Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

De Mistura’s gamble

A new initiative by the UN envoy to Syria is unlikely to solve the crisis in the country, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

When an initiative takes you back to square one, with no hope of offering anything that previous negotiators have not tried, questions are likely to arise. What has made Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria who has already failed twice in his lacklustre bids to bring peace to the country, try his luck once more?

De Mistura has sent invitations to Syrian opposition groups, regime representatives and officials from various countries to attend a meeting on the situation in Syria in Geneva in May, where he hopes to hammer out a peace formula for the war-torn country.

Wishful thinking, some might say. According to others, however, the initiative is more likely to be an attempt to rehabilitate the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and do away with workable solutions reached in the past, such as the Geneva Declaration.

 Still wrapped in mystery, not much is known about de Mistura’s initiative apart from the fact that Iran will be part of the talks. Extremist groups, such as Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State (IS), have not been included.

Many Syrian opposition groups have received invitations, for two members each, to go to Geneva. Independents, activists and businessmen have also been included, and it is not clear what criteria de Mistura used to select the participants.

According to currently available information, de Mistura intends to meet personally with each of the participants, as well as with the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and several regional powers.

Critics of the initiative say that it takes the negotiations back to square one, however. The UN envoy already knows the positions of everyone he has invited to the talks, critics say, since most of them have offered their views at length over the past few years.

De Mistura must already have mounds of documents detailing every nuance of opinion Syria’s protagonists have expressed and every shred of compromise they have offered to make.

So what is there to discuss in Geneva? To many, the new meeting will seem an exercise in futility. Coming from a negotiator with such a poor track record, it is hard to pin much hope on it.

De Mistura has offered two initiatives in his bids to mediate the conflict in Syria in the past. In one he called for the opening of the Turkish border in order to allow fighters into northern Syria to aid the Kurds, but did not say what kind of fighters should be allowed to pass or what mission they were expected to achieve.

As a result, it seemed as if the UN negotiator was calling for something akin to chaos on the border.

In his second initiative, de Mistura proposed a freeze in the fighting, which some said would have been a recipe for partitioning the country. Not once has he called for the exit of foreign fighters who are siding with the regime. Not once has he criticised the regime for dropping barrel bombs on civilians or shelling cities from the air.

If de Mistura has succeeded in one thing, it is to confuse the Syrian people, dampening their spirits and sowing mistrust in the ranks of the opposition.

Meanwhile, the regime has benefitted from de Mistura’s attempts at peace, allowed a regime that has lost credibility and two thirds of the country’s territory at least some breathing space.

In his present initiative the UN envoy seems to want to water down the opposition by including members of groups that are either tolerant of the regime or only mildly oppose it.

As a result, when the invitees meet in Geneva, the regime will have its own delegation as well as half the delegation of the opposition on its side. De Mistura has even invited people who are known for their close links to the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah.

In recent remarks, he has said he considers IS to be the greatest threat to Syria, but had it not been for the actions of the regime this terror group wouldn’t have survived for a day.

Marwan Habash, a former minister and previously a key figure in the ruling Syrian Baath Party, lambasted de Mistura’s actions.

“It seems that de Mistura cannot get anything right. He failed in his earlier initiatives although the Syrian political opposition informed him of the conditions for the success of any initiative. He doesn’t pay any attention to what is said to him,” Habash said.

Instead of starting with a blank page, de Mistura “could have searched for a common understanding of the Geneva Declaration,” Habash added.

Borhan Ghalyun, a key figure in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), believes that de Mistura is simply wasting time.

“After failing to implement any of his previous initiatives, de Mistura is trying to fill the diplomatic and political vacuum,” Ghalyun said.

“There is no reason to think that de Mistura will succeed. Russia hasn’t gone back on its support for Al-Assad, and Iran hasn’t shown any interest in changing its ways,” he added.

Munzir Khaddam, spokesman for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), blames the regime for the current stalemate. “The regime has wasted golden opportunities in the past, opportunities that could have prevented Syria from falling into the present quagmire. I have no doubt that it will waste the new opportunity now offered by de Mistura,” Khaddam said.

For now, it seems that de Mistura is planning four to six weeks of talks in Geneva, ending with a report to the UN Security Council and with little hope of tangible action.

Meanwhile, the recent military changes in the country, with the opposition advancing in the south and the northeast, suggest that the armed opposition groups may end up having more say in the diplomatic process.

Dissatisfied with the UN mediation, Syrian opposition figures are now hoping that regional efforts, including upcoming meetings in Cairo and Riyadh, may help find a way to end the country’s suffering.

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