The envoy’s legacy is a war closer to its end but a failure to crack UN’s ‘mission impossible’
Staffan de Mistura’s futile Syria diplomacy has left UN more irrelevant than ever
When Staffan de Mistura departs his post as the United Nation’s envoy to the Syrian crisis in November, he will leave behind a conflict that appears closer to resolution but one in which the world governing body has been sidelined and exposed as powerless in the face of one of most brutal wars in modern history.
The septuagenarian Italian-Swedish diplomat was appointed to the post in July 2014, a moment of great fragmentation in an uprising that had morphed into a protracted civil war and drawn in regional powers and militias arrayed on either side.
A political solution had eluded skilled diplomats, two of whom – the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi – left in frustration at the intractability of the fighting and the failure to herd combatants on both sides who were not interested in compromise and thought they could win militarily.
Militias with extremist sympathies had grown in strength on the side of the opposition, and Al Qaeda’s wing in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra, was in the ascendancy. So was ISIS, which had surged into the Iraqi city of Mosul and proclaimed a caliphate across Syria and Iraq.
Mr de Mistura set to work attempting to revive the Geneva peace process, which had yielded little in the form of concrete gains or delivered an actual end to the fighting, despite initial agreements endorsed by the UN for a political transition.
He expanded it into a multi-track effort that included women and civil society members who were enlisted, among other reasons, to discuss issues like the elements of a new Syrian constitution, but were ultimately sidelined as great power politics took center stage.
Though Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime seemed close to collapse early in Mr de Mistura’s tenure, it now looks on the verge of military victory. Moscow intervened in late 2015 in support of the Syrian leader, protecting his regime from defeat and backing a series of brutal military offensives that have reclaimed much of the country.
Now, only the northwestern province of Idlib and other parts of the north are controlled by the opposition, some mere proxies of neighboring Turkey, and parts of the east are under the tutelage of Kurdish militias backed by the US who want to reconcile with the regime.
But when Mr de Mistura leaves, his reign’s most significant legacy will be the sidelining of the UN as an arbiter with the leverage and power to end the conflict, and the failure of its institutions to halt the worst excesses of the war.
The UN envoy’s final task before his departure next month is to secure an agreement on the composition of a constitutional committee, a body meant to draft a charter for post-war Syria that composes appointees from the regime, the opposition and the UN. Plans to convene the committee have been stalled since a highly-publicised conference in Sochi in February, and still faces obstruction by a resurgent Assad regime convinced that it does not need to compromise while on the verge of military victory.
The UN-led Geneva process has also been effectively sidelined by rival coalitions involving countries with interests in Syria. The Astana process, led by Russia, Turkey and Iran, has emerged as the premier forum for peace talks, one that is touted by the tripartite powers leading it as merely complementary to the UN process, but in reality being more influential. But even that process has failed to secure permanent ceasefire deals.
When Russian and Syrian government forces threatened to launch a devastating military campaign in Idlib last month, shuttle diplomacy involving the three powers and instigated by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured a temporary deal, not efforts by the UN.
Moreover, the last two years of Mr de Mistura’s posting have highlighted the UN’s impotence to force combatants to adhere to even the most basic norms of war, and the erosion of international institutions that have failed to hold the Assad regime and its allies to international agreements.
The Syrian government, backed by Moscow and Tehran, launched brutal campaigns to reclaim eastern Aleppo and the eastern Ghouta suburbs near Damascus, in offensives that saw the wholesale destruction of hospitals, the targeting of rescue workers and the use of chemical weapons, all leading to extremely high civilian casualties.
Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to the fighting and the delivery of humanitarian aid did little to quell the violence, which continued in a pattern of sieges and relentless violence followed by forced displacement of remaining fighters and civilians. Assad’s chemical arsenal, which was thought to have been dismantled, was put to use again in devastating attacks on the towns of Khan Sheikhoun and Douma, with little consequence.
All the while, the UN has been criticised for caving to the demands of the Assad regime, being forced to ask for the permission of the government to deliver aid to besieged areas and accused of collaborating with groups linked to the government in humanitarian projects in the country.
For now, Mr de Mistura will continue pursuing a deal on the constitutional committee until he departs a post that was once dubbed, and remains, “mission impossible”. The diplomat was never likely to succeed, with so many vested interests in a conflict that destroyed faith in the international community and its values.
But as he leaves, the UN has been rendered irrelevant in the most devastating conflict of the century.