UN envoy sees hopeful signs for Intra-Syrian peace talks
President Donald Trump’s meetings with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s Vladimir Putin underscored an emerging focus on “some priorities and the idea of having some type of common urgency” about peace in Syria.
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, who is conducting an intra-Syrian peace process said their focus “is certainly helping the atmosphere but also helping our job”.
The seventh round of UN-sponsored indirect talks among some of Syria’s warring sides ended in Geneva this weekend and another round may happen in September.
“We have made, as we were expecting and hoping, incremental progress – no breakthrough, no breakdown, no one walking out, incremental progress,” Mistura said.
He saw hopeful signs after reporting the session’s results to the New York-based UN Security Council — “something that I had not seen for a long time in the Security Council: quite a change in the tone among them, between them, while addressing this.”
Security Council members reacted “with great gratitude (and) a complete, total and unanimous support to what we are trying to do here – and second, a clear indication of the importance of one single negotiating process in Geneva.”
The need to underline a single negotiating process arose because Macron has proposed creation of a new “contact group” that would include countries directly or indirectly involved in what is happening inside Syria.
Mistura felt “very comfortable with that” because the French presidential statement says, “We want to put in place a contact group in order to be more efficient in order to be able to support directly what is being done by the United Nations.”
Getting influential countries like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and others to talk in a contact group could be useful if each agrees to put pressure on its proxies and protégés in Syria to honor cessations of hostilities and negotiate directly within Mistura’s framework.
His invitees do not talk directly to one another so far. Each group meets separately with him and his aides who shuttle among them. Designated terrorists like Islamic State and Al Qaeda, including affiliates, are not invited.
His sessions focus on four so-called “baskets”: a new constitution, governance, elections and combating terrorism. He clarified that terrorist entities concerning the UN were only those designated by the Security Council, like Islamic State and Al Qaeda and its affiliates. He made the distinction because the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government treats all armed opponents as terrorists, including those backed by the US.
“It is clear that what has been happening in the Astana, the Amman de-escalation initiative, the meeting in Hamburg between the US President and the President of the Russian Federation, yesterday the meeting between President Macron and President Trump and the focus that they all are trying now to have together about some priorities, and the idea of having some type of the common urgency, is certainly helping the atmosphere but also helping our job,” Mistura said.
He was referring to efforts outside the Geneva framework to de-escalate the many conflicts in Syria through cessation of hostilities. Russia is leading a de-escalation effort at meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, and Trump and Putin agreed on another with Jordan at the G20 Summit in Hamburg last week.
The cessations are fragile and tend not to hold for long but any halt to shooting is helpful for delivering humanitarian aid and trying to bring the warring parties together to prolong them.
“I would say, there has been a genuine effort among them (the warring groups) to build something they didn’t have before, trust, mutual trust. I would have not have imagined two months ago that they would be sitting in such an intensive and constructive way together, in confidence,” Mistura noted.
“One good interesting thing that I noticed during this round was that none of the invitees have had any problem in addressing an issue (terrorism) that everybody outside has been discussing. Look at Paris yesterday, or in Hamburg, or elsewhere, or by the way, in Paris there was a remembering also of the fact it is one year after Nice attack by terrorists. Both government and the opposition, therefore, have been quite willing to outline how they are combatting UN-designated terrorist entities in Syria.”
A central issue for restoration of peace in Syria is whether the Assad regime can be transitioned out under a new inclusive national constitution. Asked whether he had indications that issues of political transition and governance could be addressed soon, he replied:
“If I had to base myself on what I’ve heard during this round I would say no, I don’t have an indication. But what I do believe is that what are going to be the next steps of the international community wanting to see an acceleration of the end of this conflict, may help the government to be ready, and I’ve been asking them for the next round, to be ready to address the political process.”
Terrorists are receiving more focus in Mistura’s process because of Russian and Syrian insistence, although the UN defines them differently. The US has tended to place more emphasis on political transition and governance but the Trump administration seems much more interested in destroying the Islamic State than dethroning Assad.
Mistura’s framework is based on Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for the end of attacks on civilians, exclusion of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates, inclusive governance under a new constitution, and free and fair elections.
He noted the “lesson we should have learned from the experience in Iraq -, the best guarantee against terrorism in Syria is an agreed political solution through an inclusive UN-led transitional political process guided by the Security Council resolution 2254 – otherwise in three months-time after Raqqa, there would be a new entity coming up and they would be calling themselves differently and we will be back to that. Instead, an inclusive political process means that those who feel disenfranchised will not be tempted by supporting or tolerating those who believe in the terrorists.”