In 2014 the Syrian conflict appeared to be spinning out of control. Reaching new levels of horror and suffering that inflicted death, displacement, and destruction on a massive scale within Syria, it had also developed into a full-fledged regional proxy war. With the Islamic State movement’s proclamation of a caliphate encompassing extensive territory in both Syria and Iraq, it now additionally posed a threat to the security and stability of the entire region and well beyond.
That July, the United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, organized a brainstorming session at UN headquarters in New York. The assembled scholars, diplomats, and specialists, from the Middle East and other regions, had been invited to discuss the UN’s efforts in Syria following the resignation of its envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, that May.
In response to queries regarding the identity of Brahimi’s successor, Feltman observed that the more important question concerned what role the UN could play in Syria. One participant concluded that under the prevailing circumstances the world body could only play “small ball,” with a focus largely confined to humanitarian relief efforts. The assessment was not challenged by other attendees. Several days later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Staffan de Mistura as his new Special Envoy for Syria.
More than a decade after the UN conducted its last substantive effort to mediate a resolution of the Syrian conflict, the world body remains sidelined and is at best co-opted into the initiatives of others. A fundamental re-assessment of its role in Syria conflict mediation is therefore long overdue. While the Secretary-General’s options are admittedly constrained by the need for approval by Security Council members, particularly the five permanent ones (the P5), for the choice of envoy, the UN is failing to utilize the authorities it does possess: to formulate clearly defined and achievable objectives; to nominate envoys genuinely suited for the role rather than ones that represent only the lowest common denominator among leading Council members because they won’t challenge conflicting agendas; and to recall or terminate the mission of envoys who focus on open-ended processes rather than results. This would also generate needed pressure on the Security Council to provide greater support for the UN’s mediation efforts.
Annan resigns after collapse of diplomatic initiative
The UN’s involvement in efforts to resolve the Syria conflict had commenced in 2012, when it together with the League of Arab States (LAS) appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as Joint Special Envoy for Syria. Annan quickly negotiated a ceasefire, sought to bolster it with the deployment of a monitoring mission, the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), and then convened an “Action Group for Syria” in Geneva that included the foreign ministers of the P5 and a number of regional states, as well as senior representatives of the European Union (EU) and Arab League. It produced a six-point peace plan known as the Geneva Communique. Amidst a rapid collapse of the ceasefire and suspension of UNSMIS activities, the UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to endorse the Communique due to a US-Russian dispute about the plan’s “transitional governing body”, and specifically the role of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad within it. Frustrated by the lack of international support for his efforts, Annan resigned in protest after less than six months on the job.
Brahimi convenes UN-led negotiations
His successor, the senior UN official and veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, took a different approach. Empowered by a seeming consensus within the Security Council, which in September 2013 adopted Resolution 2118, endorsing the Geneva Communique and its call for a Syrian-led political process, he prioritized intra-Syrian negotiations. In late 2013 Brahimi succeeded in convening the first UN-led negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition in Montreux and Geneva. This accomplishment notwithstanding his efforts foundered due to the intransigence of the Syrian parties and their foreign allies, and in May 2014, he duly called it a day. Brahimi’s efforts would also represent the last serious UN attempt to mediate a comprehensive resolution of the Syria crisis.
Failed gimmicks and ‘small ball’ diplomatic games
Brahimi’s successors, De Mistura and, since 2018, Geir Pedersen, have played ‘small ball’ to excess. While Syria burned, De Mistura wasted more than four years, the entire period of his tenure, promoting a series of failed gimmicks. These included a temporary “freeze” of hostilities in one neighborhood of one city that neither materialized nor had an impact on the conflict’s temperature; a “stress test” in mid-2015 consisting of “216 consultations” that neither achieved its proclaimed objective of narrowing the gap between the Syrian parties nor produced new insights into how to resolve the conflict; and discussions on “four baskets” of issues that – De Mistura’s protestations of “a clear agenda” to implement UNSC directives notwithstanding – were too leaky to produce meaningful negotiations on any aspect of the crisis. Rather than lead international efforts, De Mistura was reduced to bartering the UN’s legitimacy in exchange for a seat at the table of initiatives such as the International Syria Support Group formed by Washington and Moscow, and the Russian-sponsored Syrian National Dialogue conferences in Sochi and Astana.
For his part Pedersen has devoted the past five years to a futile effort to produce a new Syrian constitution, or more accurately to persuading the Syrian parties to attend meetings to agree an agenda for negotiations on constitutional matters. In fairness to Pedersen UNSC Resolution 2254 of 2015 had tasked the UN to work with Syrians to establish, within six months, “a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution”. He can at least claim credit for launching within one year a process De Mistura failed to get off the ground during his final three years in office.
Above and below Pedersen, the combination of inertia, mediocrity, and lack of courage inhibits fresh thinking and the formulation of new ideas that could give his mission renewed purpose. The “step for step” approach unveiled in 2022 for example, which consisted of offering the Syrian government Western incentives that don’t exist, in exchange for humanitarian concessions by Damascus that won’t materialize, was predictably stillborn.
A polarized Security Council hampers a resolution to the crisis
The UN Security Council has proven similarly ineffective. Divided and polarized, its members, and the P5 in particular, are no longer able to reach consensus on a resolution of the Syria crisis in a manner that promotes international peace and security. Rather, the Council has become a forum for self-righteous grandstanding and mutual recrimination about the destruction of Syria and agony of its people.
It is in this respect noteworthy that the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria was not established by the Security Council, and since Brahimi’s tenure is also no longer a joint UN-LAS enterprise. This gives the UN Secretary-General ultimate authority over the Office. It also requires him and his Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), which directly oversees the Office’s operations, to give it proper guidance and direction. Yet there is precious little evidence of this happening.
It has been almost a decade since Brahimi resigned and Feltman brought together a group of serious professionals at UN headquarters to discuss and debate the UN’s role in Syria. Almost ten years later Syria, the Middle East, and indeed the world are in a very different place. A similar stocktaking exercise is clearly long overdue. Why Feltman’s successor has not organized such a meeting to pose and debate the difficult questions, particularly in light of these transformations, is anyone’s guess.
Complacent UN leadership and lack of courage on Syria
A serious discussion of the UN’s role in Syria might, for example, conclude that eliminating the position of UN envoy for Syria would remove the illusion of high-level UN engagement with the Syria crisis, and in so doing generate much-needed pressure on the Security Council to take its responsibilities towards Syria and its people more seriously. The Secretary-General could inform its members that he sees no constructive role for the UN Secretariat in the context of a divided Council unwilling and unable to empower the work of his Syria envoy, and will only consider appointing one if he receives meaningful evidence of support from a united Council. Alternatively, the UN Secretariat might be advised to explore a different and more effective role for an envoy handicapped by regional and international disputes about the future of Syria. Less speculative is the certainty that complacent leadership lacking courage and initiative in equal measure provides no answers to such burning questions at all.
Hasmik Egian served as Chief of Staff in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria in 2014-2016, and Director of the UN’s Security Council Affairs Department from 2016-2022.
Mouin Rabbani served as head of political affairs in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria in 2014-2015.