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Department of Political Affairs

Syria: “Political Settlement Only Way to End Conflict”

Kofi AnnanAs he leads the international peace effort on Syria, the United Nations - Arab League Joint Special Envoy, Kofi Annan, is supported by two highly experienced deputies: Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former head of UN peacekeeping, and Nasser Al Kidwa, a former Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Palestinian National Authority. 

In an interview with DPA E-News on the eve of the recent Action Group meeting on Syria held in Geneva, the two Deputy Joint Special Envoys underscored both the crucial importance of reaching a political settlement to the crisis in Syria and the risks to the region and beyond should the situation deteriorate.   Jean-Marie Guehenno

“Conflicts end with a negotiation,” says Guéhenno. “The question is whether the negotiation can only take place after tens of thousands of people are dead – or before. There has to be a political process, and the sooner, the better.” The principles agreed on by the 30 June meeting of the Action Group for Syria, including the proposed establishment of a transitional governing body, are among the latest efforts to move forward on the political track.  

Nasser Al Kidwa

Nasser Al Kidwa, who has worked extensively with Syrian political opposition groups, expressed hope they can make additional progress in arriving at a joint vision and bolstering coordination. At a meeting in Cairo on 2-3 July, opposition groups took further steps in agreeing on principles guiding a political transition. Yet Al Kidwa voices concerns about the increasing militarization on the ground.

“The Arab region is very concerned about Syria, as is the whole world. The danger of a full-scale civil war is real,” he says.

The complete Q&A appears below.

At its first meeting in Geneva on 30 June 2012, the UN-backed Action Group for Syria agreed on steps for a peaceful transition in the country.

Kofi Annan (centre), Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, converses with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (right), at the meeting. Behind Mr. Annan is Major General Robert Mood, Head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria.


Interview with Deputy Special Envoy Jean-Marie Guéhenno

The UN's peace efforts have revolved around the six-point plan put forth by the Joint Special Envoy, Kofi Annan, most of which by the UN's own assessment has not been seriously implemented. What were the key assumptions and weaknesses to this point?

Jean-Marie Guehenno Jean-Marie Guéhenno: The six-point plan is based on the assumption that it is very hard to imagine a sustained political process in the midst of violence. It is well understood that the idea of perfect peace and stability was never envisaged, but the six-point plan was there to provide a ladder to deescalate. The first step would have to be taken by the Syrian Government, because it is the stronger party. Then once the Syrian Government had stopped using military force and artillery against civilians, once it had pulled out, stopped shelling and pulled away from cities, there would be a full cessation of violence, where the armed opposition would also stop shooting. As a complement to that and an important element to the six-point plan, human rights issues would be addressed. The Government would free the many, many people arbitrarily detained in Syria. The right of demonstration would be upheld. That right was actually at the origin of the violence, everything started with peaceful demonstrations that were harshly repressed. Then the escalation started. If you let people demonstrate peacefully and stop the violence there could be a political process.

There was a brief moment in early April where it looked as though the initial cease-fire would hold? What happened?

When the ceasefire was implemented, the level of violence throughout Syria went down significantly. It did not last however, as the other parts of six-point plan including human rights aspects did not change and the overall posture of the government did not change. So gradually violence began to creep up with military operations by the Government and then more and more operations by the opposition. Now, it is clear that the six-point plan has not been implemented; we face a very high level of violence. Prisoners have been released but not in numbers that would be necessary to send a strong message to the Syrian people that there is a real change of course.

The six-point plan was never seen as a diplomatic exercise, it was seen as something aimed at the Syrian people. The challenge is not for the Government to convince the international community but their own people. That is why the ladder was provided. If there is no change in the hearts and minds of the people on the ground, it is very hard to see how a political process can take root. That is what we have been telling the Syrian authorities in our engagements with them.  When I met Syrian activists and explained our approach, I came away with a strong feeling that there was the opportunity for de-escalation but it requires strong signals coming from the Government and in their absence it is very hard to move away from the present vicious cycle of violence. In recent weeks, the armed opposition intensified its operations pursuing its goals with military means.

The six-point plan put considerable faith in the potential of unarmed cease-fire monitors to affect the dynamics on the ground through their presence. As a former UN peacekeeping chief, you have long experience in this area. Can you discuss how this aspect has fared so far?  

From the beginning, there was a clear understanding that any cessation of violence, especially in the early stages, would be fragile. So it would need to be observed and monitored. If you look at the chain of command in the opposition, for example, there is no real center of authority. If you have monitors on the ground, they can help to consolidate the ceasefire. We always knew it would be a complex effort that would require decentralized efforts. At the same time, we also knew that while observers deployed in Syria can support a process, they cannot not substitute for it. They could help parties if there was a strategic shift by the actors toward a settlement. In the absence of such a strategic shift, their task became very difficult. Monitors have another important impact that is less reported, and that is to help achieve international unity in having the same understanding of the conflict.  Monitors are able to bring some consensus on the facts, which is a first step for consensus on policy.

What was the thinking behind the convening, in Geneva, of the Action Group of key states to help bring the crisis in Syria to an end? 

It is well understood that the parties left to their own devices will have a very hard time to come to negotiated settlement. That is what happens in conflicts that spiral down. So they need to be helped by the international community. That is the whole idea of the Action Group: to provide guidelines and principles that would be the framework for the engagement of the parties. Guidelines are essential, but concerted pressure is also needed. In the case of Syria, while the international community has expressed support for the six-point plan on many occasions, there have been very different views on the way forward. The idea was to bring in the same room countries with good relations to the Syrian Government and also those which are known to be supportive of the opposition. There will be no de-escalation or negotiation without concerted pressure.  The Joint Special Envoy has told the General Assembly and the Security Council that if there is no willingness by the parties to move forward, the international community has to be clear that this has consequences. That is why it is called an Action Group, not a talking shop. It is about pushing hard, and pushing hard in the same direction.

Despite the UN’s efforts to pursue dialogue, many observers give little hope to negotiations. What do you say to those who say diplomacy has failed and predict Syria will descend into full scale war?

In any conflict, the more people die, the more difficult it is to resolve. There is so much mistrust, bitterness and sadness that it is very hard for people to sit at the same negotiation table. In that sense it is very important to move quickly. A complete victory by one side is unrealistic. Conflicts end with a negotiation. The question is whether the negotiation can only take place after tens of thousands of people are dead – or before. There has to be a political process, and the sooner, the better.


Residents of Homs inspect a destroyed building hit by shelling


Interview with Deputy Special Envoy Nasser Al Kidwa

The peace effort on Syria is a joint effort between the United Nations and the League of Arab States. What are the concerns of the Arab countries on Syria and what does it signify to have a joint UN-LAS mediation effort?

  Nasser Al Kidwa Nasser Al Kidwa: Syria is a very important Arab country in terms of location, history and impact on the regional situation in general. This is why the League of Arab States has a keen interest in helping to achieve a political settlement to the conflict in a joint effort with the United Nations. Moreover, many regional players have an influence on the developments in Syria and should hence be part of the diplomatic effort.

The joint effort also reflects the general trend of increased cooperation between regional organizations and the United Nations.

The Arab League started its efforts on Syria from the inception of the conflict. It did try several solutions, unfortunately without much success, including the attempt to establish an Arab League observer team in Syria. It was then necessary for the UN to step in. The idea of a joint mission came up and was implemented. So the cooperation continues in many aspects including the Action Group for Syria.

You have focused extensively in your work on the Syrian opposition. When the UN speaks of promoting unity and coherence in the opposition, what does it mean and how are those efforts proceeding? 

Naturally, we do not support a further militarization of the conflict. For this reason, we have had only minimum contact with the military opposition. The UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has to deal with armed elements of the opposition to plan for operational security. The Joint Special Envoy, however, deals with the political opposition outside the country and – through UNSMIS – opposition groups based in Syria. It is essential for the opposition, as an important representative of the people, to develop a joint vision and a certain degree of coordination with a view of influencing a possible political settlement. Our office facilitates efforts of the opposition in this respect.

How much progress has been made?

Opposition groups still face major challenges in agreeing to a common vision and coordinating mechanism. Nevertheless, we have seen some modest progress in the last two or three weeks. The opposition conference held at the Arab League in Cairo on 2-3 July was another opportunity. What the parties agreed to in Cairo was an important step forward. In this context, the meeting of the Friends of the Syrian people, held in Paris last week, provided another opportunity for the opposition and the international community to work more intensively towards our common objective of ending the bloodshed and launching a credible political transition process with a clear timeframe, in accordance with the guidelines and principles laid out by the Action Group for Syria.

How concerned are you about the sectarianism deepening, particularly in light of massacres in places such as El Houleh?

Unfortunately, sectarianism is a real danger. What should we do about it? We must start by stopping the bloodshed and killing, and avoiding any escalation of the situation. We need to move toward disarmament and the start of national dialogue and a political process. There must be guarantees for the safety and the role to be played in a new Syria for all groups and communities. It is essential to have that. There should be no room for any sectarianism or any discrimination of any kind in new Syria. This is something that must be stressed continuously.

What are the implications if peace efforts fail?

The region is very concerned - as is the whole world. The danger of a full-scale civil war is real, the possible spillover of the conflict to neighboring states as well. This is why the international community has to make every effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

 DPA E-News, July 2012

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