Exit of UN special envoy for Syria heralds new phase

Deep inside, most Syrian politicians are indifferent about de Mistura’s replacement, claiming that policy over Syria is being decided by the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Mixed legacy. A 2017 file picture shows UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arriving for a news conference closing a round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva.  (AFP)
Mixed legacy. A 2017 file picture shows UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arriving for a news conference closing a round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva. (AFP)

BEIRUT - UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will be leaving office at the end of November having failed — like his two predecessors — to solve the Syrian crisis. Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi threw in the towel in 2014 as did his predecessor, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in 2012.

They worked in very different times than did de Mistura, whose tenure witnessed the rise of the Islamic State and start of the Russian military intervention in 2015, two factors that fully changed dynamics of the Syrian battlefield.

Brahimi and Annan handled a conflict between Damascus and its political and armed opponents, aimed, back then, at decapitating Damascus and creating a Transitional Government Body with “full executive powers.” All of that is history, having been scrapped by de Mistura, who realised early on that nothing would pass unless OK’d by the Russians and the only acceptable endgame for them was a new constitution, followed by presidential elections in which President Bashar Assad could run for a fourth presidential term, when his present one ends in 2021.

De Mistura’s UN-mandated Geneva process, currently in limbo, has been largely eclipsed by two parallel political tracks — Astana, which kicked off in early 2017, and Sochi, the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Few Syrians are shedding tears over de Mistura’s departure. In Damascus, officials accused him of having been a dishonest broker who favoured the opposition during all stages of the Geneva talks.

The opposition is equally furious with the 71-year-old Italian diplomat, claiming he worked with the Russians not to change the regime but to change the opposition. They accuse him of working only with Russia-approved opposition figures who accept Moscow’s version of the Syrian endgame.

In a last-minute effort to depart with grace, de Mistura is hoping to begin the constitutional talks before the end of next month — a far-fetched goal that will be very difficult to achieve.

Neither camps of the Syrian conflict is yet to accept de Mistura’s 50 names for the constitutional committee, drafted as independents and representatives of civil society, and they disagree on who will lead the committee and what its mandate and timetable will be.

Instead of facilitating the process, the two sides have stopped engaging with the departing UN envoy, preferring to work with whoever will replace him.

Four names are making the rounds in UN circles, chosen from diplomatic jobs in conflict zones. One is Nickolay Mladenov, a 46-year-old former foreign minister of Bulgaria, who, since 2015, has been the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. Before that he served as minister of defence and UN envoy to Iraq and as an adviser to the World Bank

However, the Russians claim he is too pro-American. They suggest Jan Kubis, a former foreign minister of Slovakia, who is UN special envoy for Iraq. The United States is unhappy with that nomination, saying Kubis is doing a fine job in Baghdad and is likely to play an important role now that the country has a new president and a new prime minister.

The third nominee, acceptable for both the Russians and the Americans — and surprisingly, Damascus as well — is Ramtane Lamamra, a former foreign minister of Algeria, who held office during the first four years of the Syrian conflict.

He was sympathetic to the Syrian government, famously saying in December 2016, that the “Syrian state has regained sovereignty over Aleppo” and destroyed the ambitions of those who wanted “terrorism to win.” The Syrian opposition is obviously opposed to him but he seems to have the backing of Arab countries, in addition to the United States and Russia.

The fourth candidate is a compromise, nominated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He is the Norwegian Ambassador to China and former Ambassador to the United Nations Geir Pedersen. From 1998-2003, he served as special representative to the Palestinian National Authority and later as special coordinator for Lebanon after the Rafik Hariri assassination in 2005, making him well-versed in Arab affairs.

Deep inside, most Syrian politicians are indifferent about de Mistura’s replacement, claiming that policy over Syria is being decided by the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran, leaving very little room for the United Nations or any top diplomat, no matter how seasoned.

It is those presidents, however, who are insisting on a replacement to de Mistura, one whom they can mould to their liking and eventually use to give a UN umbrella to whatever endgame they agree upon for Syria, either at Astana or in Sochi.

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