Syria's peace plan takes shape — but it relies on Bashar Al Assad
A new UN envoy is in place but there are signs that even Russia is losing influence in Damascus
When Staffan de Mistura addressed the UN Security Council for the last time in December as the Secretary General's special envoy for Syria he ended in unusual fashion, seeking permission to break protocol and shake the hands of ambassadors from member states he had been briefing.
Warm applause followed. Privately, however, some felt relief rather than appreciation at his departure.
“I could not believe that happened,” said a diplomat from a permanent member of the Security Council, scolding the veteran Swedish-Italian envoy's efforts to broker a peace.
“It all just kind of fell apart under him.”
Several ambassadors and aides strayed on to their smartphones during a 30-minute swan song that seemed eerily familiar to anyone dealing with Syria.
Somehow, Mr de Mistura always managed to sound positive, despite the facts.
He spent four years and four months in the Syria role. By his own admission, that time was nearly the same as the duration of the First World War. Syria's war is entering its ninth year on Friday.
The conflict's brutality long ago turned diplomatic optimism to ashes, with peace talks proving no match against a parallel quest for regional influence and the spoils that are likely to follow.
In the last year of his tenure, by which time President Bashar Al Assad had bombed Aleppo into submission before launching a chemical weapons attack to wipe out rebels in Douma, Mr de Mistura had become ancillary to the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Those three countries provided their own paradox. Despite proclaiming their partnership in a peace effort all were and remain active in the conflict.
The Syrians do not give any impression of being willing to negotiate. They're not interested in refugees. They're still in survival mode
European diplomat at the UN
In truth, the failures of the international community extend far beyond the UN.
A mixture of disagreement, indecision and deadlock have led to stasis despite horrific battles killing hundreds of thousands, with cities flattened and more than half of the country's pre-war population of 23 million uprooted.
The recent US-backed offensive to oust ISIS from northern Syria has commanded more attention than Mr Al Assad's efforts to end opposition to his rule once and for all. Such is the acceptance that he has won the war, but not the peace.
The mass uprising against the Syrian president in 2011 that spiralled into civil war is a sore that neighbouring Arab states and European countries want ended through a political settlement.
But the fighting continues.
Nations including Turkey and the US control large parts of Syrian territory. Mr Al Assad, whose armed forces were on the brink of defeat until Russian air power in September 2015 gave him the upper hand against opposition rebels, presently holds two thirds of the country.
The Syrian president is emboldened. He appears in no mood for the compromises that peace would entail. Recent actions of his government – including detentions, intimidation of opponents and forced conscription of men and children – add to the widespread belief that another bloody crackdown is under way.
It is within that seemingly zero-sum game that Geir Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat and Mr de Mistura's successor, is trying to revive the peace process.
His task is made more difficult by the fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council want an end to the war but several loathe the prospect of Mr Al Assad having a long-term future as president.
After he clung tooth and nail to power, they reluctantly accept that for now at least he is necessary.
Diplomats on the Security Council and other UN officials involved in Syria told The National of the need to restrain Mr Al Assad and limit his tenure under any peace deal.
“We're talking about half a million dead so far, most of them killed by government forces," one diplomat said. "And the use of chemical weapons on civilians. We want accountability."
The diplomat was referring to an already thick file of possible war crimes charges.
Those prosecutions may eventually reach the International Criminal Court at The Hague but are years away and would proceed separately from any diplomatic process.
“I suspect it will not be the main issue for getting a political settlement. It'll be one for the future,” said a top diplomat from a permanent member of the Security Council.
“In terms of Assad's accountability, as part of the settlement there will need to be some sort of restraint on his ability to continue in power.
"In the interests of the poor Syrians who are still alive, that limit may be set higher than we would ideally like. But it remains a western goal that Assad leaves power.”
This is not likely to win the Assad regime's favour for a western-backed plan.
Mr Pedersen's task is to bring about a political agreement that could first stop the fighting.
Divisions on the Security Council, on issues ranging from the crisis in Venezuela to Europe's fallout with the US over America's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord, make that more difficult.
Russia used its veto power to insulate Syria from UN censure in the early years of the war.
The decision by President Vladimir Putin to intervene militarily, a move that saved Mr Al Assad, gave him influence over the Syrian leader.
But at the UN there are concerns that even Mr Putin can no longer contain his ally in Damascus, which could create an opening for unity in a future effort at the Security Council on Syria.
“When the Syrian delegation addresses the Security Council, I make a point of looking at the Russians to see how they are reacting,” a European diplomat said.
“Lately I've seen astonishment in their eyes, given the statements they've been hearing. The Syrians do not give any impression of being willing to negotiate. They're not interested in refugees. They're still in survival mode.”
“The Russians want to leave Syria but they want to leave when there's a stable state. They know if they leave now they won't have stability.
"They're aware that they'll have another problem if Assad's next move is to regroup and then crush anyone who's left that he deems a threat.”
Neither the Russian nor the Syrian missions to the UN responded to requests for comment.
Mr Al Assad's recent trip to Tehran, his other main ally in the war, has added to the belief that with his position seemingly assured he is trying to loosen Moscow's tether on him.
His probable bet is that both allies can be quietened through strategic deals that bolster their interests.
To begin with, that means enhanced access to the Mediterranean and more military bases for Russia, and unimpeded supply routes for Iran to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The eventual reconstruction of Syria, a task estimated to cost $400 billion (Dh1.47 trillion), will probably also come as payback to those who helped Mr Al Assad to survive.
Such quid pro quos will not work for Mr Pedersen.
He is heading in the opposite direction by recently meeting the Syrian leadership in Damascus and the exiled opposition in Riyadh.
But his main effort appears to be a plan to build international co-operation by seeking to combine the so-called small group of countries – Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the US – with the Russia-led Astana group that includes Iran and Turkey.
In his first two months in the job, Mr Pedersen travelled to Damascus, Moscow, Cairo, Ankara, Tehran, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, as well as meeting officials in Geneva, Davos and Munich.
He visited Washington at the start of March, a trip that followed US President Donald Trump's abrupt announcement in December that all American troops would leave Syria.
The decision was later changed to a phased pullout before becoming a plan that will leave about 200 US peacekeepers in the country.
The US, which is nearing the end of its third month without a permanent representative to the UN, is considered essential to a peace deal but at least in public it has chosen to cede the floor on Syria to Mr Pedersen.
The UN envoy met British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in London last week. Further trips to Beirut, Amman and Beijing have been announced.
But Mr Pedersen's diplomatic forebears – he is the UN Secretary General's fourth special representative for Syria, after Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Mr de Mistura – also gathered plenty of air miles before the Astana process sidelined the US and other world powers.
“He's going to have to start small,” one diplomat said. “I can't see the US agreeing to sit in public around the same table as Iran, for example. So it'll probably be private meetings first and if he gets anywhere he'll be able to announce something bigger.”
A spokesman for Mr Pedersen would not comment on specifics of recent discussions, but said: “We are working on a new round of meetings with the parties quite soon.”
The roadblocks are many.
On Tuesday, the EU repeated at a funding conference for Syrian civilians that it would not work with the Assad regime unless there was an acceptable political settlement.
Such a stance, which effectively ensures no European money for reconstruction, is seen as a way of pressuring the Syrian president but it could add to the current gridlock on peace.
Mr de Mistura's plan for a committee to establish a new Syrian constitution, which dominated his final months in office, remains important.
The Syrian government and the opposition have each submitted a roster of 50 names but Russia, Iran and Turkey have disagreed over a third set of 50 names from civil society.
Other moves are afoot to add diplomatic pressure.
As early as the end of this month the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons may appear at the UN in New York to talk about changes in reporting that could lead to the Syrian government being blamed for attacks, something the watchdog has not yet done despite evidence pointing to the regime.
Having undertaken in 2013 to remove its chemical weapons, some stocks remain unaccounted. The watchdog's officials did not make progress in identifying such materials when they met Syrian government officials in Beirut last month.
“The inventory is incomplete and the signs are there that Assad still has a lot of bad stuff that he could use on his own people any time he considered it necessary,” a diplomat said.
Karen Abuzayd, a Geneva-based commissioner for the UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria who knows Mr Pedersen, told The National that regardless of any peace process, its investigations of government and non-government forces will continue in an effort to eventually bring people to trial.
“We keep emphasising that the conflict is not over,” Ms Abuzayd said. “There is a reduction in fighting in some places and an increase in fighting in others. There are all sorts of violations going on and a lack of accountability.
"We certainly hope that a lot of the work we are doing on evidence now to record things is going to be used when people calm down and decide that there have to be prosecutions to make sure some people are held to account.”
In his first briefing to the Security Council last month, Mr Pedersen said the recent freeing of 42 people detained or abducted by the Syrian government was an essential confidence-building measure in a peace process, and that he would try to bring about more prisoner releases.
Ms Abuzayd said it was a sign of progress.
“He may be able to persuade the Syrians to do sensible things,” she said. “There is torture in detention, so the more people we can get out of there the better.”
Ayham Kamel, of the Eurasia Group consultancy, said Mr Pedersen had managed to restart the UN peace effort but his chances of success depended on closing the diplomatic gaps that hobbled past efforts.
“Any new envoy can press reset and he does not come with the same baggage,” Mr Kamel said.
He said Mr Pedersen's first priority had been to revive talks with the Syrian government and the opposition, meaning Russia was no longer the sole player in determining the outcome.
“I don't think it's just about Russia any more," Mr Kamel said. "It's more about the space between Russia and the US and Europe, and whether it can be narrowed.
"Mr Pedersen is figuring out what he can get away with. That's the job.”
Updated: March 15, 2019 12:58 AM