Over three years into the conflict in Syria, the scene before us is grim: human suffering on an immense scale and a deadlocked political process. The appointment of a new United Nations Special Envoy for Syria this past month is a welcome development alongside the U.N. Security Council to pass a new resolution on humanitarian access.
Make no mistake: Staffan de Mistura, a Swedish-Italian diplomat who has previously served as head of U.N. Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, has his work cut out from him. But his appointment, alongside deputy special envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, is a fresh start and offers a real chance to get the peace process in Syria back on track and prevent the further destabilization of the entire region.
As the new envoys get their feet under the desk, here are five things that they must do:
1. Restart the political process
As Syrians across the country continue their struggle to survive on a daily basis, the lack of a viable political process is causing further despair within Syria and the wider region. World leaders have made it clear over and over again that there is no real end to the conflict in Syria without a political solution, no matter how difficult that road is to travel. To combat the growing hopelessness, as well as to prevent the humanitarian situation from getting even worse, de Mistura needs to quickly kickstart efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis. This is not just about getting delegations around a table in the glare of the media spotlight, but coordinated efforts at the national, regional and global level to encourage meaningful dialogue. The new envoys should work to build support for locally negotiated cease-fires that are consistent with international humanitarian law (and reject the siege and starvation tactics that have been employed by parties to the conflict). These local processes can be an important confidence-building measure, relieve human suffering and allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
2. Work closely with regional powers to reach a political solution
Progress towards resolving the crisis within Syria will not be possible unless regional powers are fully brought into the process. This will mean that Iran, which was excluded from the Geneva II talks, must have a seat at the table. Iran in turn should endorse the Geneva I Communiqué which set out a roadmap for a political solution to the crisis. A truly regional approach will also mean developing a strategy to deal with the deteriorating situation in Iraq – so closely linked to the conflict in Syria and an area where de Mistura’s experience will undoubtedly come in handy. The new envoy must ensure that the situation there is not ignored, and that Iraqi representation is inclusive of the country’s diversity. Deputy Special Envoy Ramzy’s past experience as Egypt’s commissioner to the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, a group of eight Muslim developing countries that also includes Iran and Turkey, will hopefully be an asset, particularly with respect to the vital efforts that need to be made at a regional level.
3. Meaningfully include Syrian civil society in peace talks, and ensure that women are involved in all aspects of the negotiations
The previous envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was slow to embrace the role of civil society in the peace talks, an error that was not rectified before his departure. His failure to meaningfully engage Syrian women in the process in particular was criticized as threatening the potential for a political solution to the crisis. The new envoy must take a fresh approach that includes Syrian civil society in any negotiations, not just with words but with actions and clear follow-through. The Syrians who are most directly affected by this conflict, from all sides, ethnic and religious backgrounds, must have a say in how their country will look when this conflict finally comes to an end.
4. Stop the flow of weapons to all sides of the conflict
With every shipment of arms and ammunition across the Syrian border, the hopes for a successful political process are undermined. Shortly after his resignation, Brahimi reportedly urged the U.N. Security Council to end the flow of arms to both sides of the Syrian conflict, and the new envoy and his team must dedicate themselves to this task. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called resoundingly for a full arms embargo last month, stating, “It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country. It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating international principles of human rights and international law.” Arguments that more weapons must be delivered to help “balance” the conflict ignore the lessons of the “arms races” of the past century. Time and time again these competitions have resulted in enormous devastation for civilians, and benefited no one but the arms producers and exporters. Syria is no different.
5. Name and Shame
The new envoy must be willing to use his position to candidly call out governments and individuals for their roles in exacerbating conflict, and issue specific recommendations for improvements. Whenever possible, he must involve the most senior government officials possible in seeking a resolution to the ever-expanding crisis. The gravity of the humanitarian and political crisis in Syria and in the region means that we cannot afford a “business as usual” approach.
De Mistura, a lifelong diplomat, must be willing to speak truth to power – even if at times undiplomatically – to put an end to this brutal war.
Oxfam is working to provide clean water to more than a million people inside Syria, and supporting nearly 400,000 Syrian refugees and host community members in Lebanon and Jordan.