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Syrien demonstrators at the UN Foto: Chris Melzer dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

International incompetence

Interview: Michael Knigge
February 5, 2013

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Martti Ahtisaari blames the lack of progress in Syria on the divided UN Security Council. He tells DW that he sees elections - not an interim government - as the best option.


DW: The death toll in Syria is now estimated to stand at 60,000 with no end in sight. Has the international community failed the Syrian people?

Martti Ahtisaari: The number is even higher now, around 70,000 - and I think it is very important that we look at how many people have died. The 70,000 are deaths that have been identified. So the actual figure must be much higher than that. It's the same thing with those who have become refugees, somewhere around 700,000, well over 150,000 in neighboring countries. What always annoys me is we allow this sort of conflict to get out of hand. While I was in New York last year, the UN Secretary General and also the (Arab) League offered Kofi Annan the Special Representative task.

My sense then was there was a possibility to seriously start discussing. When I talked to the Russians for instance it was clear that they wanted that the opposition should not be armed and that dialogue should start immediately with the opposition and the Assad regime. But nothing happened. So there were openings even then. And I was actually very disappointed that accusations were made in public instead of having these five, who bear the major responsibility, develop these different ideas and then start. Because we need on both sides those who support each party, so you need to talk to Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well and also to Iran in order to find out if one can stop this process before even more people are killed.

But that has not happened and it is now very, very difficult to move. There were ideas. Somebody came to see me when I returned home from Kosovo who had developed the idea of elections in Syria. It was not a totally impossible idea at all. Because I felt that at that time one could perhaps have pushed and then tried to influence the opposition too. If they believe that they have so much support then they could go through an election.

Now I don't think the government can any longer carry out any elections. You have to have somebody else. Is the UN that body? At least technically the UN is competent in organizing elections. That would however require an agreement that people would put their arms in the barracks and they would be disarmed for the time of the elections. You would need a fairly sizeable peacekeeping force from my own experience of up to 10,000 troops. I had 3,500 in Namibia and 1,500 police officers when we monitored. So that was 5,000. And it was much more peaceful than Syria.

It sounds very unrealistic that this could happen. Is there anything that can be done now to stop the carnage?

First of all I would urge the Permanent Five to talk. I said to my friends when I saw that no action in New York happened that perhaps the highest priority is to offer peace mediation among the Permanent Five. So that they could at least look for those possibilities. Because I left New York at the end of last February with a fairly clear idea in my mind that the permanent members - in other words Russia and the Western members - were not so totally against each other in their views that a descent discussion couldn't at least start. But when Kofi Annan was appointed he soon found out that he didn't have that support. I think first of all Kofi Annan should have been given a couple of weeks to study the situation. That he would have visited all the headquarters of the Permanent Five and talked to other members of the Security Council too. He was never given that chance. That's why it ended the way it did.

Former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Martti AhtisaariImage: Getty Images

So what would you do now?

Most probably what Lakhdar Brahimi is doing. Look, I learned in my professional career very early on that the mediator doesn't succeed if the major powers whose support is needed are not behind him or her. So I think without clear support from the Permanent Members nothing can be achieved, the ball is my mind in their court now. So it's a very frustrating process, but I don't think we should give up. I find it very difficult to think that the sitting government could organize elections. So an outside, reliable, independent body should do that. I am definitely in favor of a democratic solution. There is nothing more democratic than organizing good elections. And if both parties feel that they are so strong that they will win, they should not oppose that democratic solution. Because my immediate question for instance for the opposition would be that if you don't go through a properly organized elections for instance by the UN what are you afraid of? Are you afraid that you will not win?

Russia is generally regarded as the country that has been blocking any significant action regarding the Syrian crisis. How can Moscow be brought to change its mind?

I felt after the visit I made that at that moment it would have been possible for the Permanent Five to sit down and start discussing 'how do we get out of this mess?' But when that didn't happen and there was more public diplomacy through you people in the media that is not the way you find any solutions. Sometimes I have a feeling it's like you would go onto thin ice in spring time and wait and pray that something positive would happen and soon you drown.

I still don't want to believe that it's not possible for instance for the Americans and Russians to discuss a solution. I hope that It is still possible to find the election alternative. The difficulty is actually how do you do it. Because if you start negotiating - like some people argue - with an interim government there, that will take an enormous amount of time. And how do you contain the forces during that time? Past experience shows that the killing continues.

Do you see any chance that Assad might step aside?

Had he been prepared to do that he would have done so already. So I think elections are the democratic way. What do you have first, do you have a presidential or parliamentary election, those are the issues that one has to have a dialogue about. Somehow I hope that the opposition and someone from the regime - it may not be Assad negotiating - can talk.

What is your prognosis: Will the killing go on until the Assad regime is toppled at some point or will there be a solution before that?

I was listening here (in Munich) to the debate about Iran's nuclear program and negotiations which was touching Syria in the end. I hope that those (negotiations - the ed.) can be started as fast as possible, because that has a calming effect. Because if that could be solved fairly quickly it would calm the Israel-Palestinian issue and it would hopefully assist the Syria issue as well, because on the sidelines you can talk about Syria as well. I think we should use every avenue to stop the killing. It's very sad to see that the international community is so incompetent and nearly impotent is the right word at the moment.

Martti Ahtisaari was Finland's President from 1994-2000. He was later appointed the UN Special Envoy for the Kosovo Status Process. In 2008 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is currently co-Chair in the European Council of Foreign Relations and Chairman of the Independent Commission on Turkey.

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