The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen has lauded the Arab initiative on Damascus, stressing the importance of taking it into consideration along with the Moscow track and the American and European stances to move forward in finding a political solution in Syria.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Pedersen said that we are “at a very critical time,” adding that Damascus should use this opportunity to move towards a settlement.
Here is the full text of the interview:
The Arab summit will be held in Jeddah with President Bashar Assad attending for the first time since the Arab Summit in Libya in 2010. What does it mean to the UN Special Envoy to see this?
Let me start by reminding that we have now been searching for a political solution to the crisis in Syria for 12 years. We know the problems are extremely deep and that there is no easy solution, but at the same time we also know that there is a sort of an agreed international consensus that Security Council resolution 2254 should serve as a basis for finding a political solution to the crisis.
We also know that despite the fact that we have had this agreement on 2254, the political process has not really been able to deliver, let’s be frank and honest about this. We know there is obviously no short cut for a political solution to this crisis but at the same time we should welcome renewed diplomatic attention to Syria and we are seeing when it comes to the Arabs, there has been important initiatives. We saw the meeting between the four Arab foreign ministers and (Syrian) Foreign Minister (Faisal) Mikdad in Amman on May 1 and then we are seeing lots of different meetings in Moscow and the last meeting was at the foreign ministers level between the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks and the Syrian foreign ministers. Prior to that we saw meetings on Ministers of Defense levels. There are things happening, but of course what is important to remember is that after 12 years of war and conflict, we had an additional dimension with the tragedy of the earthquakes and the reality is that the situation on the ground in Syria has not changed. We are seeing a lot of important diplomatic symbolic moves but this has so far not led to any real changes for the Syrian people on the ground. And this I believe is the chance that we all need to address together.
Let me just emphasize that obviously and I said from day one that if we are to find a solution to this crisis, we need the cooperation of all actors. We need the Syrian parties, the Astana players, the Arabs and the US and Europe also to be part of this. But now the reality is that a comprehensive solution to this crisis is not possible for now. That of course should not prevent us from trying and more time. What I see increasingly is that despite this fact, status quo is not acceptable so we need to find a way to move forward. I do believe that what we see among our Arab friends and from the meetings in Moscow is indeed that there is an agreement that status quo is not acceptable. The good news here is that the Americans and the Europeans I am talking to also agree on that, so we have the consensus. Then the question becomes what does this actually mean?
All these diplomatic moves as you said in Moscow, between the Syrians and the Iranians, between the Arabs and Damascus, do they make your mandate to achieve 2254 easier?
My hope is indeed it will lead to build some confidence and build on that confidence to be able to see concrete steps being taken in Syria that can be the beginning of implementing 2254. As you know, I have suggested what I call ‘step-for-step’ approach. Based on the understanding I just explained, I have been engaging my Arab friends, the Astana players but most importantly of course the government of Damascus on this. What we are trying to do is to agree on what we call concrete mutual and reciprocal steps that could be taken to try to unlock progress and to move the political process forward. These steps, and this is extremely important, must be very viable and implemented in parallel. Obviously, the reason we want to do this is to try to build confidence and see if we can change the realities on the ground. I highlighted few issues that should be part of such process.
Give us some examples.
Obviously we all know that the file of abductees and missing persons is extremely important and then the file of building conditions for safe dignified return of refugees is of course very important and if we are discussing that, overall we need to address protection issue, to discuss conscription, housing, land and property issues and what I call signal documentation. We also need to put on the table how we can restore socio-economic conditions and this issue became even more important after the earthquakes and part of this means addressing the issue of sanctions. Obviously, what it takes to deliver is all parties participate and put the issues on the table. Here frankly speaking from the dialogues we had so far, I see there are some overlap between the different initiatives, there are complimentary things that we could be doing and there are of course also some differences which should be no surprise to anyone.
I do believe that what we have seen in Moscow and with the Arab initiative that all of this could be a ‘circuit breaker’, the beginning of a possible development and I also said that it is extremely important that the government in Damascus uses this opportunity to engage and that is of course if what we need to see this process move forward.
As you mentioned, ‘step for step’ is sort of a part of the political and diplomatic initiative and this approach has been mentioned in Amman statement, do you think that those initiatives are really willing to engage seriously with this ‘step for step’ approach or just a lip service?
I have a good dialogue with the Arab foreign ministers, I also have with foreign minister Mikdad. I think they all understand very clearly what the key challenges are when it comes to solving the Syrian conflict. The reality on the ground is still there, it is a deeply divided country, there are different entities still controlling different parts of Syria, we have an economic and humanitarian crisis and there are still the challenges of terrorism. I know of course from our friends the issue of the Captagon, all these issues are complex and it need proper understanding and proper engagements. We can work together on this, and I am hearing very positive messages from the Arab foreign ministers about their intentions to work closely with me and the UN to address these issues and after the Arab summit I am looking forward to how to develop this further.
The same of course goes for the Astana players. I am still in close contact with Russia, Iran and Türkiye and there are also overlaps between what they are discussing, what the Arabs are discussing and what we are discussing. It is important that we continue to coordinate, we share information and based on this and the understanding that no one actor can solve the crisis alone. We need all actors to be part of this, to participate. This goes for the Arabs, for the Turks, Iranians, Russians, Americans and Europeans. I see my role as being able to contribute in one way or another to bring different parties to share, to put on the table something that can move the process forward and help change the reality on the ground in Syria.
Is it true that there is a timetable that some Arab countries are expecting Damascus to take certain steps on certain issues?
Let me not talk on behalf of my Arab friends, you have to ask them about how precisely they want to move forward. We had very good discussions so far and hope to continue to deepen the dialogue and have a follow up that would enhance and strengthen the different initiatives launched.
None of us are to have any illusions that this is easy. It will take a lot of hard work but hopefully the reality on the ground, the enormous needs in Syria that have been there for a long time now but even bigger after the earthquake, that it is more important than ever that we come together and see if there is a serious interest in moving forward in a manner that is reciprocal and is very viable and can have in parallel.
There is a gap at least for now, we see Arab normalization with Damascus and the Syrian government and at the same time the western countries, the Americans and specially the Congress are moving in a different direction, trying to impose and tighten the sanctions on Syria. As UN special envoy for Syria, does this make your mission easier or more difficult?
You are absolutely right, there is still a deep division in the international community when it comes to Syria. There is no doubt about it. You are right that we are seeing lately a renewed debate brought in Washington and European capitals on how to continue engaging in this process. My impression is that they all understand and all support the concept of the ‘step for step’ process. If we can see that Damascus now really engages in this process, this will give us a renewed opportunity to move this process. A ‘step for step’ process means that all parties deliver something concrete so that we can move forward.
A source mentioned that the approach is that we offer Damascus incentives and Damascus has to offer something in return, in terms of Captagon, the return of refugees, political process and we need to see concrete steps in the upcoming four to six months. If there is no response, then the western countries will be even tougher on Damascus than now.
The western countries should answer you directly. For me, the situation is we have now had 12 years of war and conflict, things need to change and we are seeing an initiative from the Arabs, the Turks, the Astana format, this creates a real opportunity to move the process forward. We now need to see Damascus respond positively to this. If this is not happening, the reality is that the economic and social situation in Syria will continue to deteriorate and the call for political solution will be further diminished and it will be a disaster for all of us. We are indeed at a very critical time.
I notice that I am hearing positive statements from the Arabs when it comes to have new meetings for the Constitution Committee. In Amman they stated that it is important for the Constitution Committee to meet as soon as possible. I am hearing the same from the Astana players. One easy first step should be to reconvene the Constitution Committee in Geneva. That is really one first small step that should be taken. Then it will be possible for me to follow along with the follow up committee from the Arab League and discuss precisely how to move forward, in the same manner as I am having concrete discussions with Türkiye, Iran and Russia and indeed with Americans and Europeans.
This is the unique role of the United Nations, I can talk to everyone and I can bring something to the table that no one else can bring.
Some people are saying that actually the Moscow quadruple track - Iran, Russia, Syria, Türkiye - is a substitute for Astana process and that the Arab track with Damascus is a substitute for Geneva process. Some people are saying that the big victim out of these processes is the UN sponsored process, whether it is the Constitution Committee or 2254. What is your response to this?
These processes have a potential: The Arab initiative, the Moscow track. If it starts delivering, then nothing will be better and I could see that as a support to what we are trying to achieve which is to move the situation in Syria forward in a manner that we can start to see what I call a safe home and neutral environment emerging that will enable us to move forward also on the political process. As I said, all of these initiatives are important but if we really want to see a move forward, we need to have a comprehensive view both on what it requires to change when it comes to Syria, what it requires of international engagement to move forward in Syria and none of this will be easy, but there is now an opening, a possibility but this possibility must be grasped by the government in Damascus.
For you as UN special envoy what are the next steps that you are going to work on?
We are now studying very carefully what is happening on the Moscow track, the Arab initiative, the situation after the earthquake, UN coordination, and based on all this, I have been active lately in my engagement with different key interlocutors. We will try to make sure that we develop this in a manner that can enhance the possibilities of success with the Syrian parties, with the Arabs, with Moscow, with Washington and with the Europeans. It is a huge challenge but without all being interactive together the process will stall. My job is to try to prevent that of happening. So far, the messages I am receiving in particular from my Arab friends are promising.
Until now we have not seen big progress, big change on the ground, what will you tell the Syrian citizens whether they are in Damascus, Idlib, Qamishli, in Lebanon, Jordan, Frankfurt, Paris, London... How can you convince them that actually what we are seeing now will contribute to improving their situation?
After 12 years of war and conflict, the political process so far has not delivered. I understand there is a lot of skepticism and cynicism towards the possibility of seeing a real change. What we are seeing now are important symbolic political moves, but nothing has changed when it comes to the situation on the ground in Syria. What my team and I revert together with all the UN colleagues to try to achieve is that we will see a beginning of a change to this. We will see that reality on the ground is changing and if that is not happening, we are risking continued years of war and conflict, a deterioration of the economic and social foundations in Syria. People are deprived of even hope to see these necessary changes that we need to see if Syria is to return to a situation where people can live in a situation that is safe and calm, and those refugees who want to return can return to their homes and those who are displaced can return to their homes. There needs to be a healing in the Syrian society and I notice from the Arab friends that there is talk about the need for a national reconciliation. Let us hope that this can be the beginning of something new. Are we guaranteed success? Absolutely not. But we should welcome that people are trying to do something. As I said, status quo should not be acceptable.
Some of the political opposition feel that they are abandoned, are they right in this feeling?
The reality is of course that we are seeing a lot of diplomatic moves. If these moves lead to changes on the ground in a manner that will move the process forward, I am sure then it will be welcomed by everyone and this is what we need to see. As I said, I understand the skepticism and even the cynicism to whether this is possible or not. How the opposition sees this, I think you should ask them directly.
In January 2014 there was Montreux conference sponsored by the UN to implement Geneva communique, in December 2015 there was another conference in Vienna which led to 2254. Now in 2023 are we going to see something similar like a big conference in your presence to discuss a political solution in Syria?
How practical what will happen it is too early to say, but your point is a good point and it is what I have tried to reinforce through my discussion with you today and that it is for this to move forward one way or the other. All these different initiatives need to come together. I need to make sure that I have all the key actors on board, obviously the Syrian parties, the Astana players, the Arabs, the Americans and the Europeans. I can reassure you that I will do my utmost so that we will be able to move along those lines.