Staffan de Mistura is the new United Nations special envoy for Syria, replacing Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who resigned in May after nearly two years of rising frustration trying to broker a peace deal between the Syrian government and the main opposition group in the country. Despite formal negotiations that were convened by the United States and Russia in Geneva earlier this year between the warring Syrian parties, no agreement could be reached to begin a transition to stop the fighting.
Brahimi blamed the Syrian government for the talks’ failure to move toward any semblance of reconciliation, citing among other problems Syria’s decision to hold a presidential election in June. (President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected.)
Although the UN stopped counting the war-related deaths in Syria about a year ago, other sources estimate that at least 160,000 people have died since the war started in March 2011.
The new envoy, said Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, will aim to bring “an end to all violence and human-rights violations,” using relevant resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council as well as consulting broadly and engaging within and outside Syria with relevant interlocutors, he added.
He cited de Mistura’s history of diplomacy with the UN — about four decades’ worth — that should position him well for this assignment. He did not elaborate on what de Mistura would bring to the job that the previous special envoys for Syria, Brahimi and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, were unable to do.
In a new twist, De Mistura, 67, will not be a joint special envoy, reporting to both the UN and to the Arab League; instead he will report strictly to Ban. To address the lack of a direct role by the Arab League in this latest appointment for Syria, Ban has named a 60-year-old Egyptian, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, as deputy special envoy. Both envoys will need to have “close coordination and consultation with the League of Arab States,” Ban told the media.
De Mistura’s experience with the UN in conflict-affected areas include most recently working as special envoy in Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2011. He was also a special envoy for the UN mission in Iraq and an envoy for Southern Lebanon. He has worked in such other conflict zones as Somalia, the Balkans and Nepal. In addition, he has been the World Food Program’s deputy executive director for external relations, based in Rome.
In an interview with the UN News Center in 2011, de Mistura said he had done “19 missions in war zones and four in ‘quiet’ zones.” He noted that the one thing in common to all these missions were civilian casualties. “And that’s why I’ve been doing this for 41 years,” he went on. “I was in Cyprus in the ’70s and I saw a young boy shot dead by a sniper on a terrace in front of me. I decided to join the UN. This is the reality of all missions.”
De Mistura is a dual citizen of Italy and Sweden; besides Swedish and Italian, he speaks English, French, German, Spanish and some Arabic.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.