintaining the local council itself. They refused this in Damascus, but I hope they get to understand, first, that it is not what they said. And second to reach an understanding that there is a need for some type of a special local procedure in east Aleppo. Third, I hope that the Russians are aware of the critical importance of not destroying east of Aleppo and that there is a need for a special procedure.
Q: Did you ask the Russians to help persuade Damascus?
SdeM: Yes, and I was told that they continue their discussions with the US, and main regional players, meaning Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to implement it.
Q: Do you have assurances that if al-Nusra fighters leave eastern Aleppo the shelling will stop?
SdeM: This is why I am interested in the outcome of the Lausanne process, which includes the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, who have a role in the continuation of discussions to get to actions, as they will be the guarantors.
Q: Aleppo is the symbol of the Syrian crisis, are you personally satisfied with the efforts to stop the suffering of the people in all neighborhoods of Aleppo?
SdeM: I am not satisfied with the results. When you see the resumption of the bombing and fighting, it leads to more violence. I am not satisfied because since July not one aid convoy was able to enter east Aleppo. I'm not satisfied, and I am concerned, but we will do what we can and offer suggestions and propose the subject at all levels.
Q: There is concern for a famine in eastern Aleppo?
SdeM; There are 250 thousand people in eastern Aleppo, including 80 or 100 thousand children who did not receive aid since July, and there is the resumption of the bombing on the besieged areas and the areas surrounding them. No one should be surprised if there is general starvations.
Q: The United Nations said the number of besieged amounted to a million instead of half a million a year ago?
SdeM: This is not only frustrating, but shocking. At some point when the mechanisms of “the International Support Group for Syria” were operational, there were 18 areas under siege, meaning 1.8 million people this year. But now everything was militarized, so the number of besieged people increased, and we see a medieval approach, which is against all international law standards.
Q: Who is responsible for the siege of these areas, the government or the opposition?
SdeM: As a representative of the United Nations we have to be frank and transparent. There are 18 areas, following the siege of east Aleppo there are now 9 besieged areas. Two areas Kefraya and Fouah are under opposition siege in a medieval style. There are 220 thousand people besieged by Daesh in Deir ez-Zor. The remaining areas are besieged by the government. When a terrorist organization or opposition is besieging the area is it something, but when your own government is imposing the siege, the level of shock level increases.
The Political track
Q: The Geneva negotiations are frozen months ago, what is your approach for the resumption of negotiations? What is your comment on criticism by Minister Lavrov that you did not call for the resumption of negotiations without preconditions?
SdeM: First, I understand Lavrov's position and I share the view that the peace process must not stop amid fighting, and this is what happened in the Vietnam War. At the same time, what I was saying is that we need the will of the Syrian government and the opposition and their readiness to politically participate and implement resolution 2254. After a series of negotiations, both parties were stringent and betting on a military victory. The government is currently betting, and this is what I observed during my visit to Damascus, on the fact that the winds are blowing in its favor and thus is inflexible in its positions. The idea is not preconditions, but signals from the government to come to Geneva and to say that we are ready to stay, but also ready for some type of political participation of any kind. This is a good start for the resumption of negotiations.
I agree with the opinion of Lavrov and we should push for negotiations, and I will explain that to the Security Council next month, how the peace process should not be held hostage of the military operation.
Q: You mention “devolution of powers”, what is the difference from “political transition”?
SdeM: The key word is political transition, and this is what was mentioned in the Geneva communiqué and our guiding instructions from the Security Council per resolution 2254 to launch a political process and to reach a political participation, called devolution of powers, because when there is political participation, you give the powers to the Prime Minister or the President of the Parliament, and this depends on the political process, or it will only be a formality.
Q: You suggest that Assad shares the power with the prime minister and the speaker of parliament?
SdeM; You are right, because there are several options, including the one you mentioned, this is the beginning of political participation and negotiations, but I do not hear anything about this from the Syrian government vise versa, and this is what worries me when they talk about the resumption of negotiations. Political negotiations must be based on a minimum level of readiness for political participation.
Q: While maintaining al-Assad?
SdeM: I did not address the question of Assad or the presidency. This is part of the negotiations for the Syrians, not foreigners like me to say whether Assad should stay or leave.
Q: Turkey stepped in northern Syria, Russia, the US, Iran and some Arab states are intervening in Syria, has Syria become a conglomeration of areas of influence?
SdeM: This is the most complex and violent conflict I have seen in 46 years, where there are 12 countries involved or participating in one sense or another whether directly or indirectly, ranging from providing humanitarian aid to proxy war, to support for armed groups such as «Hezbollah» and Iran. There are 98 fighter groups large and small involved, in addition to Daesh and al-Nusra, in addition to activities by the Government as well as militias and groups. All this makes it complicated, but not areas of influence. The ground is flexible and mobile, some areas are under the control of al-Nusra and then not any more, other areas come under the control of government forces and then under the opposition and vice versa. The areas that had been under Kurdish control were affected by Turkey's involvement. It is too early to talk about zones of influence, and I hope that Syria does not get divided. All of us, including the Syrians, we want a sovereign unified state under the authority of a representative, inclusive government, bearing in mind that people do not want to return to the previous situation, and that there is a need for political process and political participation, as a de facto, taking into account what has happened.
Q: Did Syria die? Will Syria be divided?
SdeM: I do not think that Syria will be divided. I do not want it, the United Nations does not want it, because the sovereignty and unity of this great country must be preserved. Second, this would be a dangerous precedent for the rest of the countries in the region that should not be happening.
As for saying Syria is dying. I am talking to a proud Syrian like you, I say that Syria will not die. Syrians love their country and are proud of it and will not allow their country to die. What is happening is the destruction of infrastructure. It is true that there are a lot of people dying and suffering and many will not forget. Therefore, we must launch a credible political process. While I am in Brussels, there will be a rebuilding process for Syria to return to what it was, if not better.
There is an interest in Europe to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees, because the Syrians do not want that. This will happen only if a credible political process is launched. But to continue with the military solution means that there will be no reconstruction, and even if it happened, Syria will not die but will suffer, and the Syrians do not deserve that.
Q: What is your estimate for the cost of reconstruction?
SdeM: I will not give a number, because the number changes every day with the continued shelling and fighting and barrel bombs. But the amount is large. What I'm saying is that I am convinced that if we launched a credible political process, Europe and the World Bank and other countries do not want Syria deporting refugees, suffering and a place for terrorists.
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