Rather than accept defeat, the United Nations continues to mediate the conflict in Syria. Last Friday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed veteran U.N. official Staffan de Mistura to negotiate on his behalf in a conflict that has seen more than 150,000 killed and an estimated 9.4 million persons displaced. While the chances of de Mistura brokering peace are slim, policymakers should not dismiss the U.N.-led peace process.
The last U.N. effort to bring together the parties in Geneva made only minimal progress and left then-joint U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi convinced that the process "was not going to move forward any time soon." The situation has since deteriorated further due to new battlefield conditions; the rise of extremist Islamist groups like ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria); and Syrian President Bashar Assad's decision to hold presidential elections over Brahimi's objections. Even Ban was uncharacteristically candid and pessimistic when declaring that "diplomacy seems to have stopped in its tracks."
Given the situation, de Mistura is not expected to fare much better than his two higher-profile predecessors. Brahimi, who is widely admired for his endless patience, spent months trying to resign after two frustrating years working to overcome stalemated negotiations. When he finally resigned on May 31, he apologized to the Syrian people and conceded that his mission seemed doomed from the start: the parties would not budge and neither the world's major powers nor regional powers would or could make them. The same fundamental problem plagued Brahimi's predecessor, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who resigned after six months as joint U.N.-Arab League mediator in 2012, citing disputant intransigence and the unwillingness of Russia, and to a lesser extent the U.S., to rally around a peace process.
So why is the U.N. further staking its reputation by continuing to mediate in Syria?
First, the secretary-general has little choice. Secretaries-general have long seen it as their duty to keep negotiating if there is even a remote possibility of finding a peaceful solution to a dispute. Ban also cannot ignore the wishes of the Security Council's powerful permanent members, and the permanent members insist that mediation continue. Officially, these members hope mediation will produce a peace agreement; unofficially, endorsing U.N. mediation is one of the few areas where the divided council can find common ground, demonstrate council activism and create a veneer of major power cooperation.
Second, a sustained U.N. peace process makes it easier to seize future windows of opportunity. Ultimately the major powers — not the U.N. — will cajole the Syrian parties and their regional partners to take negotiations seriously. However, the U.N. can facilitate such negotiations by navigating the parties through treacherous disagreements over who participates, procedures, and the agenda. When official talks broke down in Geneva, the U.N. prevented the entire peace process from collapsing by supporting an unofficial dialogue among representatives from across the Syrian political spectrum. Such dialogues sustain peace constituencies and allow the sides to quietly probe for common ground and float trial proposals.
Finally, U.N. mediation supports its civilian protection efforts and alleviates some suffering. The U.N. occasionally brokered temporary ceasefires, including a week-long one in Homs last February that enabled hundreds of civilians to escape the besieged city. It can also press all sides to comply with international human rights law and expose non-compliance with Security Council resolutions demanding unimpeded access for humanitarian relief organizations. Last August, the U.N. helped negotiate access for international investigators to the sites of chemical weapon attacks.
These modest successes fall well short of a comprehensive political solution. Nonetheless, policymakers should acknowledge them. There is a history of U.S. policymakers asking the U.N. to implement an impossible mandate — like making peace in Syria — and scapegoating the organization when it fails to do so. These failures are fodder for U.N. critics eager to reduce funding and sap political support, and more supportive politicians seldom see the benefit of standing up for the organization. This political calculus must change if the U.N. is to continue to chisel away at the world's knottiest problems. Realistic expectations must be set and small accomplishments acknowledged, which will make it easier to hold the U.N. accountable when they are not met.
In the end, a U.N.-led peace process is woefully inadequate given the scope of suffering in Syria, but it represents one of the few tools available, and Ban should be applauded for continuing to use it.
Schroeder is professorial lecturer and director of the Global Governance, Politics and Security Program at the School of International Service at American University.