Geir Pedersen assumed office on Monday as the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, replacing the outgoing Staffan de Mistura. His term begins as the Syrian government, for years a regional pariah for its crackdown against the 2011 rebellion, is steadily welcomed in from the cold by key Arab states — making compromise less likely.
The diplomat is Middle East veteran. Pedersen was Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority in the late 1990s. He worked closely with Yasser Arafat, whom he first met during the secret talks that led to Oslo back in 1993. That, topped with a three-year stint at his country’s representative to Lebanon, likely taught Pedersen plenty about diplomacy in the Arab world. It was a crash course in deception, conspiracy — and nonsense: political jargon that means nothing and amounts to nothing.
Most of his Arab interlocutors were capable of lying with a straight face. They said things in private that they would never dare utter openly — a trait at which Arafat in particular, excelled. Additionally, they did not get along and always had something negative to say about each other, the minute one walked out of the room. Members of the same socio-political, ethnic, or religious backgrounds were often willing to tear each other apart when personal interests got in the way. And finally, snags were always somebody else’s fault: the Israelis, the Americans, the French, the Russians. Anybody but us.
Pedersen will have to return to his notes and recall all of that as he prepares to take on the Herculean job of UN Special Envoy for Syria. It is not easy to take on a job that ended the career of his three predecessors in failure. Kofi Annan was the first. After a brilliant career at the United Nations, he was made Special Envoy for Syria in February 2012. He stepped down in August, seeing zero promise and with zero achievement.
Then came the seasoned Algerian Alakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of his country, who helped settle disputes in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He took over the Syria case in September 2012 and resigned in May 2014. Then came Staffan De Mistura, who steps down at the end of this month. Under his tenure, ISIS emerged in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, chopping off heads and declaring a caliphate, killing whatever appetite there still was in the international community for regime change in Damascus.
The refugee problem reached its climax in 2015, the year Russian troops marched into the Syrian battlefield. De Mistura stood at a distance, speechless and helpless.
De Mistura watched the Russian and Syrian armies re-take entire swathes of land, including the strategic city of Aleppo in December 2016 and the countryside of Damascus in February 2018. The political process, started at Geneva I back in 2012, once called for the creation of a “Transitional Government Body” to rule with “full executive powers” instead of President Bashar al-Assad. That goal has now disappeared and been replaced with the much softer call for constitutional amendments only, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Regime change has disappeared from all literature, whether at Geneva or the parallel tracks at Astana or Sochi.
Pedersen will have to take off from where De Mistura left: the Syrian constitutional committee.
The Russians have made it the crux of the peace process, a predecessor to any early parliamentary or presidential elections. They insist that President Assad stays in power and gets to run for two presidential terms as of 2021. Given their military might on the Syrian battlefield, Pedersen will have to go by their roadmap, if he wants to avoid the fate of his three predecessors.
He will also have to learn from De Mistura’s mistakes, the last being trying to impose his own candidates for representatives of civil society, earmarked to serve on 50 out 150 seats in the constitutional assembly.
De Mistura’s list was flatly rejected by everybody – Russians, Syrians, Iranians, and Turks. Moscow and Tehran claimed that certain opposition figures were disguised as independents. The same was said by Ankara, accusing the Russians of inserting government loyalists under the guise of technocrats.
The opposition lashed out against De Mistura, accusing him of being “pro-regime” while Syrian officials stated that his role — or that of his successor — should be “facilitator” of the talks, rather than “decision-maker.”
To remain on the safe side, Pedersen ought to come up with a checklist with everything done by his predecessors, and to try and avoid them. Annan bluntly called on the Syrian president to resign, putting him on Damascus’ blacklist. Brahimi got too involved in Syrian domestic politics, often taking sides according to battlefield developments, losing the credibility of an honest broker.
De Mistura was made toothless by the Russians and by the departure of the Obama Administration. Once the brainchild of US State Secretary John Kerry, the Geneva process was orphaned with the change of command in Washington. Neither Rex Tillerson nor his successor, Mike Pompeo have shown the slightest interest in Geneva — or any of the other Syria talks. US priorities under Trump seem to have shifted from “Assad must go” into a more realistic tripartite agenda: eradicating ISIS, empowering the Kurds, and clipping Iranian wings in Syria.
If he succeeds in keeping Geneva alive, that itself would be an achievement to his credit. The process is currently on life support, facing monumental challenges from an indifferent US administration and a Russian one trying to shift the entire process from Geneva to Astana or Sochi. The Syrian government, with newly restored ties to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — key Saudi allies — has little reason to cede ground.