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A UN Envoy Tries Something New in Syria


Syrians walking along the Serbian-Croatian border amid the influx of 2015. FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/IOM
Syrian refugees at the Serbian-Croatian border in September 2015. The UN is using a new tactic to try to curtail the war by setting up working groups to approach the crisis through various angles. FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/IOM

Four working groups formed to dissect and discuss the Syrian crisis in concrete terms are being set up by the United Nations in a plan conceived by Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy in Syria since July 2014. The working groups and their Syrian interlocutors will discuss safety and protection; political and legal topics; military and counterterrorism issues; and how to restore public services and restart development.

The step by de Mistura appears intended to replace for the moment the one-track international process that has led to stalemated peace talks between the government of Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition representatives who for four years have called for an end to the Assad regime in Damascus. An internationally backed agreement concluded in Geneva in 2012 had two serious flaws, experts have said: armed groups were not included in the talks, and the intent of the accord was ultimately to remove Assad from power, which was a step too far not only for the Syrian regime but also for Russia and other supporters of the Syrian president.

The civil war that continued has left at least 200,000 people dead. Violence has expanded across the country over the years, decimating neighborhoods and destroying towns. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and about 12 million people have been displaced in the country or in the region. Refugees now fleeing to Europe tell chilling accounts of the terror they have been living under as they struggle to find food and shelter.

Syria is expected to be a major topic of conversation in talks at the UN among heads of government in coming days, including a meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin scheduled for Sept. 28. A Russian spokesman in Moscow said that Syria would be the only topic on their agenda. Officials in Washington have told reporters that with the Iran nuclear deal now in place, the US was planning to return its attention to Syria, though other issues could also be raised in the meeting with Putin. Russia, a supporter of the Assad regime, has repeatedly blocked Security Council action on Syria by using its veto power.

The four working groups on Syria will all be led by Europeans, and it remains to be seen how much the groups’ memberships will include voices and expertise from the Middle Eastern region and beyond.

The group discussing safety and protection will be led by Jan Egeland, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council. Egeland, whose background has been in international affairs, relief work and human rights, was formerly special adviser to the UN secretary-general for conflict prevention and resolution; from 2003 to 2006, he was under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and the UN’s emergency relief coordinator.

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Nicolas Michel, a Swiss national, will lead the group on political and legal issues. An internationally known legal scholar, Michel has been legal counsel to the UN and is now a professor of international law at the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Volker Perthes of Germany has been chosen to lead the military, security and counterterrorism group. He is currently director of the German Institute for International Security Affairs.

Birgitta Holst-Alani, a Swedish diplomat, is in charge of the group dealing with continuity of public services, reconstruction and development. She is director of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, Egypt, and a specialist in Arab cultures.

In creating the four groups and assigning them to what could be described as technical-level discussions to find common ground, de Mistura is taking a different approach from that of his predecessors as the UN’s envoy in Syria, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, who both concentrated on trying to bring government and opposition sides together in an agreement.

In a statement released by his office in Geneva, de Mistura said that he saw the working groups as a way to construct “a Syrian-owned framework” that could produce a plan for a transitional government. He said in the statement that the groups would give Syrians platforms “that have lacked to date sustained intra-Syrian discussion.”


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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