The United Nation’s Failure is Not de Mistura’s Fault

On December 19, the United Nations Security Council managed to do something on Syria that it has rarely been able to do over the past six years: pass a binding resolution with the unanimous support of all five permanent members.  Indeed, the Security Council has been so deadlocked over the Syria question that even a simple resolution requesting an impartial U.N. observer mission over civilian evacuations is considered a major breakthrough in the conflict.

For UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, a man who has seen his fair share of intractable and bloody conflicts during his forty years in diplomacy, Syria is all tragedy.  If he was cautiously optimistic when he first signed up for the job in July 2014 and believed that he could do what his predecessors Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi could not, it is hard to see de Mistura not looking at himself in the mirror two and a half years later and wondering what he did wrong.  

Yet de Mistura would be causing himself grief by doing so; the fact of the matter is that even the most legendary and shrewd diplomat would find it difficult to resolve what has transformed into a proxy war between the region’s major players.

With the exception of a month-long nationwide cessation of hostilities in early 2016 that Russia was invested in, every creative initiative that de Mistura, Secretary of State John Kerry, and European foreign ministers have sponsored has collapsed.  Without the UN member states being prepared to implement repercussions against violators, the Assad regime has been free to either ignore the proposals, claiming them as unrealistic capitulations to terrorists, or has broken them once it was advantageous to do so.

De Mistura’s first peace proposal, a six-week cessation of hostilities for Aleppo, died as soon as he introduced it.  The Syrian government simply wasn’t interested in giving opposition fighters time to strengthen their control over half of Aleppo—a development that would threaten the regime’s ability to portray itself as the only alternative to jihadists roaming the country.  The ceasefire and political transition timetable codified by the International Syria Support Group last year was killed as soon as aircraft, most likely Russian, bombed a humanitarian relief convoy this fall.  The UN envoy and his team have been reduced to begging the Assad regime for humanitarian aid access to the roughly one million civilians who remain besieged by government forces.  Fully thought-out proposals have been replaced with unorthodox maneuvering from the UN’s special envoy, such as a request for all jihadist fighters in East Aleppo to withdraw to Idlib in exchange for an end to Syrian and Russian bombardment.

Diplomacy through the UN has become an oxymoron for Syria.  But the responsibility for this being the case is the structure of the UN itself. De Mistura and his predecessors have failed not because of lack of effort, ingenuity, or energy, but because the UN Security Council is set up to ensure that it cannot act against the interests of its veto-wielding members. It comes down to a question of commitment and opportunity costs.

Comparing Russia’s and the United States’ positions is telling. Russia remains committed to the Syrian regime at the Security Council and on the battlefield and sees the fall of Bashar al-Assad as too high a cost to risk reducing its support—no matter how far the Syrian regime goes. Moreover, it is willing to block that international system from operating and then operate outside the confines of the UN system, as best illustrated by the recent ceasefire negotiated with Turkey. Even though the ceasefire is separate of any UN sponsored track, the United Nations has been forced to sign onto it in another desperate attempt to stop the violence. In contrast, the United States is not willing to back any of its demands, perhaps better termed requests, with action, and remains bound to the confines of the United Nations, where one veto-wielding member can paralyze the whole system.

Bashar al-Assad and his regime never had any incentive to negotiate with their adversaries.  Negotiation, in fact, is not negotiation at all in Assad’s mind, but the first step to surrendering power, authority, and legitimacy to an entity in the moderate Syrian opposition that wants to destroy the entire system.  The same war that Assad’s opponents in the West and the Arab world label as a campaign for human rights, human decency, and representative democracy, Assad sees as a war for his and his regime’s survival. For the regime, it simply defies common sense to participate in a diplomatic process that it sees as heavily biased in favor of the moderate opposition, particularly when Assad is confident that the Russians and Iranians will continue to offer him military assistance, and his opponents’ supporters are not prepared to follow word with action.

Under these circumstances, the Assad regime is convinced that negotiating a transitional government leading to democracy is not in their interests, in fact is a prelude to their complete dismantlement, and finds that a military solution is not only possible but that it is essentially being rewarded for pursuing it with the full support of Russia and Iran. Unless and until these circumstances change, no UN peace plan will get anywhere—unless it is written by Russia in terms favorable to it and the regime.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: A general view shows tents housing displaced people from Aleppo in al-Kamouneh camp, in Idlib province, Syria December 29, 2016. Picture taken December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah