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Earlier this month, Geir Pedersen, Norway’s ambassador to China and a former permanent representative to the United Nations, was appointed special envoy on the Syria conflict. He replaces the veteran Italian-Swedish negotiator Staffan de Mistura, who for four years tried but failed to end the bloody civil war.
Syria has been brutalized for nearly eight years now. Eight years is the lifetime of a third-grade child. It is also two years longer than the total duration of World War II. And in those last two years, instead of winding down as all of its actors have grown exhausted, Syria’s crisis has actually escalated.
The effect on Syrian society has been catastrophic. The rising generation has known nothing but war. Six million people are displaced inside the country, and five million more have left as refugees. Nearly 14 million—out of a prewar population of 22 million—need humanitarian assistance. Syria is a burning country that has been starved, chemically assaulted, and bombed into submission in nearly all of the former opposition areas except Idlib, the final piece in the puzzle that Bashar al-Assad seeks to conquer. The human rights abuses—which include mass incarceration, torture, and rape, as well as chemical weapons attacks against civilians and starvation as a tool of war—are among the worst I have ever seen in three decades of conflict analysis and reporting.
Unless the war in Syria is halted soon, it will become something like the conflict that started in 1975 in Lebanon. That war lasted 17 years and destroyed a country, leaving more than 150,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced. If Syria’s war continues that long, there won’t be many people left in the country to kill.
No one really knows how many have died in Syria so far. The UN stopped counting the dead in 2016, but estimates are somewhere near half a million, if not more. Lebanon—just one of many affected neighboring countries—has taken in more than 1.5 million Syrians, nearly exhausting its already fragile institutions. Because many of the refugees are Sunni Muslim, the influx has upset Lebanon’s delicate religious balance, setting off a nasty anti-refugee backlash. Another winter is coming, and with it a desperate time for the refugees living in settlements and the civilians trapped in places like Idlib, Ghouta, and Aleppo, the last of which was pulverized by Russian and Syrian bombs.
The task Pedersen inherits is gargantuan.
The task Pedersen inherits is gargantuan, even for one of the better-respected diplomats in the UN biosphere, and one with a long history of work on seemingly intractable conflicts. Pedersen was part of the team that his countryman Terje Rod-Larsen steered in secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. He was the UN’s point man in Lebanon from 2005 to 2008, during which time he was known for speaking to all the political players, including Hezbollah. He will need these pragmatic skills in Syria.
What might work in Pedersen’s favor is timing: all the actors—the opposition, the regime, even the Russians, Hezbollah, the United States, and Turkey—are exhausted, suggesting that the time for negotiation might be ripe, something that was not the case when de Mistura came on board. The Italian has so far has been the longest-serving envoy on this conflict: Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, no strangers to ending wars, lasted five months and a little less than two years, respectively, in the position, discouraged by the unyielding nature of the participants and the fact that nobody seemed to really want the war to end.
De Mistura, who had previously served in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, worked tirelessly on Syria but continually ran up against a brick wall: Assad and his patron, Vladimir Putin. “I have never known a more cynical war,” he told me in 2015, noting that both parties were willing to sacrifice their people rather than compromise for peace. Known for his creative diplomacy, de Mistura tried cease-fires, which failed; rounds of negotiations so tense that often the parties did not show up or refused to speak to one another; and, before he left, attempts at drafting a new Syrian constitution, which, to no one’s surprise, Assad rejected. No one was ready to give in.
Wars end by force, fatigue, or negotiation. Sometimes the ground for negotiation takes years to become fertile. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the European religious wars in 1648 and established the first sovereign nation-states, involved 109 political entities and took two years to sign. Whatever does end the Syrian conflict must be a settlement that will stick, so that the warring parties will not return to the battlefield. “A treaty to end a war is, in effect, a preparation for another war unless it addresses the reasons for that war and unless it creates a new political order to prevent its recurrence,” William I. Zartman wrote in Peace Versus Justice: Negotiating Forward- and Backward-Looking Outcomes, a bible for negotiators.
Pedersen inherits a broken opposition and a stubborn, unruly, murderous dictator in Damascus who refuses to leave. At the very heart of any negotiation must be the simple premise that Assad—a man with much blood on his hands, but who retains the support of Putin and Hezbollah—must go. It is impossible to imagine a post-conflict country attempting to heal with the man who wreaked such agony upon it still in power. How could transitional justice ever operate? The Russians, who ultimately hold the cards, have held fast to Assad’s being part of the political process. But if Pedersen managed to get Arafat and Rabin to shake hands, perhaps he can find a way to convince the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, that Assad is done.
Meanwhile, the agony continues. Last week, Raed al-Saleh, head of the much-maligned White Helmets, told the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph that Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, is once again in Assad’s crosshairs. Idlib is partly held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that Russia and the Syrian government regard as a legitimate target. A fragile cease-fire was established there in September, but Saleh warned last week that increased mortar fire from the regime has killed 20 people in the past few days. Finishing off Idlib with help from Russia was always part of Assad’s grand strategy—that is, if he had a strategy—and would complete his job of ethnically cleansing his country by corralling the Sunni opposition into a small territory. But it would also endanger the three million residents inside Idlib.
If Pedersen managed to get Arafat and Rabin to shake hands, perhaps he can find a way to convince the Russian foreign minister that Assad is done.
The war in Syria must end, and a path to justice, following the Rwandan model of local courts or the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, must be established in order to ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses will be brought to justice. Only such a process can bring true healing to such a battered place. And it will not happen with Assad in power.
Twenty-three years ago this week, the U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke brought the leaders of warring factions in Bosnia to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. There, Holbrooke knocked heads together, wheedling Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic during late-night drinking sessions and bullying the frail Bosnian leader, Aliya Izetbegovic, into signing over parts of his country that he was vehemently opposed to losing, and to which the Muslims had, in fact, a rightful claim. The Dayton accords were not completely successful—many Bosnians were angry about how the war ended, and the current rise of nationalism in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, under Milorad Dodik, attests to the agreement’s serious shortcomings—but a negotiated settlement put a stop to the killing that had turned Bosnia into a bloodbath, culminating with the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
The war in Syria needs to end. Pedersen has a track record of working with the most difficult negotiators on the planet. But he needs to insist that when this war ends, it ends on the right terms: Syria’s future must not include Assad, and any settlement must provide a mechanism for transitional justice, such that the perpetrators of horrific crimes against humanity can be sought out and tried.
Otherwise, in two decades, the hatred and the suffering will surely return. And another Assad will appear.