Syria still risks economic collapse, says UN envoy

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NEW YORK — “There are absolutely no guarantees if we don’t move towards a nationwide cease-fire, and get the political process back on track, that things cannot collapse again,” said Geir Pedersen, US Special Envoy for Syria, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. 

Syria, once at the top of the global agenda, now competes for attention with an array of global crises, including climate, the war in Ukraine, and its impact on food and global energy security.

These competing crises have made Pedersen’s already formidable task that much harder. More than 75% of Syrians can’t meet their most basic needs; there are 5.6 million refugees in neighboring countries; and 6.9 million internally displaced, out of an estimated population of 17 million. Women and children have suffered disproportionately as a result of the war. There are now even reports of a cholera outbreak. 

“My job is to remind [the international community] that Syria is in a continuing crisis,” said Pedersen. “It is first and foremost a crisis of epic proportions for the Syrian people, as well as for the neighboring countries with huge refugee populations. And we still haven’t sorted out the threat of terrorism. And you have five armies operating on Syrian territory: the Iranians, the Americans, Russians, Israelis and of course the Turks.”

Pedersen was appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in 2018, after serving as Norway’s ambassador to China and then as permanent representative to the United Nations.

As with most if not all UN missions, the active engagement of the Security Council is vital for progress. US-Russian consensus in Syria before the war in Ukraine was difficult; now Washington and Moscow have mostly shut down coordination in Syria, except for perhaps the most essential military deconfliction, as needed.

“If there is no understanding between the key international actors, yes, there are things I could do with the step-for-step approach,” said Pedersen. “But on the key issues — the division of the country, the economic collapse and the fight against UN-listed terror groups, which is still very much there — it would be extremely difficult. It would be probably impossible if you don’t have that combination.”

Pedersen has sought to build confidence among the parties, with some success, providing incentives for all sides to take steps that would be reciprocated, including prisoner exchanges.

“I would not say that the nationwide cease-fire is a precondition for moving forward,”  he explained. “I think actually, the idea behind the step-for-step is to try to establish an understanding between the key actors, that it is possible to move forward without threatening the core interest of any of the parties.”

But, he said, “We don’t really have the stability we need. And we haven’t used the period to develop the political process.”

Pedersen referred to the UN-mediated committee to draft a new constitution as a “disappointment,” because “the committee has not delivered what we expected of it.” 

In a sign of the times, Pedersen met this week with the foreign ministers of the so-called Astana Group — Russia, Iran and Turkey — with no comparable meeting with Western ministers.

His message to the Astana ministers was that “none of you can dictate the outcome of the conflict,” said Pedersen. “The same, of course, is understood by the Americans and the Europeans. There needs to be a compromise that, of course, involves the Syrian parties. But without some kind of cooperation between all of these actors, we are not going to solve the underlying [issues], the political challenges that are there and the division of the country, or start to get the economy up and running again. We need this kind of operation.”

Pedersen worries that left unaddressed, the continued Syrian crisis, amplified by the global economic and energy crisis, risks state collapse.

“And this is a real threat first and foremost to Syrians and the region, but also to international peace and security. Of course today, it occurs against a backdrop to what’s happening in Ukraine, naturally enough, but also to other issues.”

Pedersen is not one to give up hope, and seeks to build on a general good will for Syria, even as other crises may seem to take priority.

“I should say there is a lot of generosity from the Europeans and from the Americans in particular on the humanitarian side,” he said. “But that in itself will not change the trajectory of the conflict. That’s more of a Band-Aid. It’s not really addressing the real sources.”

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“Only by moving the political process forward in a real and comprehensive way, in line with resolution 2254, can we meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and restore Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity,” added Pedersen.

A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor: You met yesterday with the ministers of the Astana Group — Russia, Iran and Turkey. Can you brief us on the outcome of that meeting? What are the next steps for the political process, and will there be a comparable meeting with Western countries on the sidelines of the General Assembly meetings?

Pedersen: Yes, you’re right. I met yesterday with the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran at the Turkish mission to the UN. I think they wanted to send a message of support to the work that I am doing, realizing that the international climate is extremely difficult. My message was that the situation in Syria is becoming more difficult by the day when it comes to the economic conditions, reminding them that 9 out of 10 Syrians are living in poverty and that we have more than 14 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

And the sad fact is that still half the population has left their homes. And that you have five armies operating within the same territory. The country is divided in at least three different areas — and if you include the Golan [Heights] — at least four. And there is no sign on any of these fronts that we will see an improvement. But I also have said that since March 20, the front lines have been frozen.

And, according to my people, before March 2020, the longest period between front lines shifting in Syria was three weeks. And now we have had [no changes in] close to two and a half years. But the problem is, of course, that you still have skirmishes. And we haven’t really developed a nationwide cease-fire. We don’t really have the stability we need. And we haven’t used the period to develop the political process.

And then, my argument to [the Astana trio], as it is with the Americans and with the Europeans, is that none of you can dictate the outcome of the conflict. The same, of course, is understood by the Americans and the Europeans. There needs to be a compromise that, of course, involves the Syrian parties. But without some kind of cooperation between all of these actors, we are not going to solve the underlying [issues], the political challenges that are there and the division of the country, or start to get the economy up and running again. We need this kind of operation.

Then I said that I would continue to work on the constitutional committee, but frankly the committee has not delivered what we expected of it, what it should have delivered. It has been a disappointment. And we know, as you may know, we have a problem with the venue. The Russians and the Syrian government don’t want to come to Geneva.

But my message to the Astana foreign ministers was, “Listen, my friends. Yes, we have a challenge with the venue, but the key challenge is not the venue. [The key challenge is] the lack of substantial progress on the way we are working with the institutional committee.” I think what I heard from the three ministers was support for my work. What I was asked to mention was what I’m doing, trying to prepare this, what I call the step-for-step approach.

I think there are different readings among the three about what is possible. And of course, you have heard the Turks have been threatening military action if they feel that their security is not met. And then of course there are the speculations you have heard about from the Turkish side about a possible outreach to Damascus, and so on.

There are many things at play, but the situation in Syria continues to be extremely serious. And you asked whether I also have a meeting with the other group [the European parties]. And no, I don’t. And that’s, I think, an interesting expression of the lack of focus on Syria that is there.

Al-Monitor: It’s interesting that despite the war in Ukraine, Russia remains deeply engaged in Syria. You have noted in the past the need for US-Russian engagement to advance the process, but this engagement, difficult before the war, must be even more complicating for your work at this time?

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Pedersen: Let me be very honest: Yes, it is. And as you know, it was difficult even to agree on a renewal on the [UN Security Council] humanitarian resolution this summer. They managed in the end to agree on a six-month renewal for cross-border [humanitarian aid] and the so-called early recovery projects. But because of Ukraine, there is a lack of contact.

And as I said, if there is no understanding between the key international actors, yes, there are things I could do with the step-for-step approach, but on the key issues — the division of the country, the economic collapse and the fight against UN-listed terror groups, which is still very much there — addressing [these] issues would be extremely difficult. It would be probably impossible if you don’t have that combination.

Al-Monitor: You mentioned your concern about the possibility of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned. Did this come up in your meeting?

Pedersen: I’ve been addressing this in my briefings to the Security Council every month. And we are basically saying that, or I should even say the secretary general has been saying that, this should obviously be the time where we focus on humanitarian systems and the political process.

And then we have previously also emphasized, of course, there is an understanding that there are Turkish security interests. That there is a legitimate interest that needs to be addressed. Hopefully that can be addressed within the context of Russian-Turkish discussion and Turkish-American discussions, as has happened before. And that we very much hope that the focus would be, as I said, on addressing humanitarian issues and concentrating on the political trend.

Al-Monitor: You briefly mentioned the step-for-step political process, which requires an end to violence and a consolidated cease-fire. Please update us on that step … and where you see the front lines, and fault lines, for the conflict?

Pedersen: I would not say that the nationwide cease-fire is a precondition for moving forward on the step-for-step process. I think actually, the idea behind the step-for-step [process] is to try to establish an understanding between the key actors, that it is possible to move forward without threatening the core interest of any of the parties.

But you need to do that by identifying very precisely, before you take any action, what you have agreed upon. So that, for instance, the government in Damascus will know what to expect, let’s say from the Americans, from the Europeans, from the Arabs. And the other way around. And it needs to be precise. It needs to be, as I said, agreed before, and it needs to be verifiable.

And we have developed some good ideas, but discussions are still ongoing with Damascus, the opposition, and with the international community on this. And I have said that, listen, there may be other ways of moving forward, but so far there are no other proposals on the table. Let’s try to do this and see if we could, by concentrating on this, establish it, if we take time. But that we could then slowly build a little bit of trust so that we could start moving forward in a manner where both sides would see that change is possible. And that, as you know, has basically been not happening the last 11 years, actually.

Al-Monitor: You deal every day with the tragedy that is Syria, now over ten years on from the uprising of 2011. Are you finding a fatigue with the Syrian issue in Western capitals, given the many other world crises — the war in Ukraine, climate, etc.? Is the political will still there to support a political resolution to the crisis?

Pedersen: Yeah, that’s a very good question. And I think it’s fair to say that if you look at the different faces of the conflict, you had, of course, from the West, a very active period from 2011 to 2015. Then from 2015 to 2020, the Russians came in and, of course, changed the way the conflict was developing.

And while the West, from 2011 to 2015, believed in regime change, advocated for regime change, and I think believed that that was possible, that view has gradually changed. From 2015 to 2020, with the agreement, in March 2020, between Russia and Turkey on the cease-fire then. The US openly says that it is not pursuing a regime change in Syria.

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Those years, between 2015 and 2020, the Russians, Iran and the government in Damascus most probably actually believed that perhaps a full military victory was possible.

Then I think we have seen since March 2020, that is not doable. You need actually a negotiated outcome. But then I think your observation in your question is absolutely correct: I do notice [a fatigue] from the Europeans and from the Americans. Of course there is [now] much less focus on this, maybe for obvious reasons.

My job is to remind them [the international community] that Syria is in a continuing crisis. It is first and foremost a crisis of epic proportions for the Syrian people, as well as for the neighboring countries with huge refugee populations. And we still haven’t sorted out the threat of terrorism. And you have five armies operating on Syrian territory: the Iranians, the Americans, Russians, Israelis and of course the Turks.

Only by moving the political process forward in a real and comprehensive way, in line with resolution 2254, can we meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and restore Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.

And amid all of this, there are absolutely no guarantees if we don’t move towards, as I said, a nationwide cease-fire, and get the political process back on track, that things cannot collapse again. And this is a real threat first and foremost to Syrians and the region, but also to international peace and security. Of course today, it occurs against a backdrop to what’s happening in Ukraine, naturally enough, but also to other issues.

But my job is to try to remind the international community that this crisis is far from over and that it requires also a political investment, not only a humanitarian investment. This is extremely important. And I should say there is a lot of generosity from the Europeans and from the Americans in particular on the humanitarian side. But that in itself will not change the trajectory of the conflict. That’s more of a Band-Aid. It’s not really addressing the real sources.

Al-Monitor: There is the acute urgency of tens of thousands of arbitrarily detained, imprisoned and missing. How is the progress on these accounts?

Pedersen: There are so many tragedies when it comes to Syria, but this is something that is affecting so many families. There are different figures on how many have been killed and who are missing. But there are figures of people detained or missing numbering 130,000, I think. But these figures are not confirmed, but it’s of epic proportions.

And whether you live in government-controlled areas or opposition-controlled ones, it doesn’t really matter. It affects nearly every family in Syria. And there have been two things that have been happening. There’s something called the working group on the detained, abducted and the missing within the Astana format, which has tried to organize releases. But that has been more what I would call prisoner-of-war exchanges. Between Nov. 24, 2018 and June 15, 2022, a total of seven simultaneous exchange operations resulted in 139 persons released.

You will have seen that President Assad, at the end of April, issued an amnesty that included terrorist crimes. And that amnesty led to at least 500 people being released. And we know that there were people who have been detained since 2011. But of course, 500 in the big picture is not much. But for the 500 that were released, of course it’s extremely important.

But what I tried to do, in my discussions with the government in Damascus, I said: “Listen, I hope this is something we can develop further.” And I said, “If this is something you can build upon and it can happen and be done in a transparent manner where it is verified who is being released, this will be first and foremost an extremely important humanitarian gesture for the ones that are released, for the families. But it is also something that could be seen as a confidence-building measure.” And where we could, I think based on that, it will be something that we could discuss that could be also happening from Europeans and from the Americans. And who knows? Even from the Arabs.

That could be one of the positive things that could move forward. Since then, there hasn’t been much of a development on the amnesty. I will be seeing Syrian Foreign Minister Mukhtar here on Saturday, and it will be one of the issues I will be discussing with him.

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