UN Envoy to Syria: Arab normalisation presents unique opportunity that must be seized

In an exclusive interview, UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pederson tells Al Majalla about his 'step-for-step' approach to resolving the Syrian conflict, while welcoming Arab normalisation efforts as a positive step.

Geir Pederson
UN Press Agency
Geir Pederson

UN Envoy to Syria: Arab normalisation presents unique opportunity that must be seized

Following the return of Syria to the Arab League, and President Bashar al-Assad's attendance at the Arab Summit in Jeddah, the Syrian issue has gained much more diplomatic traction on both regional and international levels.

Following all these developments, Al Majalla asked Geir Pederson, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria important questions related to the Syrian issue and the steps that different stakeholders have recently taken.

Pederson sees the recent developments as an opportunity that needs to be nurtured in order to build confidence and start moving toward a political solution.

He said that these efforts must be collaborative and no one party can solve the problem on its own. Despite international divisions over Syria, all parties agree that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Pederson, who took office 4 years ago, emphasised the need to move the process forward through the ‘step-for-step’ initiative and to convince Damascus that the time has come to end the long conflict, adding that for reconciliation to take place, regional and international actors need to do away with the zero-sum game mentality.

He acknowledged the importance of the Arab role in moving the Syrian process forward to solve the issue of refugees and displaced, under the UN ‘umbrella’.

He noted that Syria's various stakeholders — which include the Arabs, Americans, Iranians, Turks and Russians — now have a chance to make a positive contribution by implementing confidence-building measures until core issues can be addressed.

He said there is hope yet for Syria and that he is optimistic to reach a situation whereby the aspirations of the Syrian people are addressed and Syria regains its sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.

"If anyone has the potential to do it, it is the Syrians," he said.

The discussion was conducted at the office of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria in Geneva.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

The UN has been involved in the Syrian crisis for over 12 years, and until now there is no political settlement and no implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions of the Geneva communique whatsoever. Could the UN have played the role differently to achieve any possible breakthrough over the past 12 years?

Let us start by reminding ourselves that, from the very beginning, there has been deep international division on how to approach the Syrian crisis.

You will recall that, in the first months, it was not possible to adopt any Security Council resolution because of the Russian side as they thought that the lesson they learnt from Libya was to prevent any resolution that they thought could open a route for regime change in Syria.

It was immediately one of the big issues, and then there were ups and downs until we had the adoption of security council resolution 2254 on December 2015.

That was quite an ambitious resolution based on a new international consensus. For the UN what is unique about us is that we are the only player accepted by all parties to convene intra-Syrian negotiations. This went on through several different routes and did not produce any outcome.

However, at the same time, I think it is extremely important that I emphasise that we are still committed to this and I reminded the Security Council many times that we are not in a situation where one player can solve this conflict.

Al Majalla
Geir Pederson with Al Majalla Executive Editor Ibrahim Hamidi.

The UN, as I said many times, cannot solve this conflict alone of course. We need cooperation from the Syrian parties and we need international cooperation.

What we have realised through the years is that many players can block a solution and that many have indeed blocked the solution for the last 12 years. My message is sort of the same, to solve this conflict we need a coordinated multi-lateralled effort and that is what the UN brings to the table.

All of those with keys to the solution, from the Syrian parties to foreign forces with boots on the ground and those states imposing sanctions. No one else could bring all those different forces together.

To solve this conflict we need a coordinated multi-lateralled effort. All of those with keys to the solution, from the Syrian parties to foreign forces with boots on the ground and those states imposing sanctions, no one else could bring all those different forces together. This is what the UN brings to the table.

Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria

No matter how difficult and challenging the task is, we will not despair, we will not give up and we will not abandon our responsibilities towards the Syrian people.

I always say that we have many stakeholders in Syria, including foreign stakeholders. Any of them could prevent or block the settlement but none of them alone can do the settlement.

That is exactly what my message is. We should of course welcome different initiatives no one actor alone can solve this conflict, that is for all the actors to understand, then we have the geopolitical realities which led me to state that for the time being a comprehensive solution is not doable.

The status quo, at the same time, should not be acceptable to anyone. We need to look for ways where we can start moving the process forward, through incremental 'step for step'. That is where we are now.

What is your take on Arab normalisation efforts with Syria and how does this affect the implementation of your mandate? 

A renewed Arab interest in resolving the Syrian crisis is welcome. I have not seen this level of interest by key Arab countries in a long time.

It goes without saying that the Syrian conflict is first and foremost a Syrian issue and second, it is indeed an Arab issue. For the UN, there is no question that regional organisations have a major role to play in resolving conflicts. 

Since I assumed my position, I have been trying to bring all the key actors or the key sides together, including the Arab sides, and it is precisely for the reasons discussed, that no one actor can solve this conflict alone.

We need to bring all the sides together and, here, of course, the Arab sides have a critical role to play. My observation is that for different reasons, we now have the Arabs back at the table and are willing to engage, for me this is a very important thing.

Whatever you wish to name it, be it normalisation or something else, the reality from what I understood from my engagement with my Arab friends, is that this is not an effort just to turn the page on the last 12 years and move on as if nothing has happened. There is intent to resolve the conflict based on Security Council resolution 2254.

My understanding is that there are clear and concrete steps they want the Syrian government to take which is close to my own 'step- for-step' initiative.

Arab normalisation efforts are not an effort just to turn the page on the last 12 years and move on as if nothing has happened. There are clear and concrete steps the Arabs want the Syrian government to take which is close to my own 'step-for-step' initiative.

Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria

Not only do we see Arabs but we also see Turkey reaching out to Syria and the government in Damascus. Now there is a process in Moscow between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia. This is also an important development.

Linked to that, I started out by mentioning the discussion about regime change immediately after the conflict started in 2011. There has been a major development when it comes to the positions of the US and the European Union. They are no longer seeking regime change but they are asking for change in behaviour.

There is a consensus that we should engage Damascus and see if they can proceed towards incremental progress. The time has now come to engage in a manner that can help us move forward in this tragedy that has been going on for too long.

As you said UN Resolution 2254 is the reference for the political process in Syria. It was referenced in the Arab League decision and at the Amman Conference. Is this just empty rhetoric by Arab governments or are they really serious about working with you to implement this resolution?

I very much welcome the reference to Security Council resolution 2254 from the Arab League, which sends an important and powerful message and those who understand the importance of UN resolutions appreciate the value of operating within the framework of international legitimacy. There is no other framework accepted by all parties, including the Syrian side.

The fact that we still have an international consensus behind 2254 is extremely important. In addition, it is good that there is no attempt, so far, to replace 2254.

We all understand that much has changed in the conflict and internationally since the resolution was adopted in December 2015. There is a need to be pragmatic in how we advance. There has to be realism from all parties and we need to start somewhere.

That is why I also said that 2254 has all elements needed to find a solution to the conflict. It cannot be mechanically implemented in 2023, but there is no better reference with wide acceptance among the key players of the conflict. Hopefully, this is what we may be able to build on in the future.

Do you see Arab governments supplanting the UN role, as we saw with other initiatives like the Astana or Moscow track? Or do you see them as complementing UN efforts?

We should welcome the renewed Arab interest and the renewed Arab initiative to help solve the conflict. As I said, no one actor alone can solve this conflict. There needs to be an international cooperation to do this.

I will work very closely together with the Arab follow-up committee. I have been working very closely with Arab foreign ministers including Sameh Shoukry,  Prince Faisal Bin Farhan and Foreign Ayman Safadi. We have agreed that we will work closely together, coordinate, and exchange information.

I will work very closely together with the Arab follow-up committee. I have been working very closely with Arab foreign ministers. We have agreed that we will work closely together, coordinate, and exchange information.

Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi (C R) meets his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in Amman on May 1, 2023, ahead of a regional meeting on Syria.

While I continue to coordinate closely with the Arab follow-up committee, I will also continue to work closely with the Moscow group, the European Union, the US and also with all the members of the Security Council. This is the unique role that I can bring to the table.

I am hoping that the Arab follow-up committee will be meeting soon and we will be able to see how this works out in practice. It is a welcomed step.

The 'Step-for-step' approach is your initiative, your baby, and you have been working for two years to promote this idea and finally, it has been accepted, supported by stakeholders and mentioned during Amman ministerial meeting. How can this approach be now taken forward?

I welcome very much that the Arabs are not only making references to 2254 including the importance of reconvening the Constitutional Committee and reconciliation but also that they are referencing the 'step-for-step' initiative and the reality that there is a broad consensus on the 'step-for-step' initiative.

This is based on the understanding that while a comprehensive solution may not be possible, the status quo cannot be acceptable either. We need to move forward through incremental viable steps.

As a matter of fact, I am the one who developed the concept of 'step-for-step' but it was the US and Russia that actually used this term back in May 2019. That is how they described their bilateral approach to the Syrian conflict.

We have further developed this approach, with Jordan, in particular, working closely with us. I see that key Arab players have a strong interest to work closely with the UN on this.

There are several components in this step-for-step approach including the humanitarian and political components. Is the plan to address all components or stick to the first phase which is humanitarian?

For me, the important thing has been to be able to make what I call the 'first step' forward. You know very well that there is such deep mistrust between the different parties.

My concern is that if we can just engage and start moving this process forward, that it is agreed upon by the different sides to start moving forward, that would be the first sign that we should have success in moving forward incrementally.

After the earthquake and all the economic and social changes, the humanitarian crisis that we are seeing in Syria with more than 15 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, to start moving forward on the humanitarian front would make sense. How the Arabs decide to move forward is, of course, up to them.

To help the readers understand the conflict, could you mention some steps that need to be tackled in this 'step-for-step' approach? What are we talking about in concrete terms?

There are different ways to approach it but we should start by addressing the livelihoods of Syrians. There are obviously issues related to detainees, missing persons, conscription, housing, land and property issues, and civil law implementation.

We should start by addressing the livelihoods of Syrians. There are obviously issues related to detainees, missing persons, conscription, housing, land and property issues, and civil law implementation.

Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria

Then from the other actors, there could be issues related to how to help when it comes to medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and industry and understanding how sanctions play into this.

What is important is that different sides need to agree beforehand on what they are doing. Then we can build on this for the next step.

Does Damascus agree with and support the 'step-for-step' approach?

You should ask Damascus directly but I have been talking to Damascus for several months now and we are trying to achieve 'clarity' on this approach. That discussion is continuing.

There is a lot of scepticism from key players, from the US, the Europeans and also from Damascus on how to move this process forward. I still see this as the way to start building a minimum level of confidence and be able to move forward.

The fact that Turkey and the Arabs are now engaging with Damascus, should give it enough confidence to seriously engage in this process.

The elephant in the room is the US, one of the biggest stakeholders. The US and Europeans up till now are committed to the three nos: No reconstruction, no lifting of sanctions, and no normalisation until there is genuine progress in the political process. Does that make your life easier or more difficult?

This is true, but the US is still willing to engage in the 'step-for-step' approach. They are sort of willing to see if incremental steps forward may be made.

As I said already, there are always players that have the power to block or support the process moving forward. That goes for the Americans, the Europeans, the Iranians, the Turks, the Russians and the Arabs. They all have certain different things that they can bring, positively or negatively to the process.

Read more: Syria: A microcosm of global polarisation

My aim is to understand where all the different players come from and to see if they can coordinate something that could lead to incremental steps towards addressing the core drivers of the conflict.

What we are hoping for is that we will end up in a situation in which we can address the aspirations of the Syrian people and we can see a restoration of Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

We saw recently in Congress, the strengthening of the Caesar Act to impose more sanctions on Damascus. How is this being viewed by Syria's stakeholders?

There is still deep mistrust over the willingness to engage seriously in the political process and Washington has the capacity to block progress in Syria so that is why I am saying that for us to be able to move forward, we need all the different actors to engage.

I am now able to engage all the different actors. It will continue to be difficult but there is an opening through the 'step-for-step' to move this process forward and it is extremely important that Damascus seizes this opportunity.

Why do you think that the Syrian opposition is not being discussed as much as before? Are they still being factored in or is it more about geopolitics?

In Syria, like in other conflicts, Yemen, Libya, Israel/Palestine, and of course Ukraine, there is always geopolitics that has a tremendous influence on how we are able to move forward or not.

I think that part of the reason why we have not been able to move forward is because there are these international divisions in Syria. But this does not mean that we accept the status quo. We must move forward on resolving the crisis. 

If you actually look at the different initiatives, the meetings that have taken place in Moscow between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia, the Arab initiatives, and my discussions with the Europeans and Americans, there are interesting areas where there is agreement.

There is a commitment to Syria's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, a political process and the Constitutional Committee, and to national reconciliation.

The parties acknowledge that the issue of detainees, refugees, and missing and abducted persons needs to be addressed. There is a commitment to the fight against terrorism. 

Syrian refugees and migrants walk after crossing the border between FYR of Macedonia and Serbia on August 30, 2015.


Despite international division over Syria, there are interesting areas where there is agreement. The parties acknowledge that the issue of detainees, refugees, and missing and abducted persons needs to be addressed. There is a commitment to the fight against terrorism. 

Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria

As for humanitarian issues, these need to be addressed so that hopefully we can alleviate the humanitarian suffering that Syrians wherever they live are experiencing.

There is a possibility to move forward in different areas even though, as I said before, a comprehensive solution is difficult.

When do you think we will be able to see a sovereign Syria with territorial integrity, without any foreign presence, with a government that is representative of all Syrians that controls all of Syria? Do you think that this day will come and when?

What you are addressing here is the key element of Security Council resolution 2254 and, of course, this is what we are committed to, this is what we want to achieve and that is what the international community has said time and again that they are still committed to.

Now the Arab states have also reconfirmed their commitment to this through their resolutions at the summit in Jeddah. A united, sovereign, prosperous and free Syria is possible and it is possible to have a system that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people that is mentioned in Security Council resolution 2254.

While there are some states that have not been able to successfully come out of conflicts, there are also many examples of states overcoming conflict and starting anew. This is our hope for Syria.

If anyone has the potential to do it, it is the Syrians. After years of engaging with so many Syrians of so many backgrounds, for me that has truly underscored what incredible potential lies within the Syrian population.

Syrian rescue workers sit on an excavator on February 6, 2023, in the town of Sarmada, in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, as a search operation continues following a deadly earthquake.

However, to be able to move forward, obviously, a main condition has to be a willingness to compromise, with no victor no vanquished and no zero-sum game mentality.

Syrians will have to find a way to reconcile their differences and agree on how the political system should work and how power is to be distributed.  Syrians will also have to come to terms with the fact that there are different international stakeholders who have legitimate security concerns in Syria. 

If we do this in a proper manner, then, as you started off asking, Syria will become safer and it can be sovereign and free. All this goes back to the issue of trust and confidence.

After 12 years of war and conflict, there is still a lot of fear, including substantial fear for many Syrians and that fear seems to be a key driver of this conflict. There needs to be a shift in thinking whereby the other is no longer seen as an absolute threat that must be subdued but rather as an equal citizen.

I of course understand that this is easier said than done, but, in my opinion, this will be a condition for what you may call a meaningful peace in Syria.

You have been working on the Syrian issue for around four years but the conflict has spanned 12 years. Are you now more optimistic?

Arab normalisation efforts and Turkish engagement is something new. There is potential for moving forward and the opportunity needs to be grasped, met with positive steps and carefully coordinated. 

Some Arab countries are demanding that Damascus move on dismantling the Captagon drug networks and create conditions for the Syrian refugees to come back. What is your view on these demands?

The bulk of these issues are incredibly important, particularly for neighbouring countries. So, it's only natural that they are part of the Arab initiative. We understand Captagon and refugees will have to be addressed and we know that the Arab states in particular see instability emanating across Syrian borders, including from narcotics.

For the UN, the issue of refugees and internally displaced is a core issue. The question is how do we approach it?

Here we have UN principles and we need to approve the principles of safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees. I do not know if you saw the latest UNHCR annual survey from refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, less than 1%.

Why is this the situation? We need to ask ourselves. Let us take the refugee issue seriously. There are two key factors cited by refugees that are influencing their decision-making when it comes to returning: the lack of livelihood and work opportunities on one hand and the lack of safety and security on the other hand.

The response also cited high concerns about essential services and housing on one hand, and concerns regarding military service, conscription or recruitment and fear of detention, harassment and retaliation by the state on the other hand.

This is also important for the political process because it tells us that Syrians who have fled are citing issues that are dealt with by the hands of the Syrian authorities and issues on which the donors could help in expressing the return for them.

Let me be precise, if the Syrian government was to start to address, in a more systematic way, the protection concerns of the displaced and work closely with the UN and the donors to address the concerns of all Syrians, this could help build confidence.

We need both the Syrian government and the international community to help to move forward this process forward.

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