Idlib deal is glimmer of hope, but peace in Syria is still too far away – UN Syria adviser

The ceasefire in Syria’s last rebel stronghold is taking root – does that mean that the end of civilian suffering in Syria is finally in sight? We ask Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and special adviser to the United Nations special envoy for Syria.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Special Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today. 

Jan Egeland: Good to be with you. 

SS: Jan, in Syria, in Idlib, the Turkey-Russia agreement about creating a demilitarised zone and striking a ceasefire is holding. Russia’s FM says that it is going according to plan. The Turks concur. You were pessimistic about 2018 for Syrians before. Do you still not believe in light at the end of the tunnel? 

JE: Well, I’m really relieved that there was an agreement for Idlib. I was among those very concerned about 3 million civilians in Idlib. And I think, what Russia and Turkey did was really bringing a glimmer of hope to Syria and showing that diplomacy can win. It’s a pity we didn’t have the same kind of agreement in Aleppo, in Eastern Ghouta, and elsewhere. But we got it in Idlib - hopefully it will hold. It’s still not over in Idlib. 

SS: Previous deals with rebels provided those who do not wish to reconcile with a chance to be bussed to Idlib. Does that mean that Idlib is now home to the most irreconcilable of rebels? 

JE: Yeah, some of those bearded guys are pretty extreme. I’m glad you’ve mentioned it, indeed what Russian and other diplomats did was to negotiate deals with these groups so that they left the south, the Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere ended up in Idlib. Now I here: “No, we don’t negotiate with terrorists. We never negotiate with terrorists.” There were already deals with these groups. Hopefully, there can also be deals to end it peacefully with all of the groups. It’s not over. If one is going to fight those listed terrorist groups it can engulf a million of those 3 million people in the horrific fighting. We have to avoid that.       

SS: The previous bus deals - where the hardliner militants would hop into buses and leave the battlefield given safe passage by Assad - worked okay, can anything like that be arranged for Idlib? Where could the irreconcilables go or be transported? 

JE: I don’t know really. There’s no Idlib for the people in Idlib really. What I hear from some Russian and Turkish diplomats is that it has to end in Idlib. And some are pretty irreconcilable in the language like “they have to be eliminated” and a lot that kind of language that makes me nervous. If you give the hardliners no option but to fight to the last man with gun which would also mean to fight to the last civilian, it’s really bad for women, children and civilians there.  So I hope and pray that the good Russian diplomats, military and the Turkish ones involved will go an extra mile to try and negotiate a peaceful deal with all the armed actors in Idlib.   

SS: Last year you admitted that you failed to protect and evacuate civilians from rebel-held cities in Syria. What went wrong? What could you have really done anyway? 

JE: It’s my job to be a humanitarian spokesman. I lead the Humanitarian Task Force of the International Syria Support Group where Russia, U.S., Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and all of the countries involved sit. I’ve failed to convinced those member states of the UN who have failed to negotiate in the end with parties on the ground. When we see that places like Eastern Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or for that matter Raqqa which was attacked by the Western coalition, they went up in flames. I think, we need to have a much more frank discussion in the future to say that the war on terror as it is done by the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and others is too tough on the civilians really. So the victims of terror are primarily found in places like Syria. It’s the Syrian civilians who bleed from terrorism. And when you liberate a place by destroying it completely you have all the civilians fighting for their lives, I think, one should search for another way really.    

SS: Can you do anything about it now - if an Idlib battle really breaks out, what can you do this time to make sure civilians are as safe as possible? 

JE: My plea now to the good people on both the Russian and the Turkish side, in the lead to this agreement is “go the extra mile to find a negotiated solution there, laying down of arms, amnesties” - there could be many agreements with these armed men, think of the children that are next to them. Several militant groups seemed already to have peacefully integrated, they have gone over to more peaceful groups. They have taken their heavy arms out from the so-called demilitarised zone, the buffer zone that’s been negotiated. There were agreements with many groups, they can also be with the remaining ones. You can negotiate it in the end with more groups. I know that it’s probably impossible to negotiate with Islamic State, but with the Nusra groups - they has been an agreement, many of them were bussed, as you reminded us, to Idlib.      

SS: Staffan de Mistura has called for a humanitarian corridor to be established in Idlib to evacuate civilians in case the battle for Idlib starts. Do you think, it’s a realistic plan? 

JE: What Staffan, my colleague and a good friend, said was that we need to have opportunities for civilians to escape the fighting. This was before the possible total war in Idlib and before the Russian-Turkish deal. So what can be done indeed is safe passage, not necessarily corridors - those are complicated to establish, we have to negotiate that to be demilitarised and all of that. We just need freedom of movement for civilians and for humanitarians in all the directions. And the civilians in the areas, where there would be Nusra fighters, where there can still be a lot of fighting, some of them will want to go elsewhere in Idlib, some of them will want to go to Afrin area or opposition- or Turkish-controlled areas. Some may want to go to government-controlled areas. Some of them may want to go to Turkey itself. They should have an option to go where it’s safe for them.    

SS: In 2006, in Lebanon, you condemned Hezbollah for hiding among civilians and you said that this tactic leaves their enemies with no choice but to attack civilian infrastructure. Now, talking about Syria, you say the opposite - that the fact that terrorists hide among civilians should not justify urban warfare. What made you change your mind? 

JE: It’s exactly the same argument then and now. I plea to the armed opposition groups including the so-called terrorists and those who are listed as terrorists to not blend with the civilian population. I said this many times to the groups in Idlib - do not go down by taking with you innocent civilians, do not hide next to schools and hospitals and elsewhere.   

SS: So Jan, that means that you are basically appealing to their honour. They don’t have any honour, isn't that naive to appeal to their honour?  

JE: Well, I don’t know if they have honour or not. These groups talk a lot about honour, Islamic values and all. The Nusra front have portrayed themselves as defenders of the civilian population in Syria. That’s what they claim, their actions have been different really. My appeal to them and those who have supported them is “do not have your legacy as armed grown-up men hiding behind and shielding yourselves behind children”. 

SS: So if extremists use cities and civilians as cover and deny the civilians the opportunity to flee the violence, as was the case in Aleppo and Ghouta, what are the soldiers supposed to do with those militants? 

JE: To use military means that are not indiscriminate. For example, if you have an air force - as it was in Raqqa which was held by the Islamic state - one shouldn’t use enormous explosive weapons in heavily and densely populated areas when there are terrorists. If you go with a ground offensive a much more targeted warfare is better. The law is pretty clear and it’s not a new thing with the terrorists - armed men hiding behind the civilian population has been a problem through the time we’ve had humanitarian law and the responsibility to shield the civilian population, to think about the civilian population has always been there. And a good general knows how to protect civilians.

SS: The Syrian government, which is in control of most of the country, is now asking the Syrian refugees to start coming back home. Can you help those Syrians who want to do that, is there anything the UN or Norwegian Refugee Council can do? 

JE: There’s nothing I want more than to help those Syrian refugees who voluntarily want to return home. But there have been a number of preconditions. They have to be informed of their possibilities and what they go to. It has to be voluntary really. They have to be assisted and protected. It has to be safe at the return. So far few refugees have returned home. And many more internally displaced have returned home. I hope in the future we can have safe, dignified and assisted conditions, and then we would like to facilitate it. But it’s up to the refugees themselves to decide when it is safe for them to return. 

SS: Last year you said that the United Nations on the one hand has managed to reach more civilians in need of help, but on the other hand fails to protect them. How can the UN protect them in the Syrian case? Should there be divisions of UN Blue Helmets guarding civilians in Idlib? 

JE: I’m talking about the humanitarian protection. I’ve been humanitarian for more than 30 years - and we’ve always had assistance in handling things like keeping people alive as one part of our mandate; and the other one is to protect them from abuse: women - from being raped, children - from being abused and abducted and turned into child soldiers, men - from being arbitrarily arrested and tortured. How can we do that? By being present among the people, by being witnesses to what you have said, to be witnesses to the world and to have advocacy on behalf of those people. And in Syria we have been remarkably successful in all of the areas that were not besieged. In all of the areas where there was access there was a more or less successful assistance programme. But too many people have been killed, too many people have been wounded, too many people had to flee from violence, that’s a protection crisis.   

SS: I know you’ve asked for additional funding for those displaced in the fighting in Idlib, but too few countries have helped so far. Why do you think the countries which are struggling to stem the flow of refugees from Syria are stingy when it comes to helping these people at home?      

JE: Well, I think, in general the Syria response has been more generous than other responses. Several billions of dollars are being spent each year during the last 5-6 years. The world has been much more stingy in Congo, Somalia and Mali, Central African Republic that I visited is a place that’s really forgotten. However, it’s true that some of these areas where there are terrorist groups, or where the control has been shifting from the opposition to the government, there has suddenly been less funding. I find it politically motivated, I don’t like it at all.  And if now we have less funding in Idlib because Al-Nusra is there, and the civilians next to Al-Nusra end up being bombed by the Russians and not having assistance from the Western countries, because Nusra is their neighbour, are really punishing those poor civilians twice.    

SS: The Russian-Turkish deal basically is all about two things: the demilitarised zone and the reopening of a highway that runs through rebel-held territory. Even the DMZ itself is basically a stretch of land around that road… Why is the highway so important as to be mentioned in the agreement and what will reopening it mean for peace? 

JE: Well, the highway is very important because it’s a place for civilians to travel in their own country to relatives, safety or to return, if the need is there, and also for commercial life to flourish again. The Idlib-Aleppo area was and can still be a very productive area and it needs transportation. The deal is very much more, as I see it, a way to avoid a full-scale war and where the two most influential countries - Turkey and Russia - say “let’s work together”, we’re sitting on the opposite sides of the table and deal with this as sensible people in negotiation. And it did show that the diplomacy can win. I wish we could see in many places, I’m very glad we saw it in Idlib.    

SS: Could the opened road become a point of contention and instead flare up the fight again? 

JE: Well, that can be if any groups find out that they want to have it for strategic reasons or close it. Now, Russia and Turkey agree that it should stay open. I think, it will stay open. But it depends also on the talks with the local groups. So far it’s been going well with the implementation. I was leading a meeting where both Russia and Turkey and other countries were present, and I congratulated the local mediators for progress. I’m hopeful that we can avoid more civilian bloodshed in Idlib. 

SS: President Assad has called the Russia-Turkey deal a “temporary measure” - talking to his loyalists, he always insists he wants the whole of the country back under government control. But with his allies Russia and Iran not keen on fighting a battle in Idlib, will he be able to do it alone? 

JE: I think, Russia, Turkey and also Iran are vital and have a heavy responsibility because the three of them have gone in heavily in this area. Also the Gulf countries that have been supporting the opposition groups, the Western countries have been supporting groups there - really to some extent it’s been a proxy war. And these countries have not only influence, they have a lot of heavy responsibility. I hope and pray that Russia and Turkey will stay on the course there and make sure it’s a more peaceful corner for extension and not just a temporary thing. And my impression is that they want this place to stay peaceful. 

SS: What is your personal impression, feeling about working on the Syrian problem? Do you feel exasperated, or maybe on the contrary hopeful and optimistic? 

JE: First and foremost, I felt really devastated because of the civilian suffering these last seven years. It’s been too many times when I saw starved and besieged cities, hospitals bombed, civilians fleeing, terrorists attacking civilians. It’s been terrible really. I’m more hopeful now that I was a few months back. The Idlib deal was a glimmer of hope in all of this. But it’s also very important what happens in the future, will there be more repression against the civilians, will those who return back home and are now displaced - and later on the refugees - meet repression or will they meet human rights protection; will the things tweeted on behalf of the opposition at some point be met with repression later on - I hope not, because if there is more repression there will be no peace.   

SS: How do you feel about the fact that the UN-sponsored efforts to bring the war to a halt have made way to the deals between Russia, Turkey and Iran - how come the UN couldn’t really do anything about this war, not for lack of trying, but still? 

JE: The UN has been working with the Astana partners which are Russia, Turkey and Iran. But remember that the UN has no soldiers on the ground, we have a moral integrity, a moral authority. Russia, Turkey and Iran have a military involvement on the ground, so, of course, they are in a much stronger position to make deals. They also have a stronger responsibility, they have also been involved in the problem, if you like, and in something that I personally see as a proxy war. So now they’re hopefully going to do the utmost to build peace in Syria. The war may be ending, but we’re very far from peace.       

SS: Jan, you’ve worked in the field of conflict diplomacy for a long time, you’ve been a humanitarian all your life, you’re a very well-known man, bands write songs about you. Time Magazine named you one of the 100 people that “shaped” our world. How does publicity like this help humanitarian officials in their work? 

JE: I don’t know if it helps that much really. What I have is only my limited ability to persuade those who have power, but I’ve always tried to influence those who have the power. I’m glad to have direct access to Russian diplomats and military, as I have to Iranians, Turks, Americans, Europeans, the Gulf countries and others. That’s how I also do my job as a humanitarian. As a humanitarian I have no interest in the political outcome, I’m there to advance the cause of the civilians in a neutral, impartial and independent manner.      

SS: Jan, thank you very much for this interview, good luck with everything, continue doing that amazing job that you’re doing. We were talking to Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Special Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, discussing whether the  latest ceasefire in Syria is going to help to finally end the war.

JE: Thank you.