New UN Syria envoy starts ‘mission impossible’ with few illusions

The big question is whether Geir Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat who is to start his new job January 7, can succeed where his three predecessors failed.
Sunday 06/01/2019
A 2015 file photo shows the then-Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations Geir Pederson addressing the UN General Assembly. (AP)
UN mantle. A 2015 file photo shows the then-Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations Geir Pederson addressing the UN General Assembly. (AP)

ISTANBUL - As the new Syria envoy of the United Nations prepares to take office, he enters a military and political landscape filled with powerful players scrambling for influence as the war winds down after almost eight years.

The big question is whether Geir Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat who is to start his new job January 7, can succeed where his three predecessors failed. The United Nations has been unable to stop a conflict that has killed almost 500,000 people, driven millions more from their homes and made Syria a battleground for extremists from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State and a stage for foreign power rivalries.

Russia, Iran, Turkey, several Gulf countries and the United States have supported opposing groups in Syria and effectively sidelined the United Nations while pursuing their own interests.

Thanks to Russia’s support, Syrian President Bashar Assad has all but won the military side of the conflict and enters 2019 in a position of strength but Assad will need outside help to pay for the reconstruction of his country, which he says will cost up to $400 billion.

“By itself, Pedersen’s appointment will not usher in a solution,” said Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria Studies at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, a think-tank in Ankara, “but his chance may come as fighting is dying down and a new era for a political solution could begin.”

Pedersen, a 63-year-old father of five who was Norway’s ambassador to China before he was selected to be Syria envoy, is likely to have few illusions about his new job or about the intricacies of Middle Eastern conflicts.

He served as the United Nations’ special coordinator for Lebanon in 2007-08 and as the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon from 2005-07. From 1998-2003, Pedersen was Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. In 1993, he was a member of Norway’s team in negotiations that led to the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

In his new job, described as a “mission impossible” in news reports, Pedersen’s immediate task will be to forge a consensus on a 150-member committee that is to write a constitution for a post-war Syria.

Russia, Turkey and Iran, three powers that conduct peace talks for Syria in the so-called Astana process running parallel to the UN efforts, in December said they had reached an agreement regarding the constitutional panel. The forum is to include an equal number of government, opposition and civil society representatives but the composition of the committee remains unclear, suggesting that differences between the three powers remain.

Pedersen’s predecessor, Staffan de Mistura, said before his departure last month that there was an “extra mile” to go before the committee could start its work. Syria’s government has balked at the United Nations’ role in selecting civil society members of the committee. Moscow said a summit including Russia, Turkey and Iran on Syria is to take place this month.

UN planners expect the constitutional committee to pave the way for elections and democratic post-war order in Syria but chances for reconciliation or for the return of millions of refugees to their homes appear slim.

The Washington Post reported that the Assad government was speeding up the execution of political prisoners. Perceived foes of Assad face other pressures, too, rights activists say. In a report last October, Human Rights Watch said that “residents from areas that have been re-taken by the government continue to face arbitrary and incomprehensible restrictions on return to their homes and towns of origin and the government continues to demolish their property.”

In addition, the fighting is not over despite Assad’s victories on the battlefield. In Idlib province, the last rebel-held area in Syria, tensions between government forces and besieged insurgents simmer on.

Dozens of people have been killed in fighting in rebel-held parts of northern Syria, as al-Qaeda-linked militants pressed an offensive against Turkey-backed rebels. The new wave of fighting came after US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria and amid Turkish threats to carry out a military operation against Kurdish fighters in north-eastern Syria.

Orhan said Russia, Turkey and Iran remained the key players. “The initiative is with those three countries,” and not with the United Nations, he said. The US withdrawal could create a power vacuum in Syria and fan competition between different parties to the conflict. This could delay any political solution, Orhan said, pointing out that Pedersen’s three predecessors had all given up.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana was the first Syria envoy in February 2012 but quit six months later. Annan was succeeded by Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who held the post from 2012-14 when he handed the job over to de Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat.

When de Mistura announced his resignation last year, he said he was leaving for personal reasons but his departure after more than four years as Syria envoy reflected a sense of frustration about the United Nations’ “lack of leverage,” the Guardian newspaper reported.