Aron Lund writes: On July 29, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, stood before the UN Security Council to explain his strategy for peace in Syria. The Swedish-Italian diplomat took office in July 2014, following the resignation of his predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi, who had attempted to reconcile Syria’s warring parties at a high-stakes peace conference known as Geneva II. Held in two rounds in January and February 2014, these talks failed to produce any results.
Pessimistic about the chances for a countrywide peace deal, de Mistura first tried to negotiate a local ceasefire in the Aleppo area. It failed, for many of the same reasons that Geneva II had failed: lukewarm international support, attempts by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to water down and exploit the deal, and outright hostility from armed rebels who were, in any case, too divided to effectively enforce a ceasefire. In spring 2015, de Mistura gave up on the Aleppo plan, at least for the time being. Acting on instructions from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he instead launched a series of consultative talks with the parties in April 2015, to prepare for a reboot of the peace process.
Meanwhile, the tide of the conflict turned. Assad had enjoyed battlefield success for much of 2014, but by March 2015, his hollowed-out economy and understaffed army began to buckle. The Iranian nuclear deal concluded on June 14, 2015, seemed set to strengthen one of Assad’s key allies. Several opposition conferences have taken place inside and outside of Syria during the year, some of them backed by the Syrian president’s other major ally, Russia, and many have speculated that these meetings are linked to “Geneva III,” as de Mistura’s efforts were inevitably dubbed.
Although de Mistura was reportedly pressured by some countries in the Security Council to convene another conference on the Brahimi model, he finally opted for a more cautious approach. Saying that he does not see any real chance for a peaceful political transition in Syria at this time, de Mistura declared on July 29 that he will try to engage the parties in a less contentious negotiating format, aiming to limit human suffering, identify areas of shared interest, and formulate common principles. If successful, these talks could pave the way for negotiations over core issues in the future. For now, four working groups will be set up to discuss “safety and protection for all, political and constitutional issues, military and security issues, and public institutions, reconstruction and development,” in the words of one news report.
How will de Mistura’s project affect Syria’s future and what is in store for the country in 2015? To answer these questions, I have asked a group of leading Syria specialists to explain how they rate chances of the UN peace bid and how they view Syria’s future more generally. I’m sad but not surprised to see the level of pessimism that prevails. [Continue reading…]