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The Obstacles Facing Syria’s New UN Envoy
Geir Pedersen (L), then-UN special coordinator for Lebanon, and other officials tour the devastated town of Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon in 2007. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obstacles Facing Syria’s New UN Envoy

Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen will be tasked with creating an “inclusive and credible political solution” to end the country’s seven-year war

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that he will appoint Geir Pedersen, a seasoned Norwegian diplomat, as the next special envoy for Syria. Pedersen will replace outgoing representative Staffan de Mistura, who spent four years in the role.

While de Mistura will relinquish the job for family reasons in late November, past envoys have cited extreme difficulties in achieving any successes as the reason for quitting. This raises questions about the obstacles Pedersen will face now that the nearly eight-years-long war has tilted decidedly in Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

In a letter to the Council, Guterres wrote that his decision to appoint Pedersen came after broad consultations, including with “the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.

“Mr. Pedersen will support the Syrian parties by facilitating an inclusive and credible political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people,” the missive continued.

Tim Ripley, a London-based defense analyst who has written extensively on Syria’s conflict, told The Media Line that before the envoy begins his role, “grand diplomacy” is first required to persuade all parties of the importance of devising a comprehensive political solution.

“Every UN envoy before Pedersen has stumbled because the major powers like the U.S., EU, Moscow, and Gulf states can’t agree on what to do. These powers have also backed different sides in the war and they all have a different view of how to resolve the country’s political situation,” he noted.

“Fundamentally, the issue is: Does the U.S. government accept that the Assad government is the legitimate one? Once that issue is resolved, then the parties can move from the current state of war into a peace-time scenario.”

Pedersen is a veteran diplomat who has experience working on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and currently is serving as Oslo’s ambassador to China. He will replace de Mistura who held the position longer than his previous two predecessors—Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and former UN head Kofi Annan.

Professor Daniel Serwer, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, expressed uncertainty regarding what Pedersen’s mandate will be.

“Pedersen could try to pursue what De Mistura was doing, which was attempting to get a constitutional committee formed. But there is no sign that Assad wants to do this,” he related to The Media Line. “The real question is whether the Americans and Europeans will continue to refuse providing any reconstruction assistance unless there is a political transition underway.”

During a recent meeting in Istanbul between the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France, this was a central topic of discussion. “The Russians in particular are very anxious to get the Europeans engaged in reconstruction,” Serwer explained.

Among the recommendations outlined in an official communique following the summit is the drafting of a new and inclusive Syrian constitution, building democratic institutions, and holding free and fair elections.

It is not clear, however, where the White House stands.

“The [U.S. administration] might settle for the formation of a new government with Assad still in place and a promise of future elections under international supervision. But Assad is not in the mood to give much of that,” Serwer opined.

American troops currently occupy a sizable portion of eastern Syria, he concluded, “so, they have not only leverage over economic reconstruction, but also over their feasible presence in the country, including positions close to major oil fields.”

In 2011, pro-democracy demonstrators staged a series of protests throughout Syria. Inspired by the “Arab Spring” in neighboring countries, they were angry about government corruption as well as the lack of jobs and political freedom under Assad.

The sectarian divide that plagues many Middle Eastern countries also contributed to the unrest, as Syria is a Sunni-majority country ruled by Assad’s Shiite Alawite sect.

In recent months, the regime has recaptured rebel-held territories except the last remaining holdout in northwest Idlib province. Nevertheless, Damascus and its opponents still need to hash out a political deal to officially end the conflict, which has killed between 350,000 and 500,000 people and displaced millions.

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