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.