Geir Pedersen is a “diplomat’s diplomat” who as the new special envoy to Syria could bring a “non-conventional approach” to ending the war, say people who have worked with the Norwegian negotiator.
The veteran diplomat has decades of experience navigating delicate Middle Eastern conflicts and is described by colleagues as pragmatic and skilled at conflict resolution.
Mr Pedersen is highly trusted by the Norwegian government, which in 2012 pulled him from a top UN posting in New York to serve as ambassador to China as part of its efforts to normalise diplomatic relations that had been frozen since Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Before his stint in New York, Mr Pedersen served as the UN’s special coordinator for Lebanon from 2005 to 2008. He was known for speaking to all Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah, a trait that he will need to deploy in Syria to engage with warring factions.
During Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel, Mr Pedersen dealt regularly with former Lebanon Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who found him “mature and understanding”.
His experience in Lebanon demonstrated Mr Pedersen's diplomatic expertise in dealing with complex conflicts, Mr Siniora told The National. "He is a very professional person, who is systematic in dealing with issues. He is not just a public relations guy."
He may have a better chance than his predecessor Staffan de Mistura in brokering a solution to the conflict, Mr Siniora said. “Conditions are now more conducive for a political solution. There is a general fatigue. People want an end to the conflict.”
Mr de Mistura’s predecessors, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi, both resigned in frustration over the lack of progress in ending the conflict.
Mr Pedersen’s Middle East experience dates back the early 1990s. In 1993, he took part in secret negotiations that led to the Oslo Agreement and mutual recognition between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel. Between 1998 and 2003, he was Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority.
“Geir worked effectively and quietly behind the scenes,” recalled Aaron David Miller, a former US negotiator who worked with Mr Pedersen in the run-up to the 2000 Camp David summit between the former US, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat.
Now the director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC, Mr Miller remembers his former colleague as a “thoughtful, committed negotiator.”
But the odds of achieving a lasting peace in Syria may be even lower than what they were for an Israel Palestine settlement in Camp David in 2000, he cautioned. “He has been given another mission impossible.”
Peace between the government and rebels will require leverage from outside powers, including stalwart Bashar Al Assad ally Russia. “You could bring back the world’s greatest negotiator but unless Russians, Turks, Iran and Assad cooperate, it will be a key to an empty room.”
In 2003 and 2004, Mr Pedersen served as Director of the Asia and Pacific Division in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, where he worked on the Middle East peace process and Iraq.
Salman Shaikh, a former UN staffer and current Middle East expert, worked with him on a 2003 UN investigation after Israel made allegations that Palestinian weapons were being transported in ambulances belonging to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
"Geir showed himself to be principled and his own man," Mr Shaikh told The National. "He was clear with all parties, and his main objective was seeking the truth and communicating that with everyone who is involved."
Mr Shaikh went on to work with Mr Pedersen in Ramallah, Beirut and New York, and believes his former colleague can make a difference in Syria. “He is from a newer generation of diplomats who is ready to employ innovative ways, a more inclusive approach, and to work with all those involved including non-state actors.”
In Syria, Mr Pedersen may break with his predecessors by attempting to engage with ordinary Syrians, Mr Shaikh believes. Resolving the conflict “doesn’t lie just in the big powers. It requires giving a voice – and giving legitimacy – to the Syrians themselves.”
In Norway, Mr Pedersen is known as a “diplomat’s diplomat”, serious, professional and with a reputation for guarding his privacy. Even in Norwegian media there is little written about his personal life.
He was born in Oslo in 1955 and holds a Master of Arts majoring in History. He is married with five children.
Mr Pedersen is expected to assume the role within weeks. The UN and regional powers are increasingly desperate to end Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year. The conflict has claimed more than 360,000 lives and has displaced more than half of the population of 18 million.