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U.N. mediator not expecting quick breakthrough in Syria peace talks

Article published on Reuters website on 02/22/2017 (Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay)

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said on Wednesday he did not expect an immediate breakthrough when Syria peace talks restart on Thursday but wanted productive talks that relaunch the process towards a political solution to end the six-year war.

They will be the first U.N.-mediated negotiations on Syria in almost a year, during which time the military and geopolitical context has changed massively. Even so, the same disagreements are likely to resurface.

De Mistura said Russia, which has supported President Bashar al-Assad’s military advances, had asked the Syrian government to “silence their own skies in the areas touched by the ceasefire” during the talks. Countries close to the opposition were also asked to urge them to lessen provocations, he said.

“Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I’m not expecting a breakthrough,” de Mistura told a news conference. “But I am expecting and determined for keeping a very pro-active momentum,” he said.

Hours later, the Syrian opposition called for face-to-face negotiations with the government delegation, saying it was hoping for a “serious partner” while casting doubt on Damascus’ readiness.

Spokesman Salem al-Muslet, speaking to reporters, said the opposition delegation did not want this round to be like the one a year ago that was fruitless.

Referring to the delegation led by Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. in New York Bashar al-Ja’afari, he said: “We have experience with this regime. They’re not here to negotiate about a political transition, but they’re here to buy time and commit more crimes in Syria. There’s no trust in this regime.”

De Mistura said he hoped neither side would seek to disrupt the talks by provoking the other and that momentum towards a political solution was necessary to thwart “spoilers” bent on derailing peace efforts.

The U.N. Security Council, which met at the U.N headquarters to discuss Syria, said the humanitarian situation “will continue to deteriorate further in the absence of a political solution to the crisis.”

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Yelchenko, the council’s current president, said the council “expressed hope that the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva will produce tangible results” while moving towards “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition.”

Asked if it had been discussed whether Assad would remain in power, Yelchenko said that was a subject for the Geneva talks.

While the Geneva talks will focus on politics, de Mistura said he expected more rounds of talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, convened by Russia, Turkey and Iran, to deal with the ceasefire and related humanitarian issues, including prisoners.

He declined to discuss the format of the Geneva talks, which he said would start with bilateral meetings, and did not say what his objectives were for this round.

But he said the negotiations would be guided by U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, which refers to the establishment of credible and inclusive governance, the process for drafting a new constitution and free and fair elections.

“We will be very reluctant to engage in pre-conditions, and in fact I will be refusing them,” he said.

Stakeout by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

3 March 2017

Thank you very much, since this has been an intense period you would forgive me if I read some points and then of course I will take questions and be a little bit more informal but I need to be a little bit formal because after all, this is the fourth round of the intra-Syrian talks which have just been concluded.

For your information we will [in due course] be releasing a formal mediation statement, which will be available to you and to the invitees of course, and which captures in precise language where we believe we stand after this fourth round. Let me however give you an overview of the main points of this fourth round, what we have achieved, what we have not achieved and where we could go from here.

First of all, these are the first political talks in 10 months and we talked for actually almost 10 days, intensive 10 days. So let me be a little bit formal by saying I really express my gratitude to the Syrian invitees, all those who came and were invited, for engaging with me and my colleagues in serious discussions during these last nine days.

It has not always been easy going, we had some difficult, tough meetings but we also had some very constructive meetings and this has been growing up during the last part of this round. We did discuss procedure – unavoidable after 10 months – but we also discussed substance. So what did we reach, first – it is now clear to everyone , there is no discussion on that – we are here to implement Security Council resolution 2254 and that is beyond dispute.

I believe and therefore am expecting the sides should now pursue a framework agreement containing an agreed political package so that a negotiated transitional political process can be implemented as indicated by resolution 2254. We are here to talk about that. Everybody is aware, and we are obviously aware, that 2254 contains also very clear sequencing and target timetables or timelines.

Second, I think and believe that we have a clear agenda now in front of us. The agenda is reflected by the baskets – four baskets, 3+1. Basket one addresses all issues related to the establishment within a target hopefully of six months of credible inclusive non-sectarian governance. Basket two addresses all issues relating to setting within a target of six months again, a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.

Basket three addresses all issues related to ensuring that free and fair elections pursuant to a new constitution can be held within 18 months, under the supervision of the United Nations, including members of the diaspora eligible to participate. Anyway, read 2254 and you will find it. And then there is an additional basket which was added at the request of the Government delegation, which we will call basket four and which addresses within the context of the overall transitional political process issues related to strategies of counter terrorism, security, governance and also medium-term confidence building measures.

Astana and Geneva are complementing themselves and reinforcing each other – we know it and we did reassert that. We look at the Astana efforts, which had been and have a full UN, and active support to address issues related to the maintenance of the ceasefire: immediate confidence-building measures and operational counter terrorism issues. Let me explain. A ceasefire is meant to stop the fighting among warring parties. A ceasefire is meant therefore to facilitate other important aspects for normal people, for instance humanitarian access. And release of prisoners – we heard an interesting suggestion by the delegation of the government regarding the concrete possibility of the exchange of detainees and abducted people and obviously the place for doing that is Astana. So while Geneva in the fourth basket will be addressing naturally what is the strategy regarding terrorism or counter terrorism and see what can be done in order to address that, in Astana they are expected to actually address the issue of counter terrorism because when the warring parties stop fighting they are meant to do so in order to be able to focus and concentrate completely on the terrorist organisations which by the UN standards are only two: Al Nusra and Daesh.

This connection we raised and we will continue raising and I want to underscore the vital need for unhindered humanitarian access because it is not snow, it is not rain, it is not the earthquake, the non-access of humanitarian aid is caused by the conflict. If there is a ceasefire that means there should be no reason for not giving a chance for humanitarian aid to reach everyone. And you can imagine by us and by many, the issue of the detainees, abductees, and missing people was raised and will continue to be raised. You probably will remember the first meeting, the very first meeting on the first day was not with the delegation, it was with five women representing mothers, daughters, wives of detained, abducted or missing Syrian people representing thousands of other like them.

Let’s go back to the intra-Syrian talks, negotiations -whatever we want to call them- event, a third point, we have discussed the substance of all these baskets stimulated by the UN inputs, we have been able to actually see what were the informed positions of the parties and we have been submitting in basically some thoughts based on the previous rounds.

In other words, it was possible to begin also discussions on governance, constitution making, elections and also some discussion on this additional basket regarding counter terrorism and related issues.

Fourth, we had a clear methodology to proceed, and we [the UN] have agreed on that. Within the intra-Syrian talks process, the baskets would be addressed and will be addressed in a parallel way.

Now regarding methodology, while it remains our goal to secure an agreement to move to direct negotiations between the government and the opposition, at the moment we have noticed – and that was the case in Astana too – that there is a moment when in fact it is more effective to have proximity mediation discussions like we have had this time. The moments when the mediation and the mediator finds it in fact more useful for both sides or all sides to actually have proximity talks rather than having direct ones – but we would pursue that when we would feel that the moment is right.

In between rounds, of course, we can be very creative if the sides require so, through, in fact, technical discussions, working groups, experts committees, commissions, joint commissions or any other arrangement. We are ready for all that in order to fill up the gap between one round and the other.

And six, an important subject that you know, that have been often coming up to, we believe there was progress made this round towards the basis or the need for a basis of a single opposition delegation to participate in negotiations with the government of Syria.

We are aware, and we have been supporting and facilitating a lot of dialogue in contacts among invitees on this matter and that has continued until today.

We will continue definitely encouraging efforts in this direction and work for finalising efforts, so that in the context of resolution 2254 the various parts will be able to come with some common umbrella or understanding on what is their common position – and there are common positions.

You must have heard – and I think you’ve heard about it – there is a non-paper, that we produced, of 12 different points which are in fact a way, through which, we have been trying to summarise what has been picked up during the last period – we didn’t start today or yesterday, we started many months ago – on commonalities that can, in a way, be felt as common, at least, principles by all those who care about the end-state of Syria.

And then let me add another point, frankly, because in diplomacy and mediation substance and form are very much combined.

You were there with us on 23rd of February. You remember, you were there, you saw it. This picture is much more than just iconic – it is highly symbolic. This was a very special moment which in a way gave the feeling to all Syrians that everyone connected to the conflict in Syria is able indeed to sit in the same room and actually be there when the UN is trying to give them some guidelines on how to proceed, and in front of them was the whole world, all the ISSG members, the Security Council and behind me were three Syrian women representing the civil society, the victims of this conflict and those who are advising us about what is the women situation – but above all what is their advice about the peace in Syria.

Of course, after that, we had separate meetings, but the psychological barrier was broken and we could see the effects when we had then these separate proximity talks.

So, at the beginning of this period of round of talks, we said that we were not going to expect, and we should not expect a breakthrough. This is a war of six years, where people were not even looking at each other, they were just fighting each other.

I’m planning to proceed to New York to brief the Secretary-General, our Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the Security Council in the next few days.

And on the basis of the indications that I will be getting both from the Secretary-General and the Security Council, I’m planning to invite the Syrian invitees back here in March for a fifth round.

We believe that we have prepared everyone to actually engage, not only on methodology, but also on substance regarding the four baskets we refer to.

The train is ready, it is in the station, warming up its engine. Everything is ready, it just needs an accelerator – and the accelerator is in the hands of those who were attending this round.

I know, and you know too, there are still people in Syria and outside who still believe that there is a military option or a military solution.

That is fantasy. Only a political solution – but a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people – can solve this crisis. The UN will verify in the next weeks and months, whether such a solution can be found, we believe it must be found.

You would be hearing strong statements after mine or in the next few days. I heard what I heard during the private discussions or informal or formal discussions. I had a feeling that the sides want to find a dialogue. That’s what matters, so as I told you at the beginning – don’t be surprised, don’t overestimate, don’t overreact if there are statements that will say “never”. This is part of the rhetoric, this is part of posturing, this is part of politics. I know what I heard and what I saw, and that gives me some feelings that we are moving in the right direction.

Q: Tom Miles from Reuters. Congratulations for getting through till the end of the round, and to everybody. Would you agree that the Geneva process is now a hostage to the Astana process? And the Russians have been here this week and engaging with the Syrian opposition but what assurances do you have from the Turks and especially the Iranians that they are going to help you with your Geneva process? There is no love between Iranians and the opposition, thank you?

SdM: I must say that, if there was that analysis, in other words, that the Geneva process was a hostage of Astana, then when we would have seen in fact, those who support Astana to try to make sure that Geneva doesn’t succeed, so that Astana becomes prevailing. That’s been completely the contrary. The Russian delegation which came here, at a very high level, actually had a very pressing interest in pushing for Geneva to produce some type of momentum. Why? Because Astana is hostage of Geneva if you want, and we are not hostages of Astana but we are very much complementary. If, and I will almost finish, if Astana succeeds – and we want them to succeed – means ceasefire. If ceasefire takes place we can have productive talks like we had, if we don’t have productive talks ceasefire will not last. You see how interconnected, so no one is really at the end hostage to anyone. We are really working hand-in-hand – but there are two hands.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov was very active in supporting what we were asking him and suggesting to support, which was a momentum in these Geneva talks and there were two senior officials, one from Turkey and one from Iran, who were present. And both of them actually made sure that their opinion – which was momentum of Geneva talks – would come across. So I felt we had support. There are vested interests, but the support was about making sure that Geneva doesn’t fail.

Q: Is it true that there will not be an extension of your mandate as Special Envoy, and what exactly was the stance of all parties regarding the four baskets – 3+1?

SdM: Regarding the second question, then I will address the first one. The second question is something that I’m not going to reveal that is part of the job of a mediator. A mediator would never reveal all the sides, that’s how you can mediate. So I think you did a good try but you understand that it is not working.

On the first one you did also a good try which have been hearing for a long time, and I will repeat this aspect. Well as they say, all Under-Secretaries-General, and I am currently Under-Secretary-General, and Assistant-Secretaries-General – of the UN indicate when the new Secretary-General comes, that they stay maximum for another three months and then they, and/or the Secretary-General, will indicate whether they want to stay longer, or whether the Secretary-General feels that they should stay longer. But there is also one important person who indicates to me how long I should be staying, that is my wife. So we have quite a negotiation on that.

Q: Mr. de Mistura, you stressed a lot of times that these negotiations should be inclusive. Are you planning to widen the range of participants including, for example Kurds, and we also remember the Hmaimeem group which took part last year in the negotiations. Are you planning to also invite them?

SdM: Well, you see, we are guided by 2254. 2254 has been very specific, and I have been trying to follow that, but my wish is actually instead of suggesting new groups, and new groups and new groups, that everyone will be understanding that the more they unite the better it is, because that’s exactly what makes our life easier. So my inclination is not to invite new groups in order to make my job more complicated, but actually stimulate those who would like to be part of it to come into one common umbrella, that’s what we have been trying to do. Thank you.

BBC: Your Excellency you have agreed on specific items in a specific agenda with particular sequencing, have all the other parties agreed to that agenda or will you have to come back to them in the next round?

SdM: Thank you, I think and I feel quite comfortable, that the so-called three original points of the agenda 2254 and the fourth additional point which is about terrorism, and framed in the way I said, big difference between what we do in Astana and here, can be something that everyone can live with. Now I would like to see all this working in parallel. Why? Because one of them may be moving faster. I have to say that on the side of HNC it is clear their preference is for having, as first point, the issue of governance.

Q: Sorry to follow up on Tom’s question but the EU also announced tonight an international conference with high-level people, and among them the SG Antonio Guterres. So at one point you mentioned the complementarity between Astana and Geneva, but at one point is there a risk that too much decentralisation in the formats of talks can lower the leverage effect here in Geneva? And is it also the sign that the UN platform is not self-sufficient anymore and powerful enough to impose that good faith spirit to the parties?

SdM: I would give a different interpretation – and frankly the real interpretation. All that is planned. And they’re all being asked and are helping us. I will give you an example. Now we had Geneva, Security Council next week to try to cast more in iron what has been discussed, so we don’t lose in what we have achieved so far. Then what do we have – Astana to solidify hopefully the mother of all issues which is cease-fire. And then Geneva again. And we have been asking the EU to help us. They do have substantial good contacts in the region and above all they have one major tool – the capacity of hinting there can be a reconstruction, there will be a reconstruction, and Europe can support that – if, if, if we have a political transition – through the UN. So you see we are actually working together – not competing. I know the tendency is to look at it like that but it is part of the team. I’ve been asking them and I must say that Frederica Mogherini has been very helpful. Thank you.

Q: My question is, is it so hard, so difficult to get an agenda? Finally we have agenda now, but I think every person knows it is so difficult to have it, even more difficult to carry it out, so do you think the current agenda we reached today may be a little bit ideal, or do think it is practical, and do you have a plan B?

SdM: I have a plan B and a plan C actually – I do, I do. Plan B is 2254, and plan C 2254.

Thank you very much.

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