Transcript of Press Briefing by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir O. Pedersen

8 Mar 2023

Transcript of Press Briefing by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir O. Pedersen

Thank you Jenifer, and good afternoon to all of you and let me start by wishing you all the very best on International Women’s Day.

The Syrian Women’s Advisory Board is meeting today and actually the whole week in Den Haag together with my deputy, Deputy Special representative Najat Rochdi.

And let me also take this opportunity to ensure all of you that the voices of Syrian women are heard, and that we are doing everything we can to facilitate their full and effective participation in all efforts to address and resolve the conflict in Syria. And as you all know, Syrian women and girls have been particularly hard hit by this conflict.

I have long argued that the situation in Syria is unsustainable, and that the status quo is totally unacceptable. Last month’s catastrophic earthquakes are a new reminder of this reality. The Syrians, after 12 years of war and conflict, have been struck by a terrible natural disaster.

The earthquakes have also acted as a wake-up call to the world that the Syrian tragedy is far from over. We have seen renewed attention on Syria and to Syria this past month, regionally and indeed in the wider international community too. We need to take this attention and to see if it can help us unlock progress on a way forward.

Right now, the humanitarian imperative in the aftermath of the earthquake demands that all depoliticise their response. Let me repeat this, that in the aftermath of the earthquake we still need to see that all depoliticise their response.

This means that we need to focus access – via all modalities. It means that we need resources – via generous pledges and disbursements and continuing efforts to ensure no hindrances from sanctions. And it means we need calm – we need calm on the ground, something that I will be stressing when I am meeting tomorrow with the Ceasefire Task Force here in Geneva.

But as you know, my role is to look beyond the emergency and to focus on the future of this broken and devastated country. Without a political solution, Syrian suffering will endure.

Next week, the conflict will enter its 13th year. What is true today has been true at every anniversary of this conflict: there is no military solution, and there is a desperate need for a political solution. All the challenges that existed pre-earthquakes still remain. And I think this is extremely important, that the challenges that existed pre-earthquakes, they are still there. And, if we are to move beyond a purely emergency response to the earthquakes, this will, inevitably, require addressing political issues that have so far not been resolved.

The issues in the conflict are immensely complex; the divisions within Syria are vast; and the international divisions are stark too.

But what occurs to me is that no one existing actor, or group of actors, can resolve this conflict alone: the government cannot, the opposition cannot, the Astana players cannot, the Arab region alone cannot, and the Western players alone cannot solve this conflict. There needs to be a genuine Syrian-led and owned political process facilitated by the United Nations. And there needs to be a coordinated international effort in support of this – with all key players working in a coherent effort.

As part of this, I am convinced that the approach of seeking reciprocal and verifiable confidence-building measures – the so-called step-for-step paradigm – is more relevant now than ever before.

We also need to see the Constitutional Committee resume its work. It should not be held hostage to issues that have nothing to do with Syria. It needs to reconvene, and to move forward on substance.

Beyond the need for a new constitution for Syria, there are other issues that need to be addressed too: issues of governance, sovereignty, territorial integrity; nationwide ceasefire; the challenges still posed by proscribed terrorist groups; building a safe, calm and neutral environment; the file of the detained, disappeared and missing; the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees and IDPs; and post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation, for which the earthquakes have only created new needs.

We cannot reach the 14th anniversary of this conflict in the situation we are in today. We need a revived, pragmatic, results-oriented political process, in which all key actors engage – to unlock possibilities in the earthquake-affected areas, and to unlock wider possibilities too.

If all – and I mean all – can envisage compromise from previous positions, all will gain. We’ve actually seen in the aftermath of the earthquakes humanitarian steps from all sides that have moved beyond previous positions, even if temporarily.

A month ago, there was no prospect of the opening of more border crossings, nor of moves to ease sanctions in a concrete way. We have seen those moves now. What I want, what we need to see is that this is applied when it comes to the political level. We need the same logic that was applied on the humanitarian front to be applied on the political level.

I am ready to use my good offices proactively, work with everyone, develop proposals, and convene necessary players in an effort to help find the way forward, consistent with my mandate in Security Council resolution 2254.

I appeal to the Syrian Government, the Syrian opposition, Syrians from all sectors of civil society, and all key regional and wider international stakeholders to engage positively with the United Nations at this crucial time.

Thank you.

Question: Amnesty has accused, yesterday, the Syrian government, and the groups affiliated to Turkiye to stop the aid from northeast Syria to Aleppo, and I wanted to know if this is something that you could confirm, and let us… Yesterday, Amnesty International has accused the Syrian government and the groups affiliated to Turkiye to stop the aid from going from northeast Syria to Aleppo, and I wanted to know if you could confirm that and give us more information.

Special Envoy: Are you sure that is actually what they are saying? Obviously, if you have detailed questions on access and the challenges with that, it's better that you ask the UN humanitarian actors, OCHA, and also the UN country team.

But I can just say that we have seen in the last, you know, weeks after the earthquake an immense increase in assistance coming in cross-border to the affected areas in the northwest and that is indeed continuing. So, I haven't heard of any problems with that going on. Then, there is a separate issue as you know about cross-line deliveries that has not really started, but I didn't understand that your question was related to that.

Question: I have the press release in front of me of Amnesty they say that the Syrian government and Turkiye backed armed opposition groups are obstructing and developing humanitarian aid going to Aleppo.

Spokeswoman: I could check with the country team and OCHA. and come back to you with more details on that. I'll turn now to James online please, your question.

Question: Thank you, Special Envoy, James Bays from Al Jazeera, you can hear me, good, thank you. So, I just wanted to ask a couple of linked questions about the diplomacy. Does the earthquake in any way make your task and the diplomacy, even though it's a horrific event, does it make it any easier? Does it prevent, does it provide any sort of opening? And then two linked questions to that, you've been, you very much, I would say had your eggs in the constitutional basket movement for most of your time as Special Envoy. You said when you took the job you had other options. The Constitutional Committee is not going anywhere, what are your other options? And finally, again linked to this, you are a very well-respected diplomat, but you've been doing this for four and half years and we've not seen much progress, how much longer are you going to stay on in this role? Thank you very much Special Envoy.

Special Envoy: I can promise you I will not stay as long as you have stayed in Al Jazeera. That's the only thing I can start by saying. And then, we will see you know how long it is possible to do this. But seriously speaking, of course, I'm just as, I shouldn't even use the term frustrated, I think we all feel deeply a pain by the fact that the political process has not delivered to the Syrian people. It's been going on for 12 years and we have not seen the political willingness from the parties to move this forward, and there has been a lack of international cooperation to make this possible.


As I said just in my statement now, you know, what we need to see James is that we need to see that all actors come together, not only based on what we have seen in the last few weeks with the earthquake, but also based on the experience we have from the 12 previous years of the conflict, where we know that we need to approach all the different issues that I listed to you just previously. I don't think I need to mention all of these issues. But this is only possible if the Syrian parties, together with the regional actors, together with the Astana players, the Arabs, the Americans, and the Europeans, if they come together with the UN in a consolidated process, then we can move forward.


But let me be frank, the international climate today may make a comprehensive solution impossible. We should still strive for it, but let me let's be frank when we look at the war in Ukraine and the impact it is having, it's not helping us to facilitate this. But as I said status quo cannot be acceptable. We need to move forward.


Therefore, I have been searching for ways to move the process forward and the ways I've been looking at is the so-called step-for-step approach, where the Syrian Government, and the international community, the Americans, and the Europeans, and the Arabs put on the table, both sides what they are prepared to do, and that we move forward in the manner that is verifiable. I think this is a way where we can hopefully try to build confidence, and build on that - we could move the process forward.


At the same time, I'm also still calling for meetings of the Constitutional Committee as you all know, this is has not been possible because the Russians do not want to come to Geneva, and as long as the Russians do not want to come to Geneva, the Syrian Government does not want to come to Geneva. I have had months of discussions both with the Russians and with the government on this, and I hope that we will be able also to see progress on this file.


Then, on your question on whether the earthquake will make it easier or not. The earthquake in itself has shown that, you know, positive steps are possible if there is a political will, and as I said if that will is not turned into goodwill in the political process… We can make progress, but that needs to be, then we need to see from all sides a willingness to compromise and to move forward in a more serious manner.


Question: Thank you for briefing. My question will be about Syrian earthquake survivors. There are some criticisms for the United Nations the aid could reach a Syrian earthquake survivors earlier without, without waiting for the Assad regime and therefore, without their authorization, what is your answer to this criticism?


Special Envoy: Listen, I think we all feel strongly with the people who were trying to rescue their loved ones from the rubbles after the earthquake, and of course as we all know, the first hours are critical - in an earthquake phase like this. But the reality is, that the United Nations does not have rescue, a search and rescue capacity. It does not have heavy equipment, that is with the Member States. And even if there had been one, two, or three or four or five border crossings open, it would not have been possible for us to move in with this because we don't have it. So, I think this question you should ask the Member States who have this capacity - why aid was not coming in the first few days after the earthquake.

Question: At this point we know the response to the earthquake is still largely focused on humanitarian aid, but at some point, there's going to have to be reconstruction. So, at this point, what do, how do you see the prospects for post-earthquake reconstruction, and what are the obstacles potentially standing in the way of it?

Special Envoy: Well, as you know we are still in the early phase of the humanitarian response and then, there will be, in due time, there will hopefully be what I understand humanitarians call recovery and rehabilitation phase. As I said, I do believe that when they come to that phase there will also be a need to address some of the issues that are more linked to the political side of the process. But hopefully we will be able to facilitate that. What the challenges will be now I think we don't need to concentrate on that. What we need to concentrate on now is to get the humanitarian response in the proper manner. There is still huge needs in Syria.

You know, as you know very well before, the conflict, more than 15 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and more than nine of 10 were living in poverty. And of course the earthquake has only compounded these problems. This is why we need now to concentrate on this, but as I said while my humanitarian colleagues in the United Nations are doing that, we are doing our utmost to see how we can try to move the political process forward.

Question: I'd like to come back to the confidence building measures, so where to start which confidence building measure seems to you the fastest and the easiest to set up thank you?

Special Envoy: You know, to put it like this, I'm rather flexible when it comes to where we could start, we could start with what I would call more low hanging fruits, or we can start with bigger issues - that would be up to the parties themselves. In the work that I've been doing so far, I have identified what I would call rather low-hanging fruits that could be picked, and we could start, but also more difficult issues that would need to be addressed and that will be met with then a bigger response from the other side.

This, you know, this step-for-step is something that we have been developing enough for quite a while, I hope it can be possible to proceed with it at this stage quietly, and then to see as I said if we can build a bit of confidence that can lay a foundation for moving in the process forward.