UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced at a news conference in Geneva earlier this month that he would be stepping down from his post at the end of November.
There have been rumours over the past two years that de Mistura had wanted to resign, but they had largely been brushed aside even though there had been no progress on the conflict he was charged with solving.
De Mistura, appointed special envoy in July 2014, proposed several initiatives designed to help solve the Syrian crisis over the four years of his appointment, most of them condemned by the country’s opposition.
Some were also turned down by the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with de Mistura’s initiatives often contributing merely to escalating tensions between the opposing forces.
The regime benefited from some of his proposals, changing its policies to take advantage of the situation on the ground.
Meanwhile, the opposition often called for de Mistura to be replaced with someone better able to handle the crisis, calls that were ignored by the UN.
The UN envoy’s announcement that he will now leave his post has triggered speculation about his replacement. Several Arab candidates have been suggested, though in reality the identity of the candidate scarcely matters.
Two prominent men have already served as UN envoys to Syria, diplomats Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, but both failed to move the conflict beyond the parameters outlined by the major powers even though they uncovered horrific truths about the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is concerned that de Mistura’s replacement will be an Arab from a country supporting the Syrian regime and will see his mission as little different from that of the head of the Arab monitors in Syria, the Sudanese General Mohamed Al-Dabi.
Al-Dabi has played a key role in covering up the crimes of the regime and blaming the opposition for acts it did not commit.
While de Mistura was not an ally of the regime, it was impossible for him to change the rules of the game. His resignation, though welcome, comes very late, after four years of treading water or proposing unconstructive initiatives that ran into the sand.
De Mistura worked without even a minimum regional or international consensus on a solution to an armed conflict that involves several major countries and many armed groups in the Middle East.
The latter include dozens of sectarian organisations loyal to Iran, mercenaries working with Russia, separatist Kurdish militias, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda affiliates, and armed opposition groups that have splintered from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ended up working for special interests.
Due to such contradictions, it was natural for the UN to fail in its attempts to bring peace to Syria, since it is a creature of the major world and regional powers. Solving the Syrian crisis was far beyond the capabilities of a weak envoy from a weak international organisation.
However, de Mistura was a worse procrastinator than his predecessors, since Annan resigned within months of being appointed in 2012 after revealing that he was not receiving the support he needed.
He criticised divisions in the international community and Russia and China’s use of their veto power in the UN Security Council to halt resolutions that could have reduced the slaughter.
Former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi attempted to sponsor the first direct talks between the regime and the opposition under the auspices of the US and Russia, but these talks faltered because Damascus refused to discuss the fate of Al-Assad.
Brahimi then preferred to step down from his role as UN envoy rather than become a “scarecrow” without any power.
Unlike his predecessors, de Mistura was always more interested in keeping his position and buying time. He tried to adapt to the positions of the most powerful players in the conflict, making his relationship with the opposition very tense due to his bias towards the regime.
Many observers accused him of preferring to bargain and abandon the fundamentals of a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
His worst move was to allow non-negotiable principles to be opened for negotiation. His initiatives gave the regime the upper hand and allowed the Russian-sponsored Astana peace track to replace the Geneva track agreed by the international community in 2012.
He fragmented the Syrian opposition by dividing it into platforms, and he avoided discussing the internationally accepted solution of a transitional governing body in Syria with a full executive mandate to replace the Al-Assad regime.
De Mistura will end his mandate as UN envoy by visiting Damascus for one last time to discuss forming a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution for the country, the brainchild of Russia.
He will thus leave the idea to grow under the auspices of Russia, the main supporter of the regime, and his last act will thus negatively impact the opposition and divert the path of the political process.
It will help to facilitate the rehabilitation of the Al-Assad regime because de Mistura believes the key problem in Syria is the country’s constitution, forgetting that the real problem is the structure of the incumbent regime.
De Mistura’s resignation will impact the stagnant situation in Syria, but it cannot lead to any positive result. It will not help to foster reconstruction or economic recovery, and it will not convince anyone that security has returned to Syria. It will not give the UN more influence over the Syrian conflict.
All the influential players in the Syria crisis are waiting for the US to make its move, outlining the coming phase in the conflict in a manner that further marginalises the UN.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: De Mistura resigns