Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ Special Envoy to Syria, who recently called Bashar al-Assad a “part of the solution,” now says the dictator has to got to go and should be militarily pressured to do so by the U.S.—a move, de Mistura conceded, that would require Washington to sidestep the U.N. Security Council.
De Mistura made these comments last Friday at a private meeting with Syrian American organizations in Geneva, according to two participants who spoke to The Daily Beast exclusively. One of them, Jomana Qaddor, is the co-founder of the U.S.-based humanitarian organization Syria Relief and Development. De Mistura, she said, “[made] it very clear that Assad had to go… It was unequivocal.”
That’s a significant reversal from the position the diplomat took in February when he suggested that Assad might play a constructive role in resolving the Syria crisis, fresh from meetings with regime officials in Damascus.
De Mistura had also controversially proposed that the warring sides in Aleppo halt their military operations, which would allow the entry of desperately needed humanitarian relief to the city’s residents. Many factions of the political and military opposition to Assad have questioned this initiative, saying that a freeze in hostilities in Aleppo would merely allow regime forces to concentrate their firepower elsewhere in the country. Moreover, there is evidence that the Assad regime has no intention of complying with allowing the safe passage of food and medicine to blighted areas.
De Mistura’s spokeswoman, Jessy Chahine, would not confirm what, exactly, was said last week in Switzerland, citing the envoy’s policy “not [to] make any comments on the substance of the discussions which take place with the delegations attending the consultations.” However, Chahine explained that de Mistura’s remarks in February about leaving Assad in power were “made exclusively in the context of putting an end to the use of aerial bombings… It should be up to the Syrian people to decide who should be their president.”
However, this clarification stands in marked contrast to what de Mistura’s prior spokeswoman, Juliette Touma, said in February, when the envoy’s comments drew fire from the Syrian opposition. “President Assad and the Syrian authorities must contribute to reaching a solution that would put an end to the violence and the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Syria,” Touma said at the time. She added that de Mistura “would also like to affirm that Syrian institutions providing services to the people in the country must be preserved in the short and longer term to be able to avoid a scenario of a state collapse.”
Muna Jondy, an immigration lawyer in Michigan and president of United for a Free Syria, was also present in Geneva when de Mistura advocated U.S. military intervention. She told The Daily Beast that his position has been steadily evolving since his February endorsement of Assad. “The first time we met with him in February he didn’t talk about Assad,” Jondy said. “What surprised us was he said Assad will not go without military pressure.”
Jondy and Qaddor say de Mistura came across as exasperated by the limitations of a role which previously bedeviled Kofi Annan and Lakdar Brahimi, both of whom oversaw two failed peace initiatives for Syria. “The envoy cannot promote war directly,” Qaddor said. “He said, ‘I am a man of peace, I am a diplomat,’ and he only said military pressure once. But he did say repeatedly that there was going to have to be physical pressure on the ground to force a political transition.”
According to both Jondy and Qaddor, de Mistura also suggested that the necessary “pressure on the ground” could not come from his own international body, the UN. “He did refer to the UN Security Council as having a lot of power in its hands and, frankly, hindering the political process,” Qaddor said.
In early April, America’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, described the Security Council’s dysfunction:
“Russia and China have vetoed four resolutions that could have really increased the pressure on Assad to heed the will of the international community and to heed the provisions of the UN Charter. Russia has been Syria’s protector at the UN and that has meant that the Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, by any means, to the Syrian people.”
Qaddor had met with de Mistura twice before the meeting in Geneva last week, which she described as “the first time we could see the frustration on his face and he actually voiced the frustration. He said that the credibility of the UN is compromised when it doesn’t follow through with Chapter VII after all the chlorine attacks.”
The UN Charter’s Chapter VII authorizes member states to use all available means, including military force, in response to “threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” Attempts to invoke the charter in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s army have been rejected by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council and a staunch Assad ally.
“If the Security Council ignores its resolution I can’t invoke it,” de Mistura told Qaddor and the others in Geneva. “That’s when he told us to go back and convince our government in DC to move on this.”
De Mistura told the Syrian American delegates that they should petition the U.S. government through Congress that Assad won’t “come to the table without military pressure.” Though the envoy conceded this to be a long-shot option“I don’t think your government is willing to put the pressure that is needed,” Jondy recalls him saying. “But you would know.”