The failure of de Mistura’s Syria mission

The worst mistake of de Mistura was when he caved in to Russian pressure and forged a new path for Moscow.
Friday 26/10/2018
Unsatisfactory performance. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, on September 14. (Reuters)
Unsatisfactory performance. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, on September 14. (Reuters)

UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has proven he is unable to fix the consequences of the “Great Game” and the quagmire it had plunged Syria into. After a 4-year stint in Syria, he decided to relinquish his mission, failing where his two high-profile predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, had also failed.

His failure cannot be solely reduced to the United Nations’ impotence because the UN failure is but a reflection of the contradictory positions of world powers, of the ambitions of regional players and to balance of power gone awry.

De Mistura leaves office at the end of November. The results of his work are meagre and limited. They are evidence of the shortcomings of multilateral diplomacy and of the disregard for the theoretical principles of the UN Charter on peacekeeping and humanitarian protection.

The United Nations’ involvement with the Syrian war began February 23, 2012, with the appointment of Annan, a former UN secretary-general, as “joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis” but Annan resigned less than six months later.

After shooting down the declaration of principles that Annan had prepared and the June 2012 Geneva Communique, Annan revealed his conclusion, which remains valid: “I have done my best” but “the increasing militarisation on the ground and the obvious lack of unity within the [UN] Security Council radically altered the conditions of carrying out my duties effectively.”

The quick succession of the post-2011 transitions, from Libya to the Levant, as well as Western adventurism, resulted in a hardening of positions on the other side. Moscow has used its UN veto 12 times to protect its Syrian ally. This was one reason a UN solution has not been found.

Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, did not fare any better and lasted in office from September 2012 to May 2014. He resigned after realising that the Syrian presidential elections of June 2014 and the expected re-election of Bashar Assad would spell the end of his efforts.

In the context of Russia’s control of the Syrian file through the games played by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, de Mistura was appointed to continue the United Nations’ work on the Syrian file. He concerned himself mostly with ensuring the continuation of his mission and with cutting corners.

This controversial aristocrat constantly complained that he never had international support. This is perhaps why he played along with the strongest parties in the Syrian conflict, notably Russia, which has become the number one player in the Syrian arena since its massive military intervention in September 2015.

One can say that de Mistura’s work in Syria was not sabotaged by the multiplicity and contradictions of the road maps pursued by the different players in Syria, especially after Russia imposed the path fixed by the Astana talks in 2106. It can still be maintained it was rather his reliance on a wrong approach to negotiations that caused him to fail.

Sources close to de Mistura felt that by seeking to prolong the so-called pre-negotiation confidence-building phase, he seemed to be following Russian and American directions to give the Assad regime the chance to build up military superiority from the beginning of 2016 until the battle of Aleppo.

De Mistura’s worst mistake, though, was when he caved in to Russian pressure and forged a new path for Moscow, using the pretext of having to separate the humanitarian file from the political one. This provided cover for pushing with the Astana arrangement, which allowed for the gradual decisive military victory of the regime.

Another testimony said de Mistura “diluted the cause by widening the circles of those involved and scattering its sides under the pretext of wanting to provide representation for all parties involved. He was never serious about reaching a solution, invented the issue of the four baskets and spent the entire time avoiding discussing the central issue of the Syrian National Council. By doing this, he, without a doubt, aligned with the regime’s views.”

De Mistura’s style, techniques and his capabilities in engaging in “psychological warfare” were of no help to him and he did not measure up to a personality like Lavrov, who dominated all the details of the Syrian file.

De Mistura wraps up his tenure with a visit to Damascus to discuss the formation of a committee in charge of drafting the new Syrian constitution. This represents the meagre yield of his 4-year tenure and the only window of opportunity for any progress in the political process.

This step, however, does not mean much really because the essential problem does not lie in the constitutional text. It is, rather, inherent to the structure of the security-based regime in Syria that has no respect for laws and constitutions.