Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura was named UN mediator for Syria on Thursday, taking on the challenging task of finding a political solution to the dragging civil war.
He replaces the hugely respected Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned in May after two rounds of peace talks collapsed and as the conflict escalated into a fourth year, killing more than 162,000 people.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon confirmed the appointment of the special representative and his Egyptian deputy, urging the divided Security Council and Syrian parties to work closely with him.
Ban has frequently criticized animosity on the Council between Western powers and Russia, a close ally of Damascus, which has all but paralyzed an international response to the crisis.
“The special envoy will provide good offices aimed at bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” Ban said.
He said the Arab League had recommended Egyptian diplomat and former deputy foreign minister Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy for the deputy job, but that both appointments had been made by him as UN chief.
Brahimi, a seasoned Algerian diplomat, was joint representative of both the United Nations and Arab League.
– Mission impossible? –
De Mistura, who has served previously in Iraq and Afghanistan, inherits a job many consider flat-out impossible.
Questioned about whether the Italian-Swede, now the third envoy to the crisis, could bring anything new to the table, Ban acknowledged it was a tough job.
“He will bring all his expertise and experiences to these very difficult negotiations for peace in Syria so I’m confident that he will be able to carry out his duty as special envoy,” he said.
The appointment was welcomed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, as well as the Syrian opposition.
Kerry called de Mistura “a distinguished diplomat who brings a wealth of experience.”
“We applaud his readiness to continue the important mission of trying to bring an end to the suffering and brutal violence inside Syria and to forge a path toward a political transition,” Kerry added.
Hague said the appointment “comes at a time when the need for a political settlement in Syria has never been more pressing.
“Political transition by mutual agreement of the Syrian parties, supported by the international community, remains the only way to bring about sustainable peace in Syria.”
The Syrian National Coalition, the main exiled opposition group, said: “We look forward to working closely with de Mistura and his team to achieve our joint goal: a political transition to democracy.”
The UN’s political approach, concentrating on putting in place a transitional government in Damascus, has hit a dead-end and was all but buried by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s re-election in June.
Ban warned only last month that the new mediator would not have a magic wand to resolve the conflict.
– Urgent need –
Born in Sweden, the 67-year-old de Mistura once served as deputy Italian foreign minister and has worked for the United Nations for more than three decades, with extensive experience in conflict zones.
He was UN special representative to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and special representative to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.
He has also held UN posts in Somalia, Sudan and the Balkans, and was a deputy director at the UN World Food Program in 2009-10.
He speaks six languages, including English, French and German. His mastery of Arabic has been described by the UN as colloquial.
It took all the considerable skills of Brahimi, who served as the envoy from August 2012 until May 2014, to coax Assad and Syria’s fractious opposition to the negotiating table in Geneva.
But talks broke down after only two rounds in January and February amid bitter recriminations.
Brahimi’s own predecessor, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, stepped down after barely six months, frustrated by international divisions.
Assad’s June 3 re-election was heavily criticized by Western powers but Damascus has scored some military successes and the conflict has spread to Iraq, where jihadists have declared an Islamic caliphate incorporating territory in both countries.
The humanitarian situation has also become considerably worse.
The United Nations says 10.8 million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian aid — nearly half of Syria’s population — including 6.6 million children.
A UN Security Council resolution on aid access has yet to be enforced on the ground and 4.7 million Syrians are in areas that are “difficult or impossible” for humanitarian workers to reach.
Ban spent considerable time searching for a mediator to replace Brahimi, looking for someone competent but acceptable to the main players, and someone brave enough to take on the job.