UN Deputy Envoy for Syria: “It’s an Emotional Rollercoaster”

As the fighting in Syria enters its eighth year, the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy speaks about efforts to end the conflict.

United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, Cairo, March 4, 2018. Courtesy of GAPP

Recently in Cairo to speak at the American University in Cairo about the Syrian conflict, the Cairo Review’s Asmaa Abdallah spoke to the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy on March 4, 2018 about the latest developments in the beleaguered country, efforts to resolve the crisis and the role of a mediator.

CAIRO REVIEW: The recent ceasefire in Syria is the last of many to be violated just days after its implementation. Why are they all collapsing?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: It always boils down to political will and it has to do as well with the geostrategic implications of every single case. Now, why especially in Eastern Ghouta? Eastern Ghouta is a de-escalation zone within very close proximity to the capital and therefore is problematic for the government of Syria but also provides an advantage for the opposition. As to how this situation came about, you will always hear two versions. One is that the government took the initiative and the government will say that it was reacting to armed groups shelling Damascus.

Regardless of who started, you get what you see today, this is really a huge fault line and anything can happen. The problem is that you have 400,000 people there and civilians are dying. We have to put an end to that. It was good that the security council was able to adopt unanimously resolution 2401 which demands a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for at least 30 days in order to ensure the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services to 5.6 million people in acute need including 2.9 million in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. The most important thing is the implementation of this resolution in all its entirety.

CAIRO REVIEW: With the lack of political will and both sides’ inability to sustain a decisive military gain, how do you see the conflict ending?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: I always believed peace has to grow from within. It’s up to the Syrians to decide the future of their country. That’s why the UN is very keen to engage both the Government of Syria and the opposition along with civil society, independents and women in the UN-facilitated Geneva peace process.

We need also the external factors to help create an internal dynamic. The external factors are the international and regional powers, and they have reached the conclusion that it’s not in their interest for this situation inside Syria to continue escalating and spill over the whole Middle East. Major players have come also to the conclusion that there can only be a political settlement to this crisis. This could help but still not entirely, because once again it’s up to the Syrians themselves to use security council resolution 2254, which includes a roadmap to peaceful settlement, in order to create a lasting peace in their country.

CAIRO REVIEW: In terms of mediation, there are the Astana process under the leadership of Russia, Iran and Turkey and also Russia’s Sochi process. How do these initiatives work alongside UN mediation efforts?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: The UN cannot operate in isolation of developments on the ground and international/regional related initiatives. If any country or a group of countries feel that they can help, we welcome that. But we always made it clear that whatever they were working on would complement the UN-led Geneva talks.

For example, you mentioned Astana, the three Astana co-guarantors managed to create four de-escalation zones. So while the UN was working on the political process, the Astana talks focused on de-escalation. This is what I mean by complementarity and this kind of orchestrated effort would help in advancing the political process.

The same goes for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that was held in Sochi last January, an attempt by the Russian Federation with the support of the other two guarantors to bring together as many Syrians as possible and to focus on the UN-sponsored twelve principles and the issue of constitutional reform. For us, Sochi was a contribution to complement the UN effort because constitutional reform is one of the four negotiating baskets in Geneva. Thus, we picked up Sochi outcome and now we are pursuing the creation of the constitutional committee.

There is also another initiative of the small group (US, UK, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) who are trying to contribute to the Geneva process.

What should be always clear is that there may be a few initiatives but the central mediator is the UN. We appreciate the constructive engagement of various stakeholders without compromising the centrality of the UN role.

CAIRO REVIEW: The last time the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met was in Feb 2016, do you feel there is a collective global disengagement from the political process in Syria? Is there a Syria fatigue in the international community?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: I would not say there is a lack of international interest, on the contrary, I would say global engagement has become more focused.

You have a UN Secretary General who is on top of every single detail on Syrian developments, giving the alleviation of human suffering and political settlement a priority.

You have the eight countries we have just mentioned “members of Astana and Small group” who are trying their best to generate ideas and implement actions on the ground to create a conducive environment for the peace process.

You mentioned ISSG as a larger framework, I will remind you that the two bodies this group has created (the ceasefire taskforce and humanitarian taskforce) are still meeting regularly in Geneva on weekly bases. Such meetings provide a platform to exchange views and discuss ways ahead even during difficult times when developments on the ground are not promising.

Furthermore, the defeat of ISIL or Daesh in both Iraq and Syria and the liberation of Raqqa was a sort of wake up call for many regional and international players. They started to ask questions on the day after Raqqa and how to make sure ISIL will not make a comeback in Syria? as a result, there is a growing global awareness that counter-terrorism measures were just the beginning of a long way to establish peace in Syria.

CAIRO REVIEW: In addition to the local parties involved in the civil war in Syria, the country has also been the arena for many proxy conflicts, including US, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Kurds and ISIS. How does the UN deal with these proxy conflicts, some of which involve non-state actors?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: The number of state as well as non-state actors involved in the Syrian crisis is unprecedented on international, regional and internal levels. Just to give you an idea of the scale: about 40 countries were involved in WWI, while about 102 nationalities fought in WWII. In Syria today, at least 81 countries are engaged militarily either directly through armies and militias or indirectly through foreign fighters from as far as Australia. This is the level of complexity the UN is facing in Syria.

Let me be clear here, with the exception of the UN-designated terrorist organizations, the Special Envoy and his office are open to engage with all relevant parties. This does not mean that the UN has channels of communications with every single group in Syria, which is practically impossible as they are too many. However, let me assure you that the UN has a very active network of communication with the government of Syria, the internal as well as external opposition, civil society and all regional and international stakeholders.

CAIRO REVIEW: How committed are the Syrian authorities to the peace process?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: Well, you know every peace process has its own terms of reference and when it comes to the Syrian Crisis the most recent and comprehensive one is Security Council Resolution 2254. This resolution indicates that a political settlement should include free and fair elections pursuant to a new constitution, administered under supervision of the UN and held to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the Diaspora, eligible to participate.

Accordingly, UN special envoy has channeled negotiating issues through four baskets dealing with constitutional reform, elections, counter-terrorism and confidence building measures and governance issues. We have conducted nine rounds of Inter-Syrian Talks so far, the government of Syria has participated in all rounds. This in itself reflects a certain level of commitment to the process and the terms of reference. However, more constructive engagement is still needed for this process to be fruitful.

CAIRO REVIEW: And how committed have they been to allowing access to humanitarian aid?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: There are bureaucratic problems and some logistical challenges. The government says it’s because of the security situation, but we have been in discussion with them. There are certain steps that can be simplified and they have on occasion responded positively, on occasion not. It’s very complicated. For the government, the reason they give is that the security situation makes it difficult to respond in the way and at the pace that the UN wants. Of course, we also look at the security of our own people but we keep on pushing because there are human lives at stake.

We’ve made it very clear on many occasions that we were ready and the trucks were ready not only to deliver food and medicine but also to evacuate those in need for medical evacuation. There’s certain paperwork and some of it has been delayed sometimes. And for the past… almost a year now it’s been very difficult, very little has been done, unfortunately. The Special Envoy and the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs have made that very clear in the Security Council that we would like things to move faster.

CAIRO REVIEW: Resolution 2254 states that “the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.” Do you see this happening in the foreseeable future? What steps has the UN taken towards achieving this end?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: The Syrians are the ones who have suffered the most, we have to help them. We are not going to impose anything on them. The regional players and major international players have a duty and obligation to help the UN create a situation where the Syrians can exercise their right to determine their future.

Nobody is going to write the constitution for the Syrians. Nobody is going to impose a constitution on them. What we do is help them create the context, create a mechanism and provide them with the ideas and inputs so that they can among themselves discuss the constitution. At the end of the day they will draft it and it will be subject to popular approval by the Syrian people.

The UN’s work in Syria has taken place over two stages. The first stage was from 2012 to 2014 and its efforts were spearheaded by former envoys Kofi Anan and Lakhdar Brahimi. During this stage, the six points plan and Geneva communique laid the foundation for a settlement, but Syrians have said there were not even involved in it. Brahimi’s efforts culminated in Geneva when he managed to bring Syrian parties around the same table, which was an important development. But this was a top to bottom approach.

Stage two began with the appointment of Staffan de Mistura and it sets a precedent for UN mediation efforts. We decided early on that beside political rounds of Inter-Syrian talks which I explained earlier (which is a continuation of the top to bottom approach), we have to work with Syrian grassroots. We also adopted the bottom-up approach. Through a series of meetings, we’ve reached out to many important Syrian individuals, and produced insights on what they want. And we have created two important bodies to enable Syrians from all walks of life to share their perspectives on the future of their country: The Civil Society Support Room and the Women’s Advisory Board. In short, we proceeded along two complementary tracks that are designed to reinforce one another.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you see the formation of the transitional governing body? And the role of Assad?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: The Geneva communique does speak of that body but it has not defined it. This is subject to negotiations. Now according to resolution 2254 and the four basket agenda we are talking about governance. Let’s see what this governance will look like.

Many in the opposition, regional actors and international players have made some observations on the role of President Assad in the future of Syria. I think these are issues that will have to be negotiated. It is not a precondition. We’ve made it very clear that we will not accept preconditions in the negotiations. You can have a political statement on that issue. But when it comes to the negotiating table we will not accept any party bringing preconditions. Because the government for example considers a good part if not all the opposition to be terrorists. No, they are not terrorists, not according to the Security Council relevant resolutions. So you will come and you will discuss. We don’t accept preconditions neither from the government nor from the opposition. This is an issue for the Syrians to discuss among themselves and whatever arrangement they agree upon will be acceptable.

CAIRO REVIEW: This is more of a general question, not only relating to Syria, but to the approach to conflict-resolution globally: As a mediator and as a diplomat who has been involved in issues of international security for a long time, do you feel that some parties are easily resorting to suggesting partition and regime change—which were once considered taboos—as means of conflict resolution?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: I am sorry to say yes to some extent, but it’s probably people who are not experts on conflict resolution or who have no mediation experience or who are not well versed in the intricacies and complexities of a particular region. Someone could look at this or that country and say, well there are these ethnic or religious divisions, so the only way to solve it is by partition.

But let me be very clear here on two issues: first: the UN respects and will continue to respect the unity and territorial integrity of every single member state. second: the UN is not after regime change in any country, this is not one of the roles stipulated in the UN Charter.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you see the role of the UN in post-conflict Syria?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: First you have to have a political settlement that everyone agrees upon and that is internationally sanctioned. The role of the UN would be explicit in that political settlement. But clearly the UN has a role to play in early recovery, stabilization efforts and reconstruction projects. But that’s after the settlement.

I fully understand the importance of post conflict reconciliation and reconstruction specially with the massive scale of destruction in almost every Syrian governorate.  I also realize that stabilization is an essential prerequisite for refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes. But “sequencing” is the key word here.

We have to achieve a just and viable political settlement according to resolution 2254 in order to bring the conflict into and end, then embark on the challenging mission you are referring to. Once you have a settlement, the role of the UN is to bring back the country to its feet. By then, I believe the UN and the UN system will have not only an obligation to do that but also the necessary expertise and lessons learned needed to deal with the challenges of post conflict Syria.

CAIRO REVIEW: The job of the UN Special Envoy to Syria has been called “mission impossible.” Do you agree?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: Of course it’s very complicated. It is an emotional rollercoaster—every time we feel we’re almost there, something unexpected happens.

But in mediation there is no mission impossible. It’s just a very complicated mediation process. Our job as mediators against all odds is to identify the silver lining, build on it and convince the parties to try to solve the problem. We try not to be overly optimistic. But impossible? We might as well give up.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is your message for the thousands of Syrians who feel abandoned and have lost hope?
RAMZY EZZELDIN RAMZY: I think they should keep their hopes and confidence that the UN will not let them down. The UN will keep on doing what they can. These are very difficult circumstances to keep the hope alive. The UN wants a settlement in which all Syrians live in peace, security, and above all dignity. That is what we strive for. And I don’t think we will give that up. Whether it’s the present special envoy or myself or whoever will replace us.

I hope it will not take time. I hope we can do it. There is a real commitment by the UN.

I know people are frustrated and say what has the UN done? Believe me the UN has tried everything. It will pursue every avenue and will leave no stone unturned despite all the criticism we get. Do we have another choice? We owe it to the Syrian people.