The New U.N. Envoy to Syria Should Kill the Political Process to Save It

A tougher stance from the United Nations would put pressure on Assad and Putin while improving the lives of ordinary Syrians.

A Syrian rebel fighter with the National Liberation Front watches towards the regime areas in northwestern Aleppo province on October 9, 2018. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian rebel fighter with the National Liberation Front watches towards the regime areas in northwestern Aleppo province on October 9, 2018. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations has appointed a new Syria envoy who could fundamentally shift the U.N. approach to the conflict. Rather than keep alive a political process unable to deliver genuine reform, the new Norwegian envoy, Geir O. Pedersen, should deliberately freeze the current U.N. track in order to force international and Syrian actors, many of whom still want U.N. approval, to finally engage more seriously. In short, the new envoy needs to kill the political process in order to salvage a future for any U.N.-led political negotiations.

Staffan de Mistura, the outgoing special envoy, has dedicated the last four years to trying to forge a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The last year, in particular, has been focused on advancing a constitutional reform process meant to lead to U.N.-backed elections. But this track is now at a dead end.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has emerged victorious in the civil war—even if he has not recaptured the entire country—and he is currently unwilling to make any meaningful political concessions. Syria’s foreign minister recently stated as much, telling de Mistura on his last trip to Damascus in October that there was no room for external involvement in reforming the country’s constitution.

While Assad’s key external backer, Russia, claims that it supports the U.N. political process, Moscow has also made clear that it expects this to be led by Assad and has shown no willingness to push Damascus toward meaningful compromises. Ultimately, continued U.N. and international support of this approach is likely to result in the worst possible outcome: a continued descent to the lowest common denominator until international signoff is secured on meaningless reforms and an entirely hollow election process. While this may provide satisfaction to international actors invested in securing the external semblance of a political agreement, it will be worthless on the ground.

De Mistura has long kept the political process alive even when there was nothing going for it, hoping that outside players would eventually shift the equation in his favor. It has failed not because of de Mistura but because international players—including Russia, Iran, and Turkey—did so little to pressure their Syrian allies to meaningfully engage.

Instead, Syrian and international actors continuously took advantage of the political cover provided by de Mistura’s initiatives to advance their mutually contradictory ambitions on the ground.

Russia and Assad have been at the center of this deceptive process, pushing for further military gains even as they have expressed support for ongoing talks. But they are not the only ones. While President Donald Trump’s recent decision to recommit the United States to political engagement in Syria encouraged opposition backers, U.S. policy today is focused on dislodging Iran from the country. The political process is seen as a means to that end, and anyone betting on sustained U.S. backing for a political process is likely to be disappointed.

Pedersen must create his own leverage by exposing the hollow positioning of external and Syrian actors. Rather than keep the political process on life support, he should freeze U.N. sponsorship, making it clear he will not manage an entirely fake process and commit to re-engagement only once the relevant actors show a genuine commitment to moving it forward.

While Russia, in particular, may oppose this approach, it may be the envoy’s only hope of reasserting U.N. relevance and injecting some momentum into a political process. Ultimately, Pedersen reports to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, and his support will be critical to sustaining this approach. But it could also be bolstered by European backing and even a U.N. General Assembly resolution.

The reason this approach could succeed in making limited progress in Syria is that a number of key actors do seek the international legitimization stemming from a U.N.-backed political agreement—especially Russia, which has long sought international approval for its Syria project. This is evident from its intense outreach to Europe for reconstruction support, which is based first and foremost on a desire to secure European political backing for its Syria policy rather than on a meaningful desire to rebuild Syria.

A change of course by the new U.N. envoy would challenge Moscow’s position. Rather than be the subject of continued U.N. and international outreach, the burden would be on Russia to squeeze meaningful concessions from Assad as a precursor to U.N. political involvement. It is notable that the one time that the U.N. did play hardball on this front, prior to the Russian-sponsored Syria conference in Sochi in January, Moscow conceded to U.N. demands.

For his part, Assad clearly rejects the need for Western legitimization or reconstruction support. But behind this bluster there are also vulnerabilities. European finance sector sanctions, for instance, which will only be lifted through a U.N.-backed process, are blocking even Russian companies from doing business in Syria. And while Assad does not want Western money, he does need some channels of external financial support to meet the demands of his own supporters after seven years of war.

Ultimately, this approach will not deliver a transition, nor will it open the prospect of fair, near-term elections. The continued pursuit of either will only be counterproductive, given Assad’s secure position and Russian ambitions. But a more assertive U.N. approach that makes clear to Moscow and Damascus that they cannot take eventual U.N. signoff for granted may give the envoy a better chance of forcing lower-level political reforms.

A hardening of the U.N. position on the political front should not translate into full disengagement. On the contrary, rather than work to keep alive a defunct political track, the new envoy should prioritize international attention to critical developments on the ground that are shaping the day-to-day lives of Syrian civilians far more than the stagnant political process.

The priorities should be preserving the fragile cease-fire in Idlib province; ensuring full humanitarian access across the country; working to establish a degree of locally managed stabilization support mechanisms, through which the U.N. Development Program can more transparently channel aid; providing security and property rights guarantees for refugees and internally-displaced persons looking to return; and a heightened focus on ensuring information about and family access to the tens of thousands of detainees whose fates remain unknown. Progress on these issues should be one of the necessary preconditions for the resumption of the political process.

While there has been much talk of a new power-sharing constitution, the U.N. envoy should initially concentrate on telling Assad to implement the country’s existing constitutional measures, such as Legislative Decree 107, a decentralization law that is supposed to allow for a degree of meaningful local control. Damascus and Moscow would have less space to accuse the U.N. of external meddling in sovereign issues if the U.N. focused on pressing Assad to enforce Syria’s own laws.

These efforts would not replace the political settlement needed to address the core drivers of the Syrian civil war. But they might help create a marginally better future for Syrians and would represent a notable advance on the status quo. If it fails, then the U.N. will at least have distanced itself from a political process that is going nowhere.

Julien Barnes-Dacey is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @jbdacey

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