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New UN Envoy Faces Arduous Task amid US Withdrawal from Syria

New UN Envoy Faces Arduous Task amid US Withdrawal from Syria

Tuesday, 8 January, 2019 - 09:15
Destruction in Syria. (Reuters)
London – Ibrahim Hamidi
Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen arrived in Geneva on Monday to assume his duties as the new United Nations special envoy to Syria. He takes over from Staffan de Mistura, who announced that he was stepping down in November.

Pedersen faces a new reality in the region amid US President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw his troops from Syria and an ongoing Arab debate to normalize ties with the Damascus regime. Trump said he was pulling out his forces after ISIS was defeated in Syria.

When de Mistura assumed his position in 2014, the regime had control of only 10 percent of Syria and talks were underway over forming a transition body. The situation quickly changed in 2015 with Russia’s military intervention to prop up the regime, which now controls 60 percent of Syria. Washington and its allies hold 30 percent and Turkey holds some 10 percent.

Already facing a complicated situation in Syria, Pedersen’s mission was compounded by Trump’s announcement in December.

This prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to embark Monday on an eight-stop tour of the Middle East aimed at reassuring officials about their concerns over the withdrawal. US national security adviser John Bolton also visited Israel last week and was in Turkey on Monday for the same purpose.

Pompeo said Monday that his tour was aimed at ensuring that ISIS would not regroup in the Middle East, weakening Iran’s influence in the region and pushing forward the political solution in Syria.

This leaves the door open to various scenarios, such as possible agreements between Russia, the US and Turkey where Syria’s Kurds would not pay the price of Washington’s withdrawal. The US military base of Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border could also remain in the country to “monitor” Iranian influence in the area, said a western official.

Pedersen also enters the fray as Arab countries appear divided on normalizing ties with Damascus.

The Arab League had suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 in wake of the eruption of the country’s crisis.

Diplomats told Asharq Al-Awsat that an Arab League representatives meeting in Cairo Wednesday will not address its membership, but preparations for the Arab-European summit set for Brussels in February.

They said that four Arab blocs have emerged with conflicting views on restoring ties with Damascus. The first bloc has ten countries, including Algeria and Tunisia, and seeks to propose an “initiative” to restore Syria’s membership. The second bloc has four countries, including Egypt, that wants Syria to return, but it will not take an initiative to do so. The third bloc consists of three countries, including Morocco, and has voiced strong reservations against Syria’s return. The fourth bloc includes the remaining Arab countries that will go with whatever the organization decides.

In late December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir paid a visit to Damascus, making him the first Arab leader to do so since the eruption of the war. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is expected to land in the Syrian capital within days amid reports that another Arab leader is also set to visit.

At this rate, it appears that the decision on restoring Syria’s membership will be pushed until after the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit that will be hosted by Beirut later in January. The decisions of the Arab countries should be clear by the time the next Arab League summit, set for Tunisia, is held in March.

There is no doubt that Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Pompeo and Bolton’s tours will definitely impact the Arab stance on Syria. Washington had previously announced that it was against lifting the ban on Syria. It had also informed Arab countries not to be too hasty in reopening their embassies in the country because it wants to maintain “Damascus’ isolation.”

Moreover, Washington and Brussels have been planning a new set of sanctions on Syrian figures who are close to the regime.

Faced with this reality, Pedersen assumes his post from de Mistura, who leaves him with a number of other unresolved issues.

Pedersen had previously told Norwegian television that he would need the support of the UN Security Council and regional forces as he carries out his mission in Syria.

More importantly, he said, he would need to hold “good dialogue” with Syrian parties to ensure that a credible and transparent process can be kicked off.

De Mistura had informed the Security Council in December that he had failed in forming a constitutional committee aimed at drafting a new constitution for the country. He cited disputes over the candidates to the committee that were proposed by Damascus.

The UN said that the body must include 150 figures: 50 chosen by the regime, 50 by the opposition and 50 by the UN envoy.

Damascus had rejected the last proposed names and had, at Iran, Russia and Turkey’s support, called for changing 17 names. The UN refused the suggestion, saying that it could change six candidates.

Pederson has been his country’s ambassador to China since the beginning of 2018.

He has previously serviced as Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations for five years.

He has also served as the Secretary General Special Personal Representative and Special Coordinator for Lebanon at the level of Under-Secretary-General.

Before that, he was Director of Asia and Pacific Division in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

Between November 1998 and 2003, Pedersen served as the Norwegian Representative to the Palestinian Authority. From 1995 to 1998 he held different positions at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo.

In 1993, he was a member of the Norwegian team to the secret Oslo negotiations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles and the mutual recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

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