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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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UN Special Envoy to Syria, De Mistura, speaks on his strategy for peace

Sep. 27, 2017

A high-level meeting on Syria was held at the UN General Assembly last week. Many nations spoke of the need for a political solution to the country's situation. Today, the civil war in Syria is at a major turning point. The UN's Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is gradually seeing some progress in his political negotiations.

Sophia University Associate Professor Daisaku Higashi, an expert on peace building, discusses the issue with Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya. Professor Higashi was in Lebanon and Geneva until last week, investigating the situation in Syria. He interviewed Staffan de Mistura.

Nakayama: You heard from people directly involved in the conflict in the country. Following your latest research, how do you see the current state of Syria?

Higashi: It faces a critical moment. It is important to differentiate the fight between the government and ISIS and the fight between the government and other opposition groups.

In the Eastern part, the government, supported by Russian and Iranian troops, has been pushing ISIS to the edge of the country. The other opposition groups are isolated within smaller areas, supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.

But just 2 weeks ago, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, together with the government and the opposition groups, obtained an agreement on the borders of the de-escalation zones and its monitoring mechanism. Thus, it is expected that the fighting between the government and opposition groups in these de-escalation zones will cease, at least for a while.

Now the focus is on how to obtain a political agreement between the opposition groups in control of these areas and the government. I asked Staffan de Mitsura about his strategy for diplomatic negotiations.

"Even if the government has gained a lot of territory, being in a position and ready to negotiate. Now is the time for negotiate. Otherwise, a new Daesh will come, and the conflict will continue for too long, and no reconstruction would take place because countries like Japan, Europe, EU, World Bank, will be reluctant, according to what I hear, to invest any funding unless there is at least a credible political formula," says De Mitsura.

After De Mistura held talks with hundreds of different groups, 20 nations formed the International Syria Support Group at the end of 2015. Then, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution supporting Syria's political transition. It called for inclusive governance, the creation of a new constitution, and the implementation of free and fair elections.

In February 2016, De Mistura began to host intra-Syrian talks. Despite his efforts, government forces supported by Russia and Iran intensified their attack on Aleppo, a stronghold of the opposition from May 2016. De Mistura's intra-Syrian talks were also suspended.

In December 2016, government forces regained control of Aleppo, not through dialogue, but by military force.

De Mistura explains, "They kept fighting for a simply one reason: both sides and their sponsors felt that there was a military victory achievable. That’s the main reason. I was convinced, and I’m still convinced, even when we see like we’re doing now, that the Syrian government has reconquered a lot of territory, the issue is not about military victory but is also about winning peace."

This February, De Mistura resumed intra-Syrian talks. But some experts say that the Syrian government has not demonstrated serious consideration of a political transition.

De Mitsura says, "Mr. Assad believes that he should not negotiate because any negotiation would be weakening him. Our argument is that out of the 7 years of war, and a need of a construction of Syria, on the contrary, a negotiation which is inclusive will strengthen the fact that Syria will and can go back to what it used to be -- a good wealthy, medium wealthy country."

Higashi asks De Mitsura whether he's concerned the Syrian conflict could end without any political transition.

De Mitsura responds, "I would be naive if I did not express concern about it, and what we certainly don't want is to have this conflict become a low-intensity guerrilla type of conflict with no reconstruction taking place, and a divided approach by the international community about how to help Syria.

That's why I want to believe that in spite of that possible outcome which I hope would not take place, and that concern, this will not happen, and there will be a negotiation because the alternative will be a very bad chronical disease not a cure, a very bad long-term chronical disease in Syria."

Shibuya: What do you think is the next important step in Syria's political process?

Higashi: In addition to the persuasion to the government side, the big question is how the oppositions can be united, as the government argues that it cannot talk with very divided oppositions.

Saudi Arabia is planning to host an event in the middle of October to gather all of opposition groups of Syria and create a unified platform, including how to deal with the question of remaining of President Assad in the transitional government. This is one of the important events.

At the same time, if the war is ended by only one-side military victory, without any political transition, it is possible that the grievance of Sunni people, who are the majority in Syria, will expand, and it might create other sustained insurgent groups fighting against the government.

I think these intra-Syrian talks will have a huge impact on the future course of Syria, including how western countries and Japan will engage with Syria in the future.