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A ray of hope for Syria

Interview: Sumi SomaskandaFebruary 12, 2016

World powers have agreed on a deal for a cessation of hostilities in Syria and to expand aid to civilians. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told DW he was optimistic the negotiations would pay off.

Genf Syrien Konferenz Friedensgespräche
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. di Nolfi

DW: In your opinion is this deal a breakthrough?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, it is certainly a breakthrough in the sense that this time it is not a declaration, it's not a statement, it is a commitment. And a commitment by those who can deliver such a commitment. Now, of course, if you want to call that a breakthrough - fine. I would wait a moment and I would wait for this commitment to be to be tested.

As John Kerry said and even Sergey Lavrov said there are two deliverables here. Both of them are crucial for the Syrian people: One - can we get access to or humanitarian aid - yes or no.

Secondly, can we get into the besieged areas - yes or no. And three, if this is happening that means that there should be a reduction or a stop of the hostilities. Because this is not caused by bad weather; it is caused by a war. And the bombs need to stop, otherwise the convoys cannot reach their destination. These are the two tests and we have one week for them. That is actually what is a breakthrough: Giving a timetable.

DW: Is Russia helping here, or standing in the way?

Mistura: Well, if you judge what we heard yesterday, Moscow is helping in the sense that they are part of the commitment. Now, of course, Moscow has a lot of influence on the government of Syria.

München UN-Syrien-Sondergesandter Staffan de Mistura
Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for SyriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

And secondly, Moscow is militarily engaged in Syria. So when we talk about cessation of hostilities that will also apply to Moscow. But not only. There is also the other side. That is why next week will be crucial because Russia and America will be chairing a special taskforce and preparing for the actual implementation of it. Moscow has influence on some players, Washington has influence on others. That will be the test.

DW: There are so many players involved, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Is their rivalry going to torpedo this deal?

Mistura: Well, everything is possible. We should be cautious. Because you know very well that after five years we should not [never] be not cautious. But I think this is the best time for testing the will of those who have committed themselves here yesterday. You know there is no real solution. Even if there was a military victory on one side, the secret is how do you actually stabilize the country? How do you rebuild it? And, by the way, there is no victory. You can win a battle, but you cannot win a war in Syria anymore.

The bottom line is we all believe that everyone understands this. That is why the coming week will be quite a test. But, I see it as a positive test. And in that sense I must agree with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who I want to thank on behalf of the UN. He has been a strong supporter of what the UN is trying to do in this context.

DW: A key player in any solution is going to be the Syrian opposition. You know those representatives very well. What is it going to take for them to agree to a longterm ceasefire?

Mistura: I think they already said why they felt uncomfortable being at the Geneva talks. They said they felt being at the talks without any concrete impact on the Syrian people that they could show to the Syrian people would make their participation seem futile. And basically they raised the issue of humanitarian access to the besieged areas and cessation of hostilities. But, of course, that applies to them, too. They cannot just ask for cessation of hostilities; they too have to offer their own part. And I think what happened yesterday will be challenging them, too. Are you able to stop your hostilities while the others do the same? And I want to believe that it is possible.

DW: You've stressed in the past how important the Geneva talks are. Does this deal give you hope?

Mistura: Yes, it does because the Geneva talks - and the UN secretary general said it and I also said it many times - cannot be talks about talks. We've already gone through two Geneva conferences and there have been 260,000 people killed and one million wounded. The Syrian people deserve to know that when we start talking it will be about serious things and they would see benefits on the ground.

And we also need it and deserve to feel that all this is worth it.

The bottom line is that what happened yesterday is certainly making me feel comfortable about relaunching the Syrian talks - but only once we have seen that these tests are taking place: Humanitarian access and a ceasefire, or cessation of hostilities. That is what the Syrian people are asking for - what we are all asking for.

DW: You have been part of this process for months. How tough has it been to get to this point?

Mistura: Pretty tough. But it was worth it.

And I must say I want to pay tribute to John Kerry and to Sergey Lavrov because - despite their large differences that still exist about many things - they have been able to sit at the same table and help those who they have influence over to also sit around the table: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Russia and the US. And they were all there for six hours talking about how to solve the problems in Syria - that is an achievement. It has been painful, long - but it has been worth it.

And what is the alternative? Going back to where we were before? No.

Staffan de Mistura is a member of the Italian government. After a 40-year career in various United Nations agencies. He is currently the United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis.