UN warns of another ‘decade of desperation’ in war-torn Syria

‘You first’ mentality among foreign powers is prolonging the devastating conflict that has killed or maimed 12,000 children, UN envoy says.

the remains of buildings line a street that was damaged last summer during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria.
In the absence of international pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and support for the peace process, the UN has failed to produce any advancement on the political front [File: Hussein Malla/AP]

The United Nations special envoy to Syria has called for the creation of a new international forum to resolve the 10-year war in Syria saying the UN “profoundly regretted” having failed in its mediation efforts.

In a news briefing marking the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Geir Pedersen on Monday said the United States, European nations, and others should become part of the peace-making process and “in-depth” discussions with the US were needed on the issue.

“We should try put in place a new international format as a forum for the necessary discussions … in a manner where we bring in all the different parties that have an influence on this conflict,” said Pedersen.

In addition to Russia, Turkey and Iran, he said it was necessary for the US, the European Union and Arab states, as well as all permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), to be part of the discussions.

“It is still early for the Biden administration and we need more in-depth discussions … But it is now necessary for all these actors to seriously sit down and develop a Syrian policy based on the understanding that none of them can dictate the outcome of the conflict.”

‘Decade of desperation’

Pedersen was addressing the UN press corps after briefing the UNSC. He said it is imperative to seize the relative calm in the conflict to push for a nationwide ceasefire and political process.

“The danger for Syria is that a prolonged stasis sets in and Syrians are at risk of enduring another decade of desperation, despondency and despair,” the Norwegian diplomat warned.

Ten years into the conflict, political talks are virtually non-existent. Under Pedersen, the UN-led process has focused on constitutional reform, but after 15 months from its inception, the constitutional committee formed by the opposition and the government has been unable to start any meaningful work.

In the absence of international pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and support for the peace process, the UN has failed to produce any advancement on the political front, while shelving other key issues such as reconstruction, humanitarian access, detainees and missing people, and the return of refugees, among others.

Sanctions imposed on the regime have worsened a dire economic crisis without resulting in a change of behaviour by Damascus.

‘You first syndrome’

Meanwhile, the parallel Astana process between Russia, Turkey and Iran has mainly focused on maintaining a fragile truce and a communication channel between three of the foreign actors present on the ground, without turning into a peace-making forum.

“We need to find a way around what I call the ‘you first’ syndrome that has dominated much of the diplomacy around Syria for the last decade,” said Pedersen. “Right now, there are demands on all sides, but little movement on any side. And this dynamic has to change.”

The new administration still seems to be debating the right way to approach the Syrian issue. Syria experts indicate that President Biden may seek to adopt a multilateral strategy and engage more allies to play a greater role in the diplomatic process.

“Even if the US administration would be reluctant to fully engage in Syria, no doubt that it acknowledges that the Syrian file should be corrected,” said Carmit Valensi, author of Syrian Requiem: The Civil War and Its Aftermath.

“An efficient strategy would require the Biden administration to act more assertively in the diplomatic, humanitarian and economic aspect with regard to Syria.”

The US engagement could be pivotal in pushing the regime to engage in the political process within the framework of UN resolution 2254, Valensi told Al Jazeera.

However, any international political initiative would require tighter cooperation between Russia and the US with the backing of the Europeans, she said, while taking into account their shared interests with Turkey.

“In any case, the United States cannot afford to just abandon Syria and trust Moscow and Tehran to handle it if it wishes to avoid another wave of instability in Syria and beyond,” said Valensi.

Children bear the brunt

While international diplomacy awaits renewed US engagement in Syria, the Syrian people continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. UNICEF released staggering figures last week about the suffering of children.

Since 2011, nearly 12,000 children were killed or wounded in the country – one child every eight hours – and nearly 5,700 were recruited into the fighting.

“These are the children the UN was able to verify through a strict process, but the actual numbers are likely to be much higher,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF’s Syria representative, addressing UN journalists on Friday.

Grave violations against children continue to be the highest in the northwest region where clashes between the opposition and government forces are ongoing. Seventy-five percent of all child casualties and child recruitment across Syria in 2020 were recorded in the northwest, along with nine out of 10 attacks on schools.

Nearly 3.5 million Syrian children are out of school, including 40 percent of girls.

“What we see on the ground is that the education facilities are overstretched. One-in-three schools inside Syria can no longer be used because they were destroyed, damaged, sheltering displaced families or are being used for military purposes,” said Nylund.

“We cannot overstate what this means to these children now, and to their communities but also for country in the years ahead.”

Source: Al Jazeera