UN Syria envoy should gear up for 'big loss' in final diplomatic trip

Staffan de Mistura is hoping to break new ground on establishing a constitutional comittee

(FILES) This file photo taken on December 14, 2017 shows UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arriving to a press conference closing a round of Intra Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva. The United Nations envoy for Syria announced on October 17, 2018 he will step down at the end of November after more than four years in the key post, setting back UN efforts to end the seven-year war in Syria.
 / AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI

In his last major diplomatic mission before leaving his post in December, UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will attend trilateral talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Wednesday-  a last-ditch effort to form a balanced and inclusive committee that will oversee the drafting of a new Syria constitution.

However, chances of success for the veteran diplomat are slim and the committee will likely be added to a long list of diplomatic blunders, which includes botched UN-sponsored peace talks, a spate of collapsed ceasefires and outmanoeuvring by regime ally Russia, which has assumed the diplomatic lead in Syria's peace process.

Failure to form an inclusive committee will not only be emblematic of the UN’s struggle to achieve a meaningful diplomatic impact in the country, but also suggests that the prospects of political reform and fair distribution of power in post-war Syria will be reduced to a pipe dream, as Damascus and its global backers move to concentrate power in a centralized core, experts said.

"Mr de Mistura better be prepared to go out of his position as the UN Envoy for Syria with a big loss," Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East fellow at the Center for a New American Security told The National.

“The constitutional committee process is at best a farce that will produce no tangible results for reform in the Syrian system, and at worst it is a mechanism for Russia to game the system for Assad to stay in power.”

Attempts to establish a 150-member committee comprising of representatives of the government, opposition and civil society have floundered since the plan was first announced at the end of a Russian-sponsored Syria summit in January.

The main sticking point has been the Syrian government's rejection of a list of 50 individuals, including experts, civil society representatives, independents, tribal leaders and women, proposed by the UN to serve on the committee.

Damascus has maintained its view that constitutional reform is an internal matter, ruling out any role for the UN and its suggested candidates in the process of drafting a new constitution.

The Swedish-Italian diplomat is scheduled to meet with representatives of Tehran, Moscow and Ankara on 28 and 29 November in an attempt to “to accelerate a concrete outcome on the establishment of a constitutional committee,” his office said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr de Mistura is hoping to leverage commitments made by the leaders of Turkey, Russia, Germany and France in Istanbul last month, in which they said that the committee should be established by the end of the year.

With weeks to go before the new year and Mr de Mistura's departure, trilateral talks in Astana are widely seen as the last chance for Russia and Turkey to deliver on their promises, and a final chance for the UN envoy to achieve one last success.

"The presence of the Special Envoy in Astana will be in a spirit of not leaving any stone unturned and maximising the chances of the Istanbul Joint Statement to be upheld," Mr de Mistura's office said.

"He has offered clear proposals and the full range of creative ways forward."

Despite the up-beat tone of the latest statement, the UN envoy himself has admitted to the possibility of failure last week. “We may have to conclude that we may not be possible to form a constitutional committee, credible and inclusive at this stage,” he said.

“In such an unfortunate case […] I will certainly be ready to explain to the [Security] Council, why."

In a country which has been governed by the same centralized system of power for nearly half a century, the issue of a new constitution is widely seen as an essential step towards achieving political reform and a new distribution of power among the country's Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish communities.

It is seen as a crucial part of a transitional process that will usher Syria out of a seven-year-long war and help entrench much needed political change.

It is partially for this reason that the new US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey has focused attention on the constitutional committee. But, according to Mr Heras of the Centre for a New American Security, those efforts are misplaced.

“While it is laudable that Ambassador Jeffrey wants to take a "Maximum Diplomacy" strategy to try to force changes in the Syrian system, mainly through concessions from Russia, the constitutional committee is a bad place to start,” Mr Heras said.

“The constitutional committee is not a hill for the Trump team to die on for its Syria policy.”