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The Most Complex Conflict

Interview with Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, about different actors in the conflict

Körber-Stiftung: Mr de Mistura, is the conflict in Syria unlike something you have ever witnessed before, in terms of complexity, brutality and difficulty in finding a solution?

De Mistura: Yes. I have been in 22 conflicts so far, from Sudan to former Yugoslavia; Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. However, the Syrian conflict is definitely the most complex and complicated one – for many reasons. Firstly, there is a high number of players, at least eleven countries are involved in one form or another: militarily, politically, or economically, but clearly through proxy support. Secondly, the conflict has three dimensions. It is a local conflict, or better to say: a local insurrection and civil war, combined with regional and international involvement, including Russia, the United States and Europe, just to mention a few. In addition, there are three other components: the first is the vast number of refugees and displaced people that have had a huge impact on policies and politics in Europe. The second is that this conflict has seen the first major Russian military intervention outside its own territory since the Georgia war in 2008. The third element is a new component called Daesh / ISIS / ISIL: this group has been thriving, taking advantage, and moving forward on the ruins of this conflict. All that makes it incredibly complex and complicated.

Körber-Stiftung: Would you say that the conflict in Syria exemplifies a new global order?

De Mistura: Well, it is too early to say. What this has clearly produced is the return of Russia as a prominent player in the Middle East, acting as a game changer. The Syrian conflict has seen major shifts: at certain times, we have seen a lower involvement of the United States compared to other conflicts in the region such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, we have seen periods of intense engagement by Washington, for instance the personal involvement of John Kerry in the search for a national ceasefire, and the current renewed and proactive support by Secretary Pompeo to the UN-led political process.

Körber-Stiftung: Many took Germany’s reluctance to engage in limited military action as another expression of the country’s failure to assume international responsibility.

De Mistura: Germany is playing three major roles in this conflict. The first is through provision of humanitarian support to refugees outside Syria. As a member of the EU, Germany has been a major supporter of displaced people inside Syria. The second major role, which I have witnessed personally, is the high-level political engagement in supporting a Syrian-owned, but UN-facilitated, political solution. The third major role is Germany’s bilateral capacity to interact with Russia and other major players in the conflict, including Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. I feel that the engagement of the German government has been substantial, except for the fact that they did not get involved militarily. Nevertheless, they added their own leverage and have been perceived as an honest broker and a genuine supporter of a credible political process. Germany will be in a good position to act on these levers when it becomes a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in January 2019.

Körber-Stiftung: Is money for reconstruction the last lever of the EU?

De Mistura: Regarding reconstruction, the EU has been very open and clear. In order to justify the use of tax payers’ money beyond humanitarian aid once the conflict is over, an explanation and reassurances from the UN are required that a credible, irreversible, strong political process is under way, which will avoid a return to civil war or political or military unrest. The EU has reinforced its position on various occasions including the G7 and at Security Council meetings. The UN has taken note of this and has regularly reminded everyone concerned, including the Syrian government and its supporters, that major European countries will only provide signficant funds for reconstruction once European citizens have been reassured that the political process is credible and moving forward.

The interview was conducted in October 2018.

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