With the world’s attention focused on the ongoing crisis in Syria, it seems odd that Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has largely flown under the radar. Appointed in July 2014, de Mistura has a seemingly impossible mandate aimed at ‘bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis’. As the UN attempts to resume the Geneva Intra-Syrian talks, it’s worth taking a closer look at the man at the heart of the negotiations.
As the Syrian conflict approaches its sixth year, de Mistura faces many of the same challenges that hampered his well-known predecessors, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. De Mistura must navigate persistent divisions within the UN Security Council, an intransigent Syrian government, a fractured opposition, and increasing militarisation on the ground—obstacles which drove both Brahimi and Annan to resign in frustration. The latest Syria envoy has also inherited a more powerful ISIS, greater military involvement of regional and global powers, and the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. An eternal optimist, de Mistura posits that the worsening conflict and rise of ISIS provide a sense of urgency that can change the parties’ calculus, stating in mid-2015, ‘Sometimes there is a common threat that can produce a common interest in putting aside all the differences in trying to find a constructive solution’.
While de Mistura initially tested a variety of approaches to the Syrian conflict, he has reverted back to the well-worn UN strategy of negotiations held in Geneva. He launched the Geneva Intra-Syrian talks late last month but announced a pause after only a few days of meetings, calling for more work to be done by the mediation team and the stakeholders. De Mistura had hoped to restart talks on 25 February but last week publicly claimed it to be unrealistic. He’s planning to hold six months of on-and-off proximity talks, meaning the delegations sit in separate rooms and UN officials shuttle between them.
At 69 years old, de Mistura isn’t the first person you’d expect to be parachuting into Damascus. The well-heeled dual Italian-Swedish diplomat wears pince-nez glasses and has been known to carry a silver pepper mill with him into the field. Despite his upper-crust proclivities, de Mistura has four decades of experience as a humanitarian officer and troubleshooter in almost 20 conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. He speaks an impressive seven languages—English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and colloquial Arabic.
De Mistura was born in Stockholm to a Swedish aristocrat mother and an Italian marquis father who was exiled from the Dalmatia region in the Adriatic after World War II. He grew up in Rome where he attended an elite, Jesuit-run high school and earned a degree in political science and development economics from the University of Rome.
The envoy’s rise to the head of the Syria negotiation table is the result of a lengthy and distinguished career, which began at the UN way back in 1971. De Mistura led the UN’s missions in Afghanistan (2010–11) and Iraq (2007–09), garnering particular praise for his work facilitating Iraq’s provincial elections in 2009. His diverse resume also includes stints as the Executive Director of the UN Staff System College in Turin (2006–07), Personal Representative in southern Lebanon (2000–04), and Director of the UN Information Centre in Rome (1997–99). Earlier in his career, de Mistura served at UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization.
While on a brief hiatus from the UN to serve as Italy’s deputy foreign minister (2011–13), de Mistura led negotiations related to a dispute with India. In May 2014 he was appointed President of the Board of Governors for the European Institute of Peace, and he’s also Sweden’s consul to the exclusive Italian island of Capri.
De Mistura’s appreciation for the UN and his dedication to helping refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants stem in part from his father’s experience as a stateless refugee. He told a reporter in 2006:
‘I became passionate about what the UN stands for because I believed in what my father told me that there has to be a different way of looking at the world than the one we saw in the war, the nations must have a united vision in an organization such as the UN…there must be a UN.’
While working as a student intern for the WFP in Cyprus, de Mistura witnessed the death of a boy by sniper fire, a turning point that inspired his career at the UN. He explains, ‘Ever since this incident I became motivated as a young adult by a sense of constructive outrage, something that influenced me to study humanitarian emergency relief in university to dedicate my life for this kind of work’. He says he continues to be motivated by the dignity and courage of the civilian victims he has met throughout his career.
Despite first impressions of de Mistura’s ‘aristocratic glamour ’—he wears finely cut suits and kisses hands—political commentators describe the envoy as businesslike, an attentive listener, and sincere in his care for civilians. A self-described ‘operational diplomat’, de Mistura claims to be ‘obsessed with results’ because he has seen firsthand the impact he can make in improving people’s lives if he works hard enough.
De Mistura often relies on optimism, innovation and a willingness to take risks—an unusual trait in the diplomatic community. He refers to himself as a ‘chronic optimist’ and has publicly quoted the playwright Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better’. A reporter from The Guardian explains how he established a reputation for creativity:
‘Colleagues and friends regaled me with tales of his talent for improvisation: how he convinced a commercial airline to fly food into a starving Kabul in 1989; how he had World Food Programme camels carrying vaccines in Sudan painted blue so they could be spotted by helicopters and protected against theft; how he used smugglers to break the siege of Sarajevo and bring meals and blankets to the city’s desperate inhabitants.’
In Syria, however, de Mistura soon discovered how quickly his forward-leaning, inventive and independent-minded approaches could land him in hot water. Part 2 will address de Mistura’s approach to the Syrian conflict.