November 27, 2012

Jean-Marie Guéhenno knew he faced a challenge when his former boss at the UN, Kofi Annan, asked him to be the deputy joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League for Syria.

“I felt a bit like an oncologist who cannot say ‘I only deal with the easy cancers,’” said Guéhenno, who is the director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution and the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of Professional Practice at SIPA. “But you don’t pick and choose. Even if you know the odds are very low, you have got to try.”

Guéhenno’s remarks came at a November 13 talk at SIPA entitled "To Syria and Back: Why We Must Not Give Up." The talk — organized by the Center for International Conflict Resolution, the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, the Humanitarian Affairs Working Group and the Program on Humanitarian Affairs — was followed by a discussion between Professor Guéhenno and his SIPA faculty colleague Dipali Mukhopadhyay.

Elaborating how Syria is witnessing the specter of a fracture at three levels — global, regional, and national — Guéhenno, who was the UN under secretary general for peacekeeping operations from 2000 to 2008, highlighted the position of various stakeholders in the Syrian conflict.

Russia and China share a common concern about the Syrian crisis, Guéhenno said — namely, that “regime change should never be decided by foreigners.” But the two nations' positions also differ in some regards.

“China emphatically reminds us that it has no particular direct interest in Syria,” he said, characterizing China’s major concerns as stability in the region and the fear of the negative impact of a war on the global economy.

Russia, in contrast, sees Syria as its only strong ally in the region, Guéhenno explained, noting that Russian leadership fears that the downfall of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would bring in an Islamist regime in Syria.

“There is a deep suspicion in Russia that the smooth transition that some Western powers think is possible in Syria will not happen,” he said. “The Russians believe that because they look at other transitions and they don’t see Westerners as great experts in transition. They look at countries that are very different, from Afghanistan to Egypt to Libya, and in none of them are they completely reassured by the way the transition has gone.”

The worst-case scenario for Russians, said Guéhenno, would be a situation in which it accepts the Western position on Syria, and the West fails to carry out its promises. In such a situation, Russia would have lost a key ally. Russia’s preferred policy, stressed Guéhenno, is what it is saying publicly — that it does accept the possibility of change but it has be done through internally, and not imposed from the outside.

Syria, Guéhenno said, had become a battleground in the regional context. “For those countries that have seen the fall of Saddam Hussein as a major strategic gain for Iran, there is a key goal to push back Iran….. Assad’s defeat in Syria would show that Iran’s influence in the region is not what it would like it to be.” With Iran well aware of the Gulf countries’ stance, there is a “mortal battle” between the two camps, said Guéhenno.

The Iran factor is also creating a complicated situation for the Western powers, which are caught between two concerns, said Guéhenno. “One is outrage with what the news cycle brings everyday about Syria and the other is the priority that is given to the nuclear crisis with Iran,” he said.

Guéhenno also spoke about the deep ethnic, religious, and social divisions within Syria, emphasizing that a lack of unity remains in its polity, despite the recent progress made in Doha. Shedding light on the generational gap between Syrian politicians and the rest of its population, Guéhenno said, “This country has about 65 percent of its population under 35. Many politicians are in their 60s and some in their 70s and 80s. It doesn’t take a great political scientist to see that a politician in his 80s will not be the one who resonates with people in their 20s or 30s.”

Besides bringing out the differences in the international community, Guéhenno also spoke about what it agrees on, emphasizing some of the convergence points mentioned in the Geneva Communique. “When you look at the key positions of the P5, they have one joint interest. They don’t want an extremist regime in Syria. So on some fundamental issues, they have an agreement while they fundamentally disagree on how to get there.”

To overcome the obstacles in Syria, Guéhenno stressed, it was imperative to overcome the polarization of the region. “Annan’s view, which I fully supported, was that Iran should be in the tent rather than outside. This is a minority view at the moment among Western powers… but if one wants a conclusion, there has to be some engagement with Iran,” he said, adding that Iran also has to be part of the solution in the Kurdish issue, which concerns Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

Siding with the decision of the Security Council to pull out UN observers from the middle of the war in Syria earlier this year, Guéhenno said that the UN must continue to be engaged in Syria, but not with the idea that there will be a sequential engagement. Instead of a ceasefire followed by negotiations, “it will probably be negotiations in the middle of the fighting.”

The influence of the Western powers on the conflict, said Guéhenno, is limited. “It is limited for reasons of credibility. The conflict is as much about justice as it is about democracy, and the credentials of the Western powers on justice are not perceived as very high in the region,” said Guéhenno.

Despite a limited influence in the conflict, the West must continue to push for peace in Syria, said Guéhenno. “We have to accept that when the fighting stops, we will most likely be disappointed by what emerges from the post-crisis settlement. But I think as a moral duty, engaging through the UN and through the UN-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is fundamental,” said Guéhenno, underscoring the role that the UN could play as a third party when the awareness of a stalemate takes place in Syria.

— Neha Tara Mehta, posted November 27