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U.N. Envoy: Solution To Syrian Conflict Must Be A 'Political One'


The hope for any end to the war in Syria rests largely with negotiator Staffan de Mistura. He is the third U.N. Special Envoy trying to bring a negotiated end to the four-year conflict. He's trying to succeed where other seasoned diplomats have failed and have resigned in frustration. Steffan de Mistura joins me now from New York. Welcome to the program.

STEFFAN DE MISTURA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And we're looking at four years of war in Syria, 250,000 people dead, millions of refugees. Are you seeing any signs of progress?

DE MISTURA: What I do see is a clear indication by everyone that this cannot continue like this. There is also a sense of urgency that we didn't have before. And the sense of urgency is caused by two factors. The first one is the one you just mentioned. This is a largest tragic humanitarian crisis of the century. Now, the second sense of urgency is what we didn't have before, and now it's in front of us. It's called ISIS or whatever they want to call themselves - Islamic State. They've been advancing and producing a feeling of imminent threat not only in Syria, but in the whole region and beyond. That is a new factor that is producing a sense of urgency and trying to find a solution.

BLOCK: I'm curious to hear you say that the sense of urgency is shared by everyone because there are many parties that seem they really do not want this war to end. We had a speech by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, this past weekend saying, we are not collapsing; we will achieve victory. How do you square those two things?

DE MISTURA: Well, first of all, there is, in every conflict, some rhetoric and posturing, so we should take that aside. Now, let's look at the facts. The facts is that everybody is exhausted and that no one believes that there is a military solution to this. The solution must be a political one, and they are getting that political sensitivity.

BLOCK: That political solution that you envision always gets tangled up in the question of whether President Bashar al-Assad stays in power or shares power in some form. That has been completely intractable throughout years of negotiations. How convinced are you that Assad needs to go, and can you imagine a workable solution in which he does remain president or part of a government?

DE MISTURA: You see, I would not go into all these details because that is exactly part of what should be a discussion and negotiation not only among the Syrians, but also the possible discussion that we hope to see among the regional, international players.

But the reality is also there is a road map, there is no need of re-inventing the wheel. There is what we call the Geneva Communique - in other words, a road map towards a political solution. And it was adopted three years ago. Now we need to revitalize it.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the role of Iran in these discussions and any possible pressure it might exert on its ally, the Syrian government. Do you think that the U.N.-Iran nuclear deal gives you new momentum, makes a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war any more likely?

DE MISTURA: Well, I'm feeling quite convinced that the Iranian-U.N. international deal has a great potential, great potential for actually producing collateral positive effects elsewhere in the region. And the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to that yesterday again, so we are hopeful that that will be the case.

BLOCK: Should Iran continue to have a seat at the negotiating table in the Syria talks?

DE MISTURA: Well, how can anyone believe that in a Syrian future discussion, we would not have Iran part of it when Iran is, and has been proven by the very discussions that have taken place now in Vienna, to be a major player in the region.

BLOCK: You know well that your two predecessors, the special envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, got nowhere with Syrian talks, resigned in frustration. Kofi Annan called this a mission impossible. How do you expect to succeed, Mr. de Mistura, where these two very seasoned, expert diplomats failed?

DE MISTURA: First of all, they're two friends of mine, and I have highest respect for what they are and what they tried to do. At the time when they were involved, there was no Daesh, which have been, in a way - ISIS - a new element of wake-up call. Secondly, there was not this feeling that this conflict was going to get as bad as it is.

BLOCK: And you're saying that the Islamic State presence and the rising force of the Islamic State gives a sense of urgency that wasn't there before that could actually help these talks. I'm trying to understand.

DE MISTURA: Correct. Exactly. And that's how history goes. 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.

BLOCK: Others would say, I think, Mr. de Mistura, that it just makes an eventual solution even more complicated, even more out of reach.

DE MISTURA: That's where the difference between an optimist and a pessimist.

BLOCK: And you're firmly in the former camp.

DE MISTURA: That's right.

BLOCK: Staffan de Mistura is the U.N. special envoy for Syria. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DE MISTURA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.