Even a ‘Diplomat’s Diplomat’ Can’t Solve Syria’s Civil War #SyriaWar
If the only thing you knew about Syria was UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura’s briefing to the Security Council this month, you might assume dramatic events were afoot.
There had been an important meeting in Istanbul, he said, while equally vital summits in Astana, Kazakhstan, and of the G-20 countries in Buenos Aires, were in the offing. The work underway was “absolutely urgent,” he told the council, and the coming weeks “will be of crucial importance.”
Outside of such briefings, however, there is no suspense about the outcome of the Syrian war. President Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, has used brute force to pacify the majority of the country. Half of the Syrian population have fled their homes, and the violence reached such a fever pitch that the United Nations lost count of the number of lives claimed by the war. The prospects for de Mistura’s peace plan are non-existent—Assad is not about to relinquish his hard-won battlefield gains at the negotiating table.
The Swedish-Italian diplomat’s tenure is emblematic of the international community’s struggles to grapple with Syria. His term provides a window into the forces that have made the conflict so resistant to diplomacy, and has served as a launching point for a debate among analysts and would-be peacemakers about diplomats’ role in resolving the world’s worst crises.
To his detractors, however, de Mistura’s only legacy is presiding over an effort that has grown increasingly divorced from reality. Mouin Rabbani, who briefly served as the head of de Mistura’s political affairs unit, and another of the envoy’s former aides, who declined to be identified, described the diplomatic track that he oversees as a Syrian version of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”—an effort that exists mainly in the minds of a cottage industry of diplomats. Nearly every ceasefire championed by de Mistura has collapsed, and he proved largely powerless to negotiate the entry of aid to areas besieged by Assad’s government. He is accused of lending his imprimatur to a diplomatic charade, even as the Syrian government and its allies conducted a scorched earth policy against rebel-held parts of the country.
De Mistura came to office in summer 2014, when U.S. and European diplomats were coming to terms with the fact that their initial assumptions about the course of the Syrian war had been badly misguided. Assad’s regime had proved considerably stronger than many had predicted. De Mistura’s predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi, advised the Syrian president in their first meeting that he should adhere to a recent international communiqué and declare that he was willing to resign if it was in the country’s best interest, said Mokhtar Lamani, the head of Brahimi’s office in Damascus. Relations were strained for the rest of Brahimi’s tenure.
From the start, de Mistura vowed to cultivate better ties with Damascus. “What he wanted to do is build trust with the Russians and the regime,” said Wael al-Zayat, a former State Department official who worked on Syria with de Mistura. “His approach was: don’t be confrontational, don’t call out the Russians and the regime for their violations.”
In his public statements, de Mistura struck a relentlessly optimistic note about the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough. He touted a potentially “historic junction” for peace in 2016, said that the train for diplomacy was “warming up its engine” in 2017, and vowed to “strike while the iron is hot” for negotiations in 2018. Meanwhile, he kept repeating a mantra-like assertion that there was no military solution: “The one constant in this violently unpredictable conflict is that neither side will win,” he told the Security Council in September 2016.