Challenges for the new envoy to Syria

Bassel Oudat , Thursday 8 Nov 2018

A new UN envoy to Syria begins his tenure next month, with the challenges awaiting him being close to insoluble, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Geir Pedersen
File Photo: United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has informed the Security Council that he wishes to appoint the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen (L) as the next special envoy to Syria (AFP)

After much bickering between Russia and the US on who will succeed Staffan de Mistura as UN envoy to Syria, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has announced that the UN Security Council has chosen Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen as its new envoy to the country.

Pedersen will leave his post as Norway’s Ambassador to Beijing to begin his new mission in early December.

Pedersen, 63, is married with five children. Since 1998 he has held a variety of posts in Norway’s Foreign Ministry, and in 1993 he was a member of the Norwegian team in the Oslo talks that led to mutual recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel.

He served as UN representative to Lebanon after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri between 2007 and 2008 and as his country’s representative to the UN from 2012 to 2017.

Pedersen expects his mission to be “very difficult,” but he has said he is hopeful he can contribute to ending the eight-year conflict.

“This conflict has continued for too many years,” he said. “If I can contribute to ending it, then I must say yes to the challenge.

” He said it was important to have the support of the UN Security Council and regional powers and to have “a good dialogue with the Syrian parties so we can have a credible and comprehensive process.”

Former envoys including Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura all failed to end the suffering of the Syrian people.

Annan was the best in pushing for a political solution through the holding of the Geneva I and Geneva II Conferences that stipulated that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad cannot play any role in the country’s future and must leave power.

During the tenures of Brahimi and de Mistura, the Syrian people suffered enormous losses. De Mistura contributed to the displacement of more people and the military defeat of the Syrian opposition due to his various empty promises.

He comforted Al-Assad and was silent about the crimes of the regime.

De Mistura followed the regime line on every issue, including fighting terrorism and possible partition, procrastinating on everything coming from the opposition.

Pedersen will continue on the troubled path of his predecessor, with the Syrian opposition placing little faith in UN envoys, believing that the future of the country will in fact come through an eventual US-Russian agreement.

De Mistura will leave his post after a last-ditch effort to form a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution for Syria.

Russia wants this to be a product of the Astana Process it is sponsoring and not of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which is the preferred international roadmap.

Five issues in particular await Pedersen, including forming the Constituent Assembly and restarting the political process, ending the presence of foreign forces in Syria, maintaining the country’s unity, seeing to the return of the refugees and finally reconstruction.

The biggest hurdle will be the Assembly, especially given the conflict of interests between a current led by Russia and supported by Iran and Syria and another led by the US supported by Europe, the Gulf countries and the opposition.

These two currents were at loggerheads during de Mistura’s tenure, as Russia took the hardline position that the regime should appoint one third of the Assembly’s members.

Pedersen also faces the challenge of relaunching the political process based on the Geneva Conferences. Moscow wants the process to be based on the Astana Process, which guarantees that Al-Assad will remain in power while carrying out cosmetic reforms.

The Geneva Conferences call for forming a transitional governing body with a full mandate that can transform Syria into a pluralist democratic country.

Removing the foreign forces from Syria will be difficult, especially the Iranian militias, the Hizbullah forces and the Turkish, Russian, French and US troops in Syria. There are also fighters with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

Keeping Syria united will require considerable effort amid the chaotic reality on the ground, regional and international interference, and attempts to divide the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Syria’s Kurds want to secede from the rest of the country, while the regime and Iran are carrying out widespread demographic changes.

Pedersen must also consider the issue of reconstruction and the return of the refugees, complicated since countries with interests in Syria have linked reconstruction with a political settlement.

Millions of Syrian refugees will not return home while Al-Assad remains in power, insisting that justice, security and peace will not come to the country while his regime continues.

Some have described Pedersen as a possible “saviour” of the situation since he has many of the skills that could enable him to jumpstart the political process. Some expect the new UN envoy to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis, but the complex issues at play make it hard to believe he will.

Will Pedersen be able to persuade Russia to accept opposition participation in the Constituent Assembly? Can he prevent Moscow from ramming through an alternative track, or make it abandon the Astana Process? Can he convince Iran to remove its militias from Syria? Can he convince the Kurds to abandon their dream of secession?

It is unlikely that the Norwegian diplomat will succeed in reaching a solution to these complex problems. They require an international consensus, and this is not on the horizon. It is difficult to expect that Pedersen will find a breakthrough.

He is likely to join his predecessors in failure and procrastination, even if it is to be hoped he will not falsify the truth, a regrettable feature of de Mistura’s tenure.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Challenges for the new envoy

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