By Imogen Foulkes in Geneva
Dec 13, 2018 – 11:00
“It is really playing with a gigantic powder keg in the middle of three million civilians”.
These were the words of Jan Egeland, the United Nation’s humanitarian advisor for Syria, on his final day in office last month after chairing his last meeting of the UN’s humanitarian task force.
He was talking about Idlib, the last Syrian city still in rebel hands. The buffer zone created around the city by Russia and Turkey was starting to fray: there had been artillery and air attacks, armed incursions, and tension was rising.
Idlib, many still believe, could be the last, and possibly bloodiest battle in Syria’s long and bloody war. When Aleppo fell, and then again when Eastern Ghouta succumbed, many opposition figures and their families escaped to Idlib fearing, with some justification, possible brutal reprisals by the Syrian government.
Now government forces are closing in, and Idlib is home, it’s believed, to around 30,000 fighters and those three million civilians Jan Egeland worries about. And yet Egeland, who has worked doggedly for the protection of Syrian civilians for years, has left office. His boss, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will follow him at the end of the month.
To many, it’s a strange moment to leave: the humanitarian needs in Syria remain immense, and the war, while perhaps quieter, is by no means over.
Syrian chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari, left, Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of Syria to UN New York, shakes hand with UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura, right, during Syria peace talks in Geneva, on March 24, 2017
But the fact is for quite some time the future of Syria has been determined not in Geneva, within the framework of a UN sponsored peace process, but in Astana, in a rival strategy developed by Russia, Iran and Turkey. That strategy became possible after Russia entered the war, using its massive air power to back up Syrian forces as they retook one rebel-held region after another.
So, after seven long years, does this mark a failure for the UN? There have been three UN special envoys: Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi left office with little to show for their hard work, Staffan de Mistura stayed longer, but is now leaving too.
The UN invested years of diplomacy, there were round after round of negotiations in Geneva. I reported on nearly all of them, and looking back now, it feels strange to remember how they began with grand diplomatic pomp, ceremony and even hope, attended by hundreds of journalists, and gradually shrank to painstaking attempts by Mr de Mistura not to achieve peace, but to build a structure for a constitutional committee, which would at some indeterminate date in the future draft a new constitution for Syria.
High drama, farce, and boredom
In between, we saw talks which veered from high drama to farce to – let’s be honest, boredom – at least for me and many journalists. There were times when one or other delegation said they would come to Geneva but then didn’t. There were times when people stormed out. They rarely even met in the same room: Mr de Mistura and his predecessors had to scuttle, like weary medieval messengers, between them.
Lakhdar Brahimi did once get them into the same room, briefly, but at a specially shaped table so that they were not required to look each other in the eye.
There were sleepless nights while we waited for an ever-delayed press conference. There were times when the talks shifted from the UN Palais des Nations to the 5-star Geneva hotels of the participants. Without fail, this tactic happened in winter, and journalists would invariably be told by the police to wait outside in the street. This was confirmation that there had been no progress was then tweeted and texted by fingers numb with cold.
Categories: The Muslim Times