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Opinion: Don’t Blame the Mediator | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura shows a map of the Syrian town of Kobani during a press conference at the UN office in Geneva on October 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

From the Gulf to the Atlantic, the UN has appointed official envoys, representatives and mediators to tackle the region’s urgent crises, fires which are spreading widely and which no one seems to be able to put out, and show that this region has become one of the world’s worst trouble spots.

In Yemen, Jamal Benomar is making enormous efforts, some of which have borne fruit like the Gulf Initiative, though this has not stopped the country sliding towards dismemberment and collapse. In Syria, the UN is on its third envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who is still trying his luck though the world has reached the point of giving up in despair at attempting to resolve such a terrible crisis. In Libya, where the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Bernardino León recently stepped in, all the efforts of the opponents of chaos continue to stumble and the sound of bullets and missiles seems to be growing louder.

In most cases, as the crisis worsens, the mediator or the international envoy becomes the target of accusations hurled by one party or another. This happened to Kofi Annan, the first UN envoy for Syria, who endured the mission for only a few months before he resigned. Then came Lakhdar Brahimi, who lasted two years in the job, during which he was able to persuade the combatants to attend the Geneva Conference, though it proved fruitless and failed to satisfy either of the two sides. Now Staffan de Mistura is a target for putting forth a modest proposal to the internationally-recognized opposition—one which fully accords with the thinking of the international community—to broker a ceasefire on the part of both the opposition and the regime, in order for the world to devote its efforts to tackling the terrorist organizations present in Iraq and Syria. The same thing is happening in Yemen, where Benomar is not safe from accusations leveled against him by local parties or observers either.

The mission of a mediator or envoy is not unimportant, and their missions are indispensable in times of crisis, especially attempts to contain the crisis and keep it from spreading. However, the situation would be simple if the dispute was between conflicting countries or if the country is in a state of war and entering a stage of post-war negotiations. This is because when it is an inter-state dispute, those in position to choose either war or peace can be addressed in the language of interests and diplomacy.

The situation is different in civil conflicts as in the three aforementioned crises: Yemen, Syria, and Libya. The combatants in these countries would not be locked in such fierce struggles battle if the situation in the countries had not become so dangerously volatile as to prompt them to eliminate their opponents completely.

In Syria, at the beginning of the crisis, Annan or Brahimi’s mission would have been easier had each of the two conflicting parties been less confident of its ability to secure a total victory. The regime thought it could crush its opponents, whereas the opposition thought it could engineer a scenario similar to that of Libya, in which NATO would intervene on its side. However, the UN Envoy for Syria did not have the ability to mobilize the Security Council, unlike the situation now with Yemen, where Benomar can threaten anyone attempting to undermine political reconciliation with Security Council sanctions, a step which reflects the gravity of the situation, because all sides of the dispute must be part of the solution if Yemen is to survive.