The pressure is on for Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Mr. de Mistura, the third UN mediator of the five-year crisis in Syria, said on July 26 after the meeting at the UN premises in Geneva that the next round of intra-Syrian peace talks will hopefully take place at the end of August–yet another push-back from his goal in late June to have a “well prepared” meeting in early August.
To make things more complicated, on July 28 Russia and the Syrian government outlined a plan to open corridors in the Syrian city of Aleppo, one of the bloodiest battleground cities of the civil war, for civilians to flee and to grant amnesty to rebels willing to put down their arms. This initiative may sound good on paper, but the worry is that it may cause tensions moving forward in peace talks between the U.S. and Russia due to the military advantages these corridors may grant the Syrian government in Aleppo. However, the UN Envoy sees this as a great humanitarian opportunity if Russia complies with the UN’s wishes.
Calling for Syria and Russia to respect the 48-hour pause for humanitarian access discussed in the UN Security Council a week prior, de Mistura elaborated on his requests at the stakeout in Geneva on July 29. He said, “Our suggestion to Russia is to actually leave the delivery of aid through corridors to the UN and its partners. The UN and its humanitarian partners, as you know, know what to do. They have experience, that’s our job. Bringing humanitarian supplies and assistance to civilians wherever they decide to be is exactly what the UN is there for.”
“In general, it is critical that we focus on civilian lives and on humanitarian needs, wherever the people are,” the Special Envoy added.
In the July 26 meeting, before the outline of Russia and Syria’s plan for corridors in Aleppo, Mr. de Mistura assured reporters at the Geneva stakeout, “We have made some progress today frankly, but more details need to be worked out in the next few days, particularly between the American and the Russian side, but we are there to support too.”
Reporters followed up on de Mistura’s stated tension between the U.S. and Russia in Geneva on the 29th, asking him about the possibility of the Russians using the humanitarian aid to get some military gains in Aleppo, and if this will have an impact on the “broader process between the Russians and the Americans in the following weeks?” The Special Envoy responded, “Everything is connected, let’s not deny that. Therefore, the way the Aleppo humanitarian concerns and the humanitarian initiative by Russia will be addressed will have an impact on the chances and the success of everything else.” Mr. de Mistura addressed the concern about Russia’s militaristic intentions, claiming that he is waiting for clarification from the Russians on their plans and that they have expressed interests in “suggestions, advises and recommendations for improvement.”
Reporters pressed the Special Envoy further, asking him if Russia’s proposal to facilitate the population transfer from Aleppo, an action that could amount to a war crime, will toughen the intra-Syrian talks. Mr. de Mistura assured the press that any condemnations of Russia’s proposal was a reaction “to a picture that was not yet totally clarified.” He urged the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in Geneva discussing the Syrian crisis to wait for the improvements to Russia’s plan for judgment.
When asked when the complete plan will be fleshed out and implemented, de Mistura responded, “the clock is ticking for the Aleppo population.” He stressed that the commodities available in Eastern Aleppo are most likely sufficient for three weeks at best. “There is a strong sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency, I want to believe, was one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the Russian side to come up with an initiative,” he added. Without answering the initial question, the Special Envoy highlighted that Russia’s presentation of their plans in Aleppo suggested that it was conceived on humanitarian grounds. Additionally, he once again stressed the importance of responding to the needs of all Syrians, not just those in Aleppo, over the next few weeks–a factor that dramatically affects the progression of the Security Council’s peace talks, he claims.
In a war that has claimed 280,000 lives and forced millions from their homes since the conflict began in 2011, with 60% of public hospitals in the nation closed or only partially functioning and reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) of up to 40 confirmed attacks on health-care facilities, the possibility of productive and timely peace talks in the Security Council looks dismal.
If Staffan de Mistura can facilitate even ineffectual discussions between Security Council members, amidst their stagnating rivalries, perhaps the world will see a glimmer of hope for peace in Syria. If the great powers of the SC don’t bite, we may be looking at another resignation by the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria. Does de Mistura have the incredible stamina required to push the international community, and even if he does, will it be enough? Is this really mission impossible?