The UN’s New Syria Negotiator Only Has a Few Cards to Play; He Should Not Waste Them

Barely has a new United Nations envoy for Syria been announced and already the setting of negotiating lines has begun. No sooner was it revealed at the start of November that Geir Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat with experience of Lebanon’s factional politics and the delicate negotiations over Israel and Palestine, would take over as the special envoy at the end of the month, than the Assad regime began setting its conditions for working with him. “Syria will cooperate with the new UN envoy Geir Pedersen provided he avoids the methods of his predecessor,” said the deputy foreign minister, Faisal Al Meqdad.

What were these “methods”? According to Al Meqdad, they were avoiding siding with terrorists “as his predecessor did,” and immediately announcing his support for the territorial unity of Syria. Read briefly, these two aspects seem reasonable and in keeping with what the international community has broadly been saying. But read closely, they are an attempt to push the new UN envoy into throwing away two of the United Nations’ biggest bargaining chips. Pedersen is not even the special envoy yet and already the regime is seeking to undermine him, as they did his predecessor.

In a last-ditch attempt to salvage some measure of authority, the UN has spent most of this year focused on creating a constitutional committee. This, ostensibly, would draft a new constitution, taking into account the views of opposition and rebel groups, leading to fresh elections. The 150-person committee would be made up of one-third members chosen by the regime, another third by opposition groups and a final third nominated by the UN. But for months, the regime has refused any of the UN’s picks and at the end of October questioned whether the UN should have any role in selecting members at all. It was, said the Syrian foreign minister, a matter of national sovereignty.

When the deputy foreign minister talks of “terrorists,” he means any and all rebel groups, which is how the regime has consistently referred to these groups from the beginning of the uprising. Were the UN to avoid “siding” with them, it would make the job of creating any constitutional committee impossible. Already, the Assad regime has refused to countenance any representatives that are not loyal critics of the regime. The idea is to pack the committee with those who believe the future of Syria should be in the hands of the Assad clan – no doubt due to considerations of “stability” or “continuity” – who would then return a new constitution indistinguishable from the current one.

Similarly, announcing support for the territorial integrity of Syria means placing the diplomatic weight of the United Nations against any possible solution that Turkey is engineering in northern Syria and against any accommodation that the Americans may wish to come to with the Kurds in the northeast. To be clear, it doesn’t mean that what the Americans, Turks or Kurds are planning are good outcomes, but as a negotiating strategy, committing the UN to any one outcome from the beginning is simply wasteful.

A better way for Pedersen to negotiate with the regime would be to use one of their demands as leverage to seek movement on the other. Take for example what is happening in Idlib province and along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey is seeking to hold on indefinitely to parts of Syrian territory in order to keep Kurdish groups from its border, and as a place to repatriate Syrian refugees, where they will not be a burden on the Turkish state but will be safe from the regime.

It would be better for Pedersen to withhold support for Syria’s territorial integrity, thereby keeping the door open to UN recognition of this Turkish plan, even if temporarily, and by doing that push the regime to accept some of its suggested members on to the constitutional committee. That is one of the few ways still open to the UN to regain some relevance.

The Syrian war, after all, has devolved into a negotiation between nation states. The UN and its Geneva process, and even the Russian-led Astana process, have been sidelined in favor of state-to-state discussions. It is noticeable that it is only when the nation states involved have got together, whether it is Russia gathering Turkey and Iran in Sochi, or Turkey gathering Germany and France in Ankara, that decisions have been taken. Recall that the only actual plan that has worked to stop fighting on the ground, the demilitarized zone, was cooked up by two countries.

A new UN special envoy will not change those dynamics. But, by using the regime’s own negotiating lines against it, Pedersen may be able to claw back some authority for the international community from a war that has all-but-eroded it.

The regime has gained by force and alliances almost everything it wanted from the war, except international recognition. That remains in the gift of the UN and the international community. There is still a chance that Pedersen, by using that as leverage, could bring the regime to the negotiating table. At this point, after so many years of missteps, the international community has very few cards to play, and the new envoy should not throw them away even before he sits down to face the regime.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.