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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

A new UN envoy with the most daunting of in-trays

The fate of Syria rests on Geir Pedersen’s shoulders – but the challenges are vast

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has informed the Security Council that he wishes to appoint the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen (left) as the next special envoy to Syria. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has informed the Security Council that he wishes to appoint the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen (left) as the next special envoy to Syria. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

On a single day this week, Turkey rained bombs on the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, US coalition planes pounded ISIS hideouts in the south and the US-aligned Self-Defence Forces and local tribesmen fought extremists in the streets of Deir Ezzor. That is just one snapshot of the quagmire that awaits Geir Pedersen, who will replace Staffan de Mistura as the United Nations special envoy for Syria later this month. One day is a mere heartbeat in a seven-year war but its ugly scenes encapsulate the splinters of division in Syria and offer a window onto the mountain the new envoy will need to climb.

Mr Pedersen comes to the role as a seasoned negotiator, skilled in navigating regional conflicts. But ending a war that has killed at least 500,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria’s population is by far his biggest challenge to date. And he will attempt to meet it as the face of an institution that has lost all leverage over the warring parties. Mr De Mistura battled in vain for four years to bring the myriad combatants to the table. With global powers acting in their own interests, a Syrian regime apathetic to peace and a UN Security Council at odds with itself, this truly is – as his predecessor Kofi Annan once remarked – “mission impossible”.

With the UN’s role weakened, Bashar Al Assad – backed by Russia and Iran – now holds dominion over most of the country and has deployed chemical weapons with abandon. This week, as the leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany met in Istanbul to preserve a ceasefire in Idlib, first agreed by Moscow and Ankara, the UN was only noticeable by its absence. It is painfully clear that the UN-led Geneva peace process died long ago, as the situation for ordinary Syrians has continued to deteriorate.

There is hope that Mr Pedersen will seize his opportunity to bring a new dynamism to negotiations. An independent commission will soon begin drafting a new Syrian constitution, laying the groundwork for a political transition. It is imperative that all parties, including the UN, are represented in that process, as only a political solution can save Syria in the long term. As he assumes his role, Mr Pedersen carries a considerable weight upon his shoulders, with much riding on him being the man for the job – not least for the sake of millions of desperate Syrians. He might just be their only hope.