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UN Syria envoy opens door to resolving 8½-year war

The establishment of a constitutional committee is a big step, but UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen knows he is just getting started.
UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen meets with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on September 23, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. - RC1563B6A370

This is a special edition of the Week in Review.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Geir Pedersen, who was appointed special envoy for Syria in October 2018.

Pedersen is one of those world-class diplomats who doesn’t seek the limelight but often ends up in it because of his reputation and record. He served as Norway’s ambassador to China and its permanent representative to the United Nations, as well as the Norwegian representative to the Palestinian Authority. He was a member of Norway’s team to the Oslo talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. At the United Nations, he has been special coordinator for Lebanon and personal representative of the secretary-general for southern Lebanon.

Last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed him special envoy for Syria.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York, Pedersen said, "My first priority would be to build the relationship with the two parties … and after 8½ years of conflict, that is sometimes easier said than done."

“I believe that I've been able to build a good relationship in Damascus and with the SNC (Syrian Negotiations Commission, also known as the High Negotiations Committee) and trying to emphasize that a message that Damascus will hear is the same message that SNC will hear,” said Pedersen. “Through this, I hope, as I said, that I will build some trust. But then, of course, I also understood from the very beginning that I would need support to be able to achieve this. So I would obviously need support from regional and international partners and from the Security Council,” he added.

Less than one year on the job and building on the work of his predecessor, Stefan de Mistura, Pedersen last week announced the formation of a Syrian constitutional committee. The committee is made up of 150 Syrians, drawn equally from the government, civil society and opposition. Getting consensus on the list among the parties and their respective patrons was no easy task. The committee will draft a new constitution in advance of elections. These steps are laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, passed in 2015. The timetable for the new constitution and the elections laid out in Resolution 2254 is not even worth mentioning, it is so far behind schedule. But the establishment of the committee may put it back on track.

Pedersen is aware that the committee is not only just getting started in its work, but that there are other issues within his mandate to address, including the release of prisoners, abductees and missing persons, which require confidence-building measures among the parties, and the support of not only the Syrian government but its allies Russia and Iran. That is why he regularly says the formation of the committee is a "door opener" — a beginning, not an end.

“It's important — and I think there is, in general, an agreement on this — that the political process can, of course, not be reduced to the constitutional committee itself, despite how important it is,” says Pedersen. “So we will have to follow up with other steps,” he added.

“I'm saying the work of the constitutional committee may take X number of months, and during those months, we will not sit quietly in wait,” he said. “Rather, we will work on other issues. That is part of my mandate, and I believe that on this I have the support of the Security Council and other important actors that I'm working with.”

The situation "on the ground" in Syria remains urgent. There is, of course, Idlib — both the humanitarian crisis and the tens of thousands of jihadists and terrorists who have taken refuge there. Resolution 2254 allows member states to wage war against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which is what Syria and its backers Russia and Iran claim they are doing there. Also, a shaky cease-fire seems to be holding at this writing.

On Idlib, Pedersen said, “I have appealed, together with the secretary-general, that combatting terrorists has to be done in accordance with international humanitarian law and in such a matter that it doesn't negatively impact the civilian population. And we have emphasized that to have 500,000 people displaced — that's much too big a price to pay.”

With regard to Syrian refugees, he said, “It’s the overall impression that the conflict has not ended and that the vast majority of refugees have concluded that it is not a time to return because the conditions for safe, informed, dignified and voluntary return are not met."

Pedersen said that “a nationwide cease-fire, the end of the fighting in Idlib, a stabilization of the situation in the northeast and, as I said, the release of a substantial number of detainees and abductees, more information about missing persons … could send a powerful message also to the refugee communities, alongside progress in the political process.”

He concluded, “If we see these steps have been taken and changes on the ground in Syria, I'm convinced that also the international community will respond and that we could create what I call a positive circle, which would also then, of course, enable the refugees to go back. If those meaningful steps to improve conditions on the ground are taken, there could also be new activities when it comes to reconstruction and other things, in addition to the current focus we currently see on humanitarian assistance.

The interview was conducted by Andrew Parasiliti. A lightly edited transcript follows.

AL-MONITOR:  You have said that the agreement on a Syrian constitutional committee is a "door opener," but this shouldn't be understated, as it is the first agreement between the parties. Tell me how you got to this point and what you expect next.

PEDERSEN:  I said in my first briefing to the Security Council and also in my first meetings with the government in Damascus and with the opposition SNC in Riyadh that my first priority would be to build the relationship with the two parties, and, of course, I believe it goes without saying that to be able to move forward, you need to build trust. And after 8½ years of conflict, that is sometimes easier said than done.

But I believe that I've been able to build a good relationship in Damascus and with the SNC, and trying to emphasize that a message that Damascus will hear is the same message that SNC will hear. Through this, I hope, as I said, that I will build some trust. But then, of course, I also understood from the very beginning that I would need support to be able to achieve this. So I would obviously need support from regional and international partners and from the Security Council.

And I believe that when it comes to the constitutional committee, the stars have aligned and we've been moving together in the same direction. I have in particular had good discussions with Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Small Group. And it has been possible to have a serious discussion in Damascus and with the SNC and to build support from the different international partners. This, I believe, was what made a deal possible.

AL-MONITOR:  Very good. The next steps, is it correct that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and SNC head Nasser al-Hariri are expected to be in New York? And tell me how that works.

PEDERSEN:  Yes. So, as you know, when we finalized the agreement, I was in Damascus, and from Damascus, I actually also called Nasser Hariri and his team. I went through what I thought could be an agreement after my discussions with Foreign Minister Moallem, and then through the conversation with Mr. Hariri, it became clear that we had an agreement from both parties.

I agreed with both Foreign Minister Moallem and Mr. Hariri that we would meet in New York. So I met Hariri here in New York the day before yesterday, and I will see Foreign Minister Moallem here in New York tomorrow, actually.

We will discuss further the preparations for the first meeting that they're going to have of the constitutional committee in Geneva, hopefully within the next few weeks.

AL-MONITOR:  The committee, by definition, will be a deliberative body —

PEDERSEN:  Yes.

AL-MONITOR:  — to talk about a new constitution. What about the issues facing Syria in Syria —

PEDERSEN:  Yes.

AL-MONITOR:  — the release of prisoners, abductees and missing persons? Would that be part of the conversations as well, and how do you keep that momentum up? Because you only have so many hours in a day.

PEDERSEN:  True. That's very important — thank you for the question. I also have said from the very beginning that after 8½ years of conflict, there is a deep division within the Syrian society and a deep mistrust between the parties, and that we need to see confidence-building measures, and that we need to see changes inside Syria.

As you know … Security Council Resolution 2254 stresses the need for confidence-building measures and mentions specifically the release of detainees. So I've said both in my first briefing to the council and then both to Damascus and to the SNC that one of my five priorities is the release of the abductees, detainees and more information about missing persons. And I've said I believe if this is done in a correct manner and at scale, that it will contribute to building confidence, and it will send the message that there is a possibility for a new beginning in Syria.

So, until now, we have had what I would call four minor releases. Of course, every exchange of prisoners is important for the individuals concerned, but the challenge is so huge that I've been appealing for a major release to begin on this. And I feel the release of women, children and elderly people is particularly urgent.

And if this could be followed up, in parallel, with the establishment of the constitutional committee, it would send a very important message, first and foremost, to the Syrian people but also to the international community that there is a new possibility.

In general, it is crucial that Syrians see meaningful steps to improve conditions on the ground while the committee is continuing its discussions.

AL-MONITOR:  How many are imprisoned in Syria?

PEDERSEN:  We only know that there is a very big number. The UN doesn't have any official statistics on how many are imprisoned in Syria. There are estimates that suggest the number of those detained, abducted, disappeared or missing is more than 100,000, but we are not in a position to verify any particular number. What we know is that while people have been detained by both the government and forces that identify with the opposition, the number of people detained by the government is significantly higher. Yet, so far, there have been release operations only on the basis of one in exchange for one.

I am discussing this and hope we can move away from this one-for-one basis, and that we can, as I said, move into a more substantial number of releases.

There is one working group consisting of Turkey, Iran, Russia and the UN, where we are working on this. But I'm also having separate discussions with the government. And I ask both the government and the opposition to have a list of the number of people they believe should be released, and that based on this, it will be possible to look a bit more carefully on this. I understand that this is a sensitive issue, but it's also, as I said, one of the issues I believe needs to be addressed if we want to see changes in Syria.

And, as I also said, I believe if we do it in the right way, it can also build confidence.

AL-MONITOR:  You started by mentioning the importance of the role of Iran and Russia. Do they, in your view, share your priorities in terms of moving expeditiously with the constitutional committee? And in their score, is this — rather than a beginning — do they share your priority on these other issues we're talking about here, the prisoners and the abductees and so forth?

PEDERSEN:  I all the time emphasize that the constitutional committee will have to be a door opener for a broader political process, and I think we all understand that. And the constitutional committee, the work of the committee — hopefully, we will see steady progress soon when it sits down and starts working. But we know it will take time.

So it's important — and I think there is, in general, an agreement on this — that the political process can, of course, not be reduced to the constitutional committee itself, despite how important it is. So we will have to follow up with other steps.

I'm saying the work of the constitutional committee may take X number of months, and during those months, we will not sit quietly in wait. Rather, we will work on other issues. That is part of my mandate, and I believe that on this, I have the support of the Security Council and other important actors that I'm working with.

AL-MONITOR:  What about the situation in Idlib? Has that complicated your work? I know that there is the real issue of terrorists there, tens of thousands. And there is the issue of the humanitarian crisis. How does that factor into your discussion?

PEDERSEN:  Yeah. Idlib is a very important issue also because it goes into the heart of what we are discussing. Many Syrians see what is happening in Idlib and, you know, wonder is this leaning toward an attempt to have a military solution to the conflict? I believe that Idlib — if it's not handled in a correct manner — could be a major challenge also to the political process.

So I have appealed, together with the secretary-general, that combatting terrorists has to be done in accordance with international humanitarian law and in such a matter that it doesn't negatively impact the civilian population. And we have emphasized that to have 500,000 people displaced, that's much too big a price to pay.

There is a cease-fire now that is partially holding in Idlib, and there is a need to sustain and strengthen it and to uphold the memorandum of understanding agreement between the Russians and the Turks. There is also a need to look at ways of addressing this politically, which is a key challenge.

AL-MONITOR:  Does this issue complicate your discussions; for example, with Russia and Turkey and their … obviously, it's a high priority for Turkey. President Erdogan mentions it again and again — that is, the strain and danger of the possible influx of more refugees.

PEDERSEN:  Interestingly enough, it has not complicated the discussion on forming the constitutional committee itself, but I think what it could complicate is the work that we want to do now and further down the road in the constitutional committee and in the broader political process. This is the challenge.

AL-MONITOR:  What about in the last question? What about the return of refugees? I mean, we talked about it in Idlib, but more broadly —

PEDERSEN:  Yes.

AL-MONITOR:  — we heard from the government of Lebanon, obviously President Erdogan, the government of Jordan. I mean, the refugees in these countries are an incredible strain on the resources of those governments.

PEDERSEN:  Absolutely.

AL-MONITOR:  How do you feel about the current initiatives that are underway? How do you assess them for their return, and are people returning? Is there more to be done, and are you comfortable that the conditions in Syria are appropriate for the return at this time?

PEDERSEN:  I think we all want to see the day when refugees want to return to Syria. And as you rightly pointed out, 3.6 million refugees in Turkey, more than a million in Lebanon and maybe up to a million in Jordan is an enormous burden for these countries. I think we should all be thankful for what they've been doing in relationship to the refugees.

When I'm meeting with refugees and talking to them, I'm always asking what would it take for them to return. The questions I ask will have different answers, depending on who you talk to. But what I think goes for all of them is how they see their personal security and safety — if it's safe to return to Syria, whether there is a livelihood. Conscription is coming up consistently as a big issue. But I think it's the overall impression that the conflict has not ended and that the vast majority of refugees have concluded that it is not time to return because the conditions for safe, informed, dignified and voluntary return are not met. We realize, of course, that the refugees have very good information about the situation inside of Syria. They talk to friends. They talk to relatives. So there are today not many returning, and I think if we want to see a big number of refugees returning, we need to see changes on the ground in Syria, first and foremost safety and security. And those changes on the ground in Syria could, for instance, be a nationwide cease-fire, the end of the fighting in Idlib, a stabilization of the situation in the northeast and, as I said, the release of a substantial number of detainees and abductees, more information about missing persons. I think this could send a powerful message also to the refugee communities, alongside progress in the political process.

I have been arguing that if we see these steps have been taken and changes on the ground in Syria, I'm convinced that also the international community will respond, and that we could create what I call a "positive circle," which would also then, of course, enable the refugees to go back. If those meaningful steps to improve conditions on the ground are taken, there could also be new activities when it comes to reconstruction and other things, in addition to the current focus we currently see on humanitarian assistance.

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