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Syria Crisis: Community Q&A with a U.N. Adviser

As the crisis in Syria rolls steadily towards its sixth year, misconceptions and misunderstandings abound on everything from the importance of local cease-fires to the U.N.’s definition of success in its humanitarian efforts. Members of an online community asked a U.N. political adviser their own queries.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
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Mohamed Elfayoumy, a diplomat working as a political adviser with the United Nations in Damascus, recently took to the internet with the help of Parlio – an online community committed to giving people the power to share their thoughts about important regional and global issues – to answer questions about the five-year crisis in Syria.

Elfayoumy, an Egyptian diplomat with extensive experience in Syria and Middle East politics, previously served as his government’s representative to the Syrian Opposition. He was also the Egyptian consul during the first two years of the crisis, where he was instrumental in evacuating thousands of Egyptian nationals fleeing violence and instability.

He received questions from the Parlio public regarding the recent diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Syria, developments on the ground, local cease-fires and armed opposition groups.

Emily Parker

Author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are

Q: As someone who is actually on the ground in Syria, what do you think the media gets wrong about the crisis?

Elfayoumy: It wouldn’t be too unsafe to say that the media coverage of the scene inside Syria has been quite unsatisfactory. Ideological biases, projection of stereotypes and preconceived ideas, in addition to limited access to the scene itself have been affecting the quality of reporting. It will need more than this forum to discuss the flaws of the media on Syria over the past five years. However, if I may caution against one thing in the media, it would be the labels ascribed to different entities and individuals, particularly “radical vs. moderate”; more often than not these classifications have no actual meaning and are based upon the outlet viewpoint.

Wael Ghonim

Egyptian activist

Q: Were you involved in negotiations with the terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra? If so, how was that experience?

Elfayoumy: A number of Security Council resolutions have designated ISIL and Al-Nusra as terrorist organizations, hence the U.N. cannot be involved in political negotiations with either. However, in some instances and for humanitarian purposes, a kind of contact took place. I cannot disclose much about that, but I would say that Nusra is way different from ISIL, in its composition, behavior and scope of activities. I would also say that it’s not about groups of innately violent psychopaths. A degree of pragmatism was shown when needed, especially with Nusra. Military context, financial capabilities, geographical location, ratio of foreign fighters and pre-existing local culture have a strong impact on the attitudes and behaviors of the groups, which might appear sometimes as if several Nusras and ISILs, with varying characteristics, exist.

Mabel Gonzalez

International adviser and consultant: peace and security

Q: What could be the impact of the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr in the upcoming diplomatic talks about Syria?

Elfayoumy: There is little doubt that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been among the factors impeding peace efforts in Syria over the past years. One of the main achievements of the Vienna meetings is the presence of both Saudi and Iranian officials in the same room for two rounds of rather constructive discussions. The role of the U.S. secretary of state was pivotal in this regard. Both countries have stated their willingness to pursue peace talks in Syria after the latest escalation, but it remains premature to judge how this will be reflected in real terms. Let’s keep the hope.

Isaac Lara

JD/MPA candidate at Columbia Law and Harvard Kennedy School

Q: How do you believe Russia’s growing role in the Syrian conflict will impact cease-fire talks? Is Russian intervention perceived on the ground as a blessing or a curse?

Elfayoumy: It’s difficult to find proper, politically correct words to speak about military activities with all the subsequent casualties and human suffering. This is why in politics I usually prefer to refrain from using normative descriptions or value judgment. It’s a fact that Russian military operations in Syria have introduced an absolutely different dynamic to the conflict. This dynamic provided an opportunity and created a momentum that led us to where we are right now. Vienna meetings, Security Council Resolution and efforts to launch peace negotiations only took shape after those operations.

The UNSCR 2254 broadly has two objectives: intra-Syrian talks and a cease-fire. The Syrian government had a certain interpretation of cease-fires, which was based upon their experience with what is generally called “local agreements,” as the ones in Al-Wa’er or around Damascus. This interpretation is not correct. Moscow, from its part, understands what is needed for a cease-fire, and officially and publicly endorses this notion, but they have their own ideas about which areas to be covered and which groups would continue to be legitimate targets even after a cease-fire is established. Perhaps we’ll have to wait and see how this will be negotiated when the parties actually sit together and talk.

Tom Trewinnard

BizDev, research, comms @ Meedan

Q: Following on from Emily Parker’s question regarding media, which publications/news sites/Twitter accounts (English or Arabic) offer an insight into the Syrian crisis that most resonates with you as an observer to events “on the ground”?

Elfayoumy: Plenty! One has to follow a big number of news sources of different parties with usually contradicting messages. No easy answer for that, unfortunately.

Mohamed Rizk Shokr

Internal medicine resident at Wayne State University/DMC

Q: How does the U.N. define “success” in Syria, and what have the implications of the Syrian crisis been for Egyptian politics over the past five years?

Elfayoumy: The definition of success and the exact role of the U.N. political arm is always debatable, with political, legal and even philosophical ramifications to any answer. This is why we prefer to stick to the mandate imposed by the “international community” as represented by Security Council Resolutions. UNSCR 2254 is the current mandate for the U.N. political functions in Syria, with its emphasis on intra-Syrian talks and a national cease-fire.

Your second question is not easy to answer and needs a lengthy conversation. I would say that the crisis in Syria had a huge impact over Egyptian politics post-2011. Scenes of violence, destruction and despair have undoubtedly led to levels of fear that were sometimes irrational or unjustified. The preservation of the state, even if unjust, repressive and dysfunctional, became a priority for many Egyptians, with consequences you are probably aware of. Relevant to this would be the impact over Egyptian Islamists, with questions about militarization and the concept of jihad, adding even more polarization and confusion among their ranks. A third level of analysis would be the geopolitical significance of Egypt and how Egypt’s external role is being redefined through conscious and unconscious mechanisms with many long-term repercussions.

Nakeema Stefflbauer

Mideast PhD in the mobile tech space

Q: Many Syrians abroad suggest that the old Syrian geopolitical entity is gone forever. Are diplomats and opposition groups really wrangling over who gets what part of the territorial pie? Or is there an official assumption that the country’s previous borders will eventually be restored?

Elfayoumy: Political scientists, historians of the Levant and pan-Arabists have written extensively in the past about the shortcomings of the Syrian state and borders since its birth. Currently, the erosion of even this state in Syria is a sad reality. This generated a lot of talks, theories and reports of new maps for Syria and the region. However, except for ISIL, I am not aware of any actor inside or outside Syria that is pursuing a change in the existing maps. There is a consensus among statesmen and diplomats in the region and outside that any settlement has to ensure the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. The cost of messing with the maps is proven to be big enough, and there is no clear interest for any party, for the time being, to pursue this type of policies.

Hatem Nawar

Program manager in tech Industry

Q: There are lots of humanitarian efforts on the ground, yet we hear horrific stories about villages under siege and starved to death. First, which relief organization/effort would you say is the most effective on the ground that deserves more support? Second, what are the diplomatic efforts being made with the Assad regime and other parties to facilitate the work of these organizations?

Elfayoumy: Several United Nations agencies continue to be active in the most difficult areas inside Syria. UNICEF, WHO and World Food Program are doing amazing work that deserves support. The Syrian Red Crescent and its volunteers have a broad access across the country, with many sacrifices. There are other organizations and NGOs that function under different names in the opposition-controlled areas, and they are doing very good things as well.

Diplomatic efforts and political pressure are continuous to facilitate humanitarian access. A number of Security Council resolutions demanded a free and open humanitarian access, but unfortunately, tactics of siege and starvation continue to be methodically used in the country. The situation in Madaya attracted a lot of attention to this issue. The U.N. and partners have managed to get an approval for humanitarian convoys into Madaya. However, many other areas continue to suffer.

Jieun Baek

Researcher at Harvard University

Q: There has been so much written about Syrian opposition groups, but it’s hard to understand who is who, who are the most legitimately representative groups serving the majority of Syrian citizens’ interests, who “deserve” Western support, and who the interested bystanders (e.g. Parlio community members) should be reading about and watching for. Can you help me understand the lay of the land of relevant opposition groups inside Syria?

Elfayoumy: Political actors with interest in Syria have been trying to reach a concise answer to your question since March 2011, with limited success. Attempts by Syrians and non-Syrians to establish entities, forge alliances and create platforms to represent “the Syrian opposition” have been quite interesting to follow. Many political opposition groups and even more numerous armed opposition groups exist and proliferate. Constantly mapping them is one of our team’s challenging tasks. The recent SCR 2254 has probably made it less difficult when it referred to three platforms of opposition: Riyadh, Cairo and Moscow. The one in Riyadh is actually the biggest, with strong links to armed opposition groups. It included the Syrian Opposition Coalition (a coalition of entities with various ideological backgrounds, based out of Syria), the National Coordination Committee (mostly leftist nationalist, functioning from Damascus, with lesser influence), as well as a number of activists, intellectuals and politicians, in addition to representatives of the major armed groups. It mainly lacks the representation of the Kurds’ PYD and the newly established Syrian Democratic Forces.

It gets more difficult when it comes to armed groups. Fluidity and mobility of fighters, alliance shifts, the emergence of large umbrella groups and the influence of different external sponsors make the picture quite perplexing. However, the activity of Jaysh al-Fath in Idlib and Aleppo, the Southern Front in Deraa and Quneitra, and Jaysh al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta could give a good understanding of the situation on the ground.

Mathew Kelley

Met ATL TFA ’15

Q: Some scientists and social scientists have come out saying global warming has played a part in the impetus of the Syrian conflict (issues with agriculture and food scarcity creating some sense of socioeconomic and political deprivation). Do you agree with this? What do you think?

Also, what is some of the commentary coming from the citizens? What are their concerns and suggestions for reconciliation? In the U.S., we hear what our government wants, but not too much of what the Syrians want and need.

Elfayoumy: The conflict in Syria is too complex to be attributed to a single factor. Issues with agriculture and food scarcity that you rightfully mentioned certainly had an impact, especially in rural parts of Syria in the years that preceded the crisis, which may help in understanding how different the situation in those rural parts was compared to the urban centers over the past five years. Many other factors were in place or have been introduced throughout the crisis, which contributes to the increasing complexity of the picture.

Syrian citizens, as citizens in any other country around the world, have different opinions and views. I could safely say that the majority still prioritize their freedom and dignity over any other consideration. But the impact of the crisis has been tragically dire. People are worn out, feel let down and have lost confidence in the world, which is why there is a need for an immediate solution to restore humanity to this country. However, only power politics dominate the scene.

Justin Thornton

Student at Florida State University

Q: A potential problem with U.N. aid and Syria is if the Syrian government intends to distribute aid only to the territory it controls, and prevent its use as relief for those areas under siege from the government, even if those areas are starving. If the Syrian government intends to withhold aid in this way as a war strategy, should the U.N. eventually disregard Syria’s objections and deliver aid anyway? Is this even logistically possible?

Elfayoumy: Unfortunately it’s undoable. The U.N. does not have a military arm and cannot physically force any government military to open roads or allow access. There is always a need for government approval to deliver U.N. aid to any place. The U.N. continues to condemn the use of siege tactics and starvation in this war, and Security Council Resolutions have repeatedly demanded free and open humanitarian access. But it is always up to member states to take measures regarding each other, not the U.N. staff or agencies.

This article was originally published by Parlio and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: Syrian displaced children play in a refugee camp near Atma, Idlib province, Syria, Friday, Oct. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

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