SIPA prides itself on training the next generation of leaders and change makers. The school brings together a diverse set of students and faculty from around the world to find innovative solutions to some of the most intractable problems facing the world today.
Few epitomize this spirit better than Professor Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who served as the Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on Syria this summer.
Guéhenno returned to SIPA this fall with a wealth of experience from the field in one of the most protracted political conflicts in the world today. His involvement in Syria began when he pulled together an observer mission, which was authorized by the Security Council in an auspicious but fleeting sign of unity among the P-5 nations: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.
“The mission was really to see whether a political process could get off the ground, that is, to resolve the political crisis in Syria through political means rather than guns,” said Guéhenno, who spent May and June in Syria trying to broker cease-fire between the Syrian regime and opposition.
Since peaceful protests began year and a half ago, the Syrian conflict has escalated into a full-scale civil war, resulting in more than 26,000 deaths. Even in his many years of working for the French government and the United Nations, Guéhenno said, he could not “think of a mission with more risk.”
Guéhenno speaks in first-person plural, and employs both a quiet authority and inarguable reason. The pragmatic French diplomat says he was very realistic about the chances of success when he joined the mission. “I knew the odds of success were not that high,” said Guéhenno speaking of the challenges Kofi Annan and his team faced in Syria. “But you owe it to the Syrian people to do your best to try to address the problem. Doctors can’t say ‘I only operate on the easy cancers.’”
Bashar Al-Assad’s besieged regime still controls most urban areas including Syria’s capital, Damascus. But Guéhenno said he was shocked to see how much territory the Syrian government had lost. “You would drive with Syrian security, let’s say in Homs, and then your security escort would stop at the last checkpoint and you would continue in a no-man’s land,” Guéhenno told Communique.
“You’d drive a few hundred yards and find yourself with the fighters on the other side in uniform, not hiding their faces, actually putting clips of the visit on the internet.”
As the political crisis in Syria unfolded, Guéhenno found himself shuttling between a regime battling to hold on to power and a determined opposition trying to take it down. When he wasn’t in transit, Guéhenno was speaking with Syrian diplomats, ministers and generals, as well as with armed opposition groups, conveying “honestly and without rhetoric” the costs of a civil war.
“It is your job to speak to rationality,” Guéhenno said of his mission.
The United Nations, especially the Security Council, has been criticized for failing to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Guéhenno understands the criticisms but says the problems are much more complex.
“How do you bring unity to the Security Council? How do you explore the possibility of some common space among Syrians? And then how do you limit divisions within the region?” he asked.
In addition to irreconcilable divisions between the Syrian government and the opposition, the Syrian crisis has exposed deep division both within the Middle East and in the Security Council. “Syrian issues cannot be separated from the broader regional issues,” said Guehenno. “I think you will have a more coherent [Syrian] opposition if you have a more coherent international community.”
As the UN-brokered ceasefire deteriorated and commitments to a transition belied their superficiality, Annan’s resiliency proved insufficient. “You need unity in the Security Council and that was one of Kofi Annan’s top priorities,” said Guéhenno. “But there’s no consensus on how to get from point A to Z.” According to Guéhenno, following NATO’s intervention in Libya, Russia and China remain deeply suspicious of Western motives, and worry about what happens the “day after” Assad leaves.
Amid increased violence and with Annan’s abrupt exit, a unified international response to the crisis in Syria remains distant. Guéhenno left the mission mid-July, at the behest of French President François Hollande, to chair a commission on French Defense and National Security.
Guéhenno is in his element, both at SIPA and in the field. As a professor, he revels in the opportunity to reflect on the theories behind conflict resolution, distancing himself from the operational dimensions of fieldwork. It’s a different sort of stimulation, a stimulation of having students who want to make the world a better place and I like that,” he said.
Guéhenno’s commitment to human rights and conflict resolution often pulls him out of the classroom. He finds the challenge of solving a conflict like the Syrian crisis, in which no solution is obvious or forthcoming, to be both interesting and frustrating.
“Sometimes you wish it was less interesting,” he muses.
Max Marder is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the September 25th, 2012 issue of Communiqué.