Can this Man Save Syria?

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Ban Ki Moon yesterday appointed Staffan de Mistura as his newest special envoy for Syria. He follows Lakdhar Brahimi and Kofi Annan as the latest international mediator for the conflict.

de Mistura is well-known in UN circles. He’s a duel Swedish-and Italian citizen, former foreign minister of Italy and top UN official in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a veteran diplomat and skilled troubleshooter. But can he succeed where Kofi Annan and Lakhdhar Brahimi failed?

Probably not. And that has very little to do with his diplomatic acumen and very much to do with the fundamental diplomatic dynamic that has so far stymied an internationally backed peaceful resolution to Syria’s civil war.  The Security Council is paralyzed on Syria, with the gaps between Russia on the one hand and the USA, UK and France growing wider by the day. Russia has vetoed four previous resolutions on Syria, and there’s no prospects for unity at the Security Council in the horizon.

This lack of cohesion at the Security Council has made it impossible to compel the Assad government to enter into good faith negotiations; and it has made it impossible to work cooperatively with the regional actors that are backing various sides of the conflict. No one wants to see the Syria conflict drag on, but there is a wide gulf between the outcomes that Russia seeks and the outcomes that the USA and the west seek.  Without unity, there is very little the Security Council can do to affect outcomes in Syria. It cannot sanction instigators of the conflict; it cannot compel compliance with a peace accord; and it cannot threaten coercive action to force the sides to the negotiating table.

This brings us back to Steffan de Mistura. He is set up to fail in the same way as Brahimi and Annan — two other exceptional diplomats. He is a lone mediator without the backing of the Security Council. Until the Security Council finds unity, there is very little he can do or say to affect the situation on the ground.  At this point, Prince von Metternich himself could come back to life and even he would not be able to mediate away this crisis.