De Mistura: noble diplomat, who carries weight of Syria's crisis

The Italian-Swedish diplomat has had 40 years’ worth of experience with the United Nations and served as deputy foreign minister in the Italian government headed by Mario Monti

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference closing a round of Intra Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva, on December 14, 2017. 
The UN mediator at Syria peace talks in Geneva has "undermined" his position by appealing to Moscow to convince Damascus to hold new elections, the Syrian government's top negotiator said on December 14. / AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI

In July 2014, Staffan de Mistura was enjoying a tranquil summer on the Italian isle of Capri when he received what might be one of the toughest job offers in the world.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat has had 40 years' worth of experience with the United Nations and served as deputy foreign minister in the Italian government headed by Mario Monti.

Mr de Mistura was chosen by the UN's former secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to replace Lakhdar Brahimi as the international mediator seeking to find a peaceful resolution to one of the bloodiest and most complex conflicts of the century, the Syrian civil war.

However, Mr de Mistura hesitated over Mr Ban's offer, he felt inclined to turn it down.

"I felt guilty," he told The Guardian newspaper in August 2014.

Mr Ban had shared with him “very wisely the current situation in Syria, how many dead, how many refugees, the level of horrors,” he said.

A few hours later, Mr de Mistura accepted the job, even though he had promised his family a "normal life".

Born in Stockholm in 1947 to a Swedish mother and an Italian father, Mr de Mistura graduated from the University of Rome with a degree in political science and development economics. He speaks seven languages, including colloquial Arabic.

The diplomat began his career in 1971 as a World Food Programme project officer in Sudan and has had over 42 years of humanitarian work experience and 19 overseas missions, largely in conflict zones.

The responsibility of a UN envoy for Syria is tough, the first two envoys, Kofi Annan and Mr Brahimi, resigned in frustration and disgust.

Mr de Mistura's predecessor, Mr Brahimi, was a veteran Algerian diplomat, who resigned in May 2014 after the failure of the second round of Geneva talks in January and February of 2014.

The eight rounds of UN-brokered peace talks ended last Thursday in Geneva without “real negotiations”.

Mr de Mistura's team failed to get the opposition and the Syrian government to engage in direct talks. The diplomat stressed that the regime failed to demonstrate the slightest willingness to negotiate.

The UN security council remains deeply divided with Russia backing Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, while the US, UK and France are supporting a coalition of opposition groups led by thy Syrian National Coalition.

Throughout his career, Mr de Mistura had developed a reputation as a creative diplomat with strong empathy for civilians and refugees.

"I understood, at 10 years old, the strongest pain for a political refugee is lack of dignity," Mr de Mistura told The Guardian, as his father was left stateless after the second world war.

Mr de Mistura worked for various UN agencies and served as the top UN envoy in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 and in Iraq from 2007-2009, and as the secretary-general's personal representative for southern Lebanon from 2001-04.