Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura served as UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria from July 2014 to November 2018. The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication Diplomatic Herald recently spoke with de Mistura about peacemaking, the Syrian crisis and the Astana Process. That interview, edited for space and style, is reprinted here.
What attracted you to the work of conflict mediation?
The job of an international conflicts mediator is a very complicated one, since often the two opposing sides, while claiming to aim for a political solution, in fact, want a military outcome consistent with their own agenda. While this is true in most conflicts, this should not deter the mediator from trying hard to find a sustainable political solution.
As a child, I wanted to become a fire fighter, then a medical doctor… Finally, I settled for being a “doctor of countries.”
Doctors cannot afford the luxury of frustration, since sometimes there is no obvious cure to a disease. The same often applies to a mediator. However, he or she can, like a doctor, still prolong the life of the patient, reduce the pain and provide hope, while creatively searching all the time for a cure, which may be around the corner.
What are some of the key challenges you have faced as a mediator and how have you solved them?
For an international mediator nowadays, the main challenges are the profound lack of trust between the fighting sides, the multipolar complexity of current conflicts, which in cases like Syria can include up to 15 countries and entities, and divisions among members of the Security Council.
Hence, in order to try to overcome all these challenges the best is to exercise patience, perseverance and constructive creativity, always bearing in mind that the main priority is and should always be saving the lives of the civilian population.
The conflict in Syria is among the 21st century’s bloodiest and most complex challenges for the international community to address. What parting words did you have for your successor, Geir Pedersen?
Indeed, the Syrian conflict has been defined by most observers as the worst in the 21st century with almost 500,000 victims, five million refugees, six million displaced people and massive destruction of urban centres, hospitals and schools. In addition, thousands of people were detained, abducted and disappeared. Therefore, no one should expect a miraculous quick fix from a mediator in such a complicated situation.
Each international mediator has his/her style and approach to the search for a solution, also depending on the volatile circumstances of a very volatile conflict like the Syrian one. Therefore, apart from a very in-depth briefing on what so far has been done in order to mitigate the devastating effects of the conflict and the avenues pursued in order to find a politically sustainable and inclusive solution, my only advice to my very experienced successor Geir Pedersen was to be patient, perseverant and indeed creative.
In your opinion, has the Astana Process, conducted in support of the main Geneva platform, justified its mission?
The Astana initiative was meant to facilitate the dialogue between the sides and those who support them in order to produce some meaningful de-escalation areas and hence reduce the suffering of the civilians.
Such de-escalation areas did last for a period of an average of six months and did produce relief for the people during that period. By doing so, the Astana Process did indeed support the attempts by the Geneva UN-led political process aimed at pursuing the implementation of Resolution 2254.
What is your opinion about the organisational level of this dialogue platform?
I can say that the Astana Process is distinguished by the high international level of organisation. This moment is also very important to gather the (Syrian) government and armed opposition together with the three guarantor countries and some observers in order to discuss concretely, in an atmosphere conductive to potential agreements, important issues such as the sustainability of lifesaving de-escalation areas and the fate of detainees and missing people.
How do you value the contribution of the First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev to the launch of the Astana Process?
Actually, the role and viewpoint of political leaders strongly impact global security. In this regard, I would say that launching the Astana de-escalation initiative by the First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has been crucially important and indeed extremely effective.
I would like to express the hope that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who is a very seasoned diplomat and politician, will keep the country’s intention to contribute to peace-making and peacekeeping globally.