Norwegian Diplomat Tops U.N. Shortlist For Syria Envoy

Geir Pedersen could be saddled with one of diplomacy’s most thankless tasks.

Geir Pedersen, right, then the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, and Michael Williams, the late U.N. troubleshooter, following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in Beirut on Feb. 27, 2007. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)
Geir Pedersen, right, then the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, and Michael Williams, the late U.N. troubleshooter, following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in Beirut on Feb. 27, 2007. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)

Geir Pedersen, a veteran Norwegian diplomat who cut his diplomatic teeth 25 years ago as part of the team that secretly negotiated the Oslo Middle East peace accords, has emerged as the front-runner to serve as the next United Nations special envoy for Syria, according to three well-placed diplomatic sources.

The revelation comes two days after Staffan de Mistura, an Italian-Swedish dual national and diplomatic troubleshooter, announced to the U.N. Security Council that he would step down at the end of November, opening a vacancy for one of diplomacy’s most thankless jobs.

Though the U.N. sought to play a central role early on in resolving the Syrian civil war, in recent years the conflict has largely fallen under the sway of Russia and Iran, which are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military onslaught against the dwindling rebel campaign.

Like the U.N., the United States and Europe have become increasingly marginalized diplomatic players and have been reluctant to commit funds for Syria’s reconstruction. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have opened their own diplomatic channel, negotiating a buffer zone last month in Idlib Province, one of the rebels’ last holdouts.

Complicating matters, the White House last month vowed to maintain a U.S. military presence in Syria to act as a check on Iran’s military expansion throughout the Middle East, a decision that will constrain Assad’s ability to secure control of his entire country.

“The U.N. has got its hands tied, because Russia and Iran are determined to keep Assad in power, and the U.S. is determined to frustrate this,” said Joshua Landis, the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.“How does some U.N. guy waltz into the middle of all this and try to put the pieces back together?”

Following a Wednesday address to the Security Council, where he announced his resignation, de Mistura told reporters that he was moving on after more than four years on the job for “purely personal reasons,” but that he hoped to devote his final month on the job to establish a Syrian committee to draft a new constitution. He plans to travel to Syria next week to try to overcome Syrian resistance to the plan.

Pedersen, who is currently Norway’s ambassador to China, leads a shortlist of candidates that includes Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Middle East peace envoy; Jan Kubis, the top U.N. official in Iraq; and a former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, according to those diplomatic sources.

Secretary-General António Guterres is said to favor Pedersen, who has held top U.N. posts, including a stint as U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, and was later appointed Norway’s ambassador to the United Nations. He also has the backing of Britain, France, and the United States. The U.N. appears confident that China will support Pedersen, who is serving his second stint there. Russia remains the wild card.

Jan Egeland, a Norwegian diplomat who headed the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts in Syria, told reporters Thursday that he would also step down at the end of November after three years on the job. The departure of Egeland will ease the prospects for Pedersen, as the U.N. is unlikely to appoint two senior officials from the same nation to tackle an international crisis.

“We have failed more often than we have achieved,” Egeland acknowledged, while adding that there have been some limited diplomatic victories, citing a cease-fire pact negotiated by Turkey and Russia that has stalled a military offensive in Idlib. “We have now had five weeks without any air raid. I can’t remember such a period for the last three years in Idlib,” he said. “So diplomacy can win, even in Syria.”

France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, also sought to highlight the importance of the U.N.’s diplomatic role in Syria, saying, “There is no doubt in my mind: The U.N. is front and center.”

But in many ways, the U.N.’s role has been eclipsed by the diplomatic efforts of Iran and Russia, which have pursued a military strategy that has consolidated Assad’s power.

The U.N. had been at the center of diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s seven-year civil war for a period after February 2012, when former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed U.N. envoy for Syria. Several months later, Annan established the basic parameters for a political settlement in the Geneva Communique. It envisioned a political settlement resulting in the creation of a transitional government that would draft a new constitution and prepare for a U.N.-monitored election.

But Annan resigned weeks later, citing a lack of will from the Syrians and a lack of diplomatic support for peace from the key powers.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who negotiated landmark peace deals ending Lebanon’s civil war and establishing a transitional Afghan government, also resigned from the job in frustration in 2014, telling world powers the diplomatic deadlock in Syria constituted “a failure for all of us.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch