New UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen makes first visit to Syria

Norwegian diplomat, who took over from Staffan de Mistura, visits Damascus in latest effort to end eight-year-long war.

    United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen gestures in Damascus on his first visit, January 15, 2019 [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]
    United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen gestures in Damascus on his first visit, January 15, 2019 [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

    The United Nations' newly appointed Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, arrived in Damascus on Tuesday for a three-day visit.

    Upon his arrival, Pedersen spoke to reporters saying he is looking forward to substantial and productive talks with Damascus. He is scheduled to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem shortly after his arrival.

    For the Norwegian diplomat, this is the first visit to the war-torn country since he assumed the post, following last year resignation of his predecessor, Staffan de Mistura.

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    Officials in the government of President Bashar al-Assad set the tone for the new envoy's tenure shortly after news of his appointment in October last year.

    "Syria will cooperate with the new UN Envoy, Geir Pedersen, provided he avoids the methods of his predecessor," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad said, quoted by Al-Watan newspaper.

    Al-Assad's opponents have said the change in UN envoy would have little effect on the fate of the country as international will and consensus were lacking.

    Pedersen is UN's fourth envoy who will attempt to find a peaceful solution to the war-torn country since the conflict erupted in 2011.

    Prior to his role as the UN special envoy to Syria, Pedersen was Norway's ambassador to China. He also covered the role of Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN from 2012 to 2017.

    Pedersen was also a member of the Norwegian team to the secret negotiations that led to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

    Political impasse

    Pedersen's predecessors - Staffan de Mistura, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi - have all been unable to halt the conflict despite dogged diplomacy and repeated rounds of talks.

    In August 2012, Annan had resigned as the UN and Arab League mediator after six months of fruitless efforts, complaining of a lack of support for his mission.

    Former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi then took over the role of the UN special envoy and in early 2014 organised the first face-to-face negotiations between the government and the opposition in Geneva. But the talks failed to achieve anything concrete and Brahimi stepped down.

    In early 2016, there were three rounds of indirect negotiations between the regime and the opposition groups in Geneva under the supervision of the UN's third special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

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    They hit an impasse over ceasefire violations and al-Assad's role in any political transition.

    In December 2017, at the end of the eighth round of negotiations, de Mistura accused Damascus of causing the collapse of the talks by refusing to seek real dialogue with the opposition. In January 2018, a ninth round of UN peace talks was held without success in Vienna.

    In October 2018, de Mistura announced he was resigning for "purely personal reasons". The same month, the head of the UN humanitarian task force for Syria, Jan Egeland, also quit.

    It will now fall to Pedersen to broker peace in the conflict, which has left more than 400,000 dead and caused millions to flee.

    The Syrian president, who has been in power for more than 18 years, has now reclaimed much of the territory he lost at the beginning of the war, largely thanks to the military backing of veto-wielding UN Security Council permanent member Russia.

    Opposition groups across Syria have little or no clout on the ground and negligible bargaining power in negotiations with Damascus.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies