The problems of this shattered nation will create barely surmountable obstacles for even the most experienced of diplomats
In Syria, Geir Pedersen faces an onerous but vital mission
Geir Pedersen is a seasoned diplomat. The outgoing Norwegian ambassador to China and permanent representative to the UN spent years navigating the perils of south Lebanon as a special representative to the region on behalf of Kofi Annan, as well as the special coordinator for Lebanon under Ban Ki-Moon. He was one of the negotiators involved in hammering out the Oslo Accords and served in the UN’s department of political affairs as the director of the Asia and Pacific division.
This is just as well. As the UN envoy for Syria, he faces a monumental task. It is one that may unfortunately be doomed to fail – if not in the short run, as the regime of Bashar Al Assad marches towards military victory and a formal end to the war, then in the long run, attempting to ensure that such brutality and wanton destruction is never repeated.
Some form of peace is at hand in Syria, an endgame that eluded all three of Mr Pedersen’s predecessors. Mr Annan and veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi both failed to build sufficient momentum for a peace process earlier on in the conflict. Both men left their roles in disgust, convinced that Mr Al Assad and the opposition were not yet interested in reconciliation.
Staffan de Mistura, a Swedish-Italian diplomat, has held the role since 2014. Those four years witnessed the abject failure of the international community, either to stem the violence, or to prove that it even existed or could pull its weight. These were not often failures of Mr De Mistura’s making, but he was the hapless face of them, and he was forced to look on as international norms were sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik in Syria.
The war in Syria is closer to a conclusion than it has been in the past eight years. Mr Al Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian-affiliated militias, have reversed rebel gains and reclaimed most of the country in a series of merciless sieges and urban warfare campaigns that have reduced Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus to rubble. It has flouted exhortations from the UN and the Security Council to protect civilians and guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The peace plan that was developed under the auspices of the UN in the early years of the war is dead. Once seen as a baseline, calling for a political transition and free elections, it is no longer worth the paper it is written on. This is particularly the case, as the resurgent Assad regime sees little need to compromise with a disorganised rabble of rebel groups and chastened international powers are already mulling a return to normality in Damascus and an end to the flow of refugees – and perhaps their return, despite the imminent dangers.
The UN’s Geneva talks have been replaced with a parallel process led by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the powers on the ground with influence beyond mere words. Their Astana process, although it has failed generally to tame the regime’s most violent impulses, is now the main forum for negotiated talks.
Mr De Mistura never stood a chance against such odds, Syria being what it is – a playground for regional and global powers, with little interest in the suffering of civilians or the finer points of crafting a post-war order in a ravaged nation. Nevertheless, the failures of his initiatives traced the great collapse of the international community as an arbiter of peace and security around the world.
The disdain with which the world’s autocrats and dictators view the UN was succinctly summarised in Mr De Mistura’s final visit to Damascus. After spending months touting a regime concession at a conference in Sochi earlier this year, which allowed for a constitutional committee overseen by the UN to draft the post-war charter, he was unceremoniously dismissed by the Syrian foreign minister, who decided such a plan was a breach of Syria’s sovereignty.
Mr De Mistura dithered for far too long in raising crucial issues of justice, truth and reconciliation such as the fate of the thousands of detainees in the Assad regime’s prisons, for fear of antagonising his interlocutors in Damascus. What little goodwill he may have gained with that soft touch appeared to have little effect when his heartfelt pleas for access to the suffering civilians of east Aleppo, Madaya and eastern Ghouta fell on deaf ears, powerless to stop the bloodshed.
Mr De Mistura never succeeded in regaining the opposition’s trust after poorly worded statements that Mr Al Assad was part of the solution in Syria, and it was during his tenure that anything associated with the UN came to be seen as suspect. The theatre of the deadlocked Security Council was a tragedy all on its own, though Mr De Mistura’s work was further undermined by the view that other UN agencies were too close to the government. UN agencies worked closely with organisations linked to the regime, and easily caved to outrageous government demands and restrictions. Most were powerless by virtue of their mandate, but some officials were even perceived as complicit.
It is into this morass that Mr Pedersen now wades – a war perhaps with an end in sight, but a conflict whose underlying causes have not begun to be addressed.
He must build upon the work of his predecessor in involving grassroots civil society organisations and women in peacebuilding and crafting the future of Syria. This work has taken a backseat as talks moved into the realm of great power politics.
But he must also tackle the thorny issues of post-war transitional justice, rebuilding the UN’s gravitas and credibility by fighting to address the injustices that sparked the revolution in the first place. He must fight for a place for international norms and law in a peace settlement, and act as a counter-balance to the naked self-interest of the powers that have helped destroy Syria, while insisting on a place in talks for abandoned causes, such as the fate of detainees.
He must also wage battle on behalf of the refugees, amid the steadily intensifying bellicose rhetoric of Europe’s far right, many factions of which are urging their return without guarantees, and the complicity of regional governments who care little for their welfare. Lebanon has already admitted that 20 refugees who were repatriated to Syria have been killed. In light of this, it would be a tragedy if more were forced to return from Jordan and Turkey.
Mr Pedersen will also need to address the fate of Syria’s north-east, overseen by the US and torn between Kurdish ambitions for autonomy and self-governance, and Turkish national-security concerns.
The upshot is that no overall agreement in Syria without UN involvement will be seen as a settlement credible enough to allow the influx of reconstruction funds into the Syria that will help the nation begin to heal. Mr Pedersen faces a thankless and near-impossible task, but it is one pregnant with potential.