The U.N.'s Man in Syria: ISIS Is Like a Political Ebola

This image made from undated video posted during the weekend of June 28, 2014 on a social media account frequently used for c
This image made from undated video posted during the weekend of June 28, 2014 on a social media account frequently used for communications by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Omar al-Shishani standing next to the group's spokesman among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. Al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos — in contrast to the group's Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed. (AP Photo/militant social media account via AP video)

Staffan de Mistura is the new United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, tasked with seeking a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict there. I spoke with him on Dec. 18.

What is your job about?

My job is first to reduce the violence of the conflict in Syria that has produced 220,000 dead people and 3.2 million refugees. Second, therefore, is to try to increase assistance to these people.

We are trying to find a basically political process, because everybody agrees at this stage that there is no military solution. Everybody agrees that there has to be a political solution, involving all Syrians and the regional and international countries which have had an interest and an involvement in the conflict.

Officially my job is to reduce violence.

Is this idea not like a dream of utopia?

No. Maybe there is a different way to look at ending the conflict, because everything that has been tried has not worked.

But what is the situation?

Terribly tragic, because there are new factors that have come into the issue. One is ISIS, which has made the situation of the Syrian people even worse. And meanwhile the people of Syria, wherever I meet them, are exhausted. Eleven million of them are displaced. The economy went back by 30 years.

Is the Assad regime still in place?

No, none of the players in Syria at the moment, including Assad, can consider himself stable. However, since half of the population is still under his control, we cannot ignore that fact.

Are both sides against ISIS?

Everybody is concerned, in view of its violence, but they are also worried by the conflict between the opposition and the regime.

What are you doing in Aleppo and what does it mean?

First of all, I want to pay tribute to the first ones who raised concern about Aleppo. That was the Community of Sant'Egidio.

It led to the very effective report by the International Crisis Group, indicating that if Aleppo falls it will be a tragedy for at least 400,000 people.

We have to start somewhere in order to send a signal of hope. And to show that there can be some reduction of violence, which could facilitate a political process. Aleppo is a city divided between regime forces in the west and rebels in the east.

"I can see in the eyes of the Syrian people that they are all asking for the end of this terrible conflict."

What are you going to do for the people of Aleppo?

First thing is to find a way in which we can "freeze" the situation. These people have been under siege for two years. The city is very close to collapsing. If we do not do anything and the city collapses it could fall into the hands of ISIS, which is only 20 kilometers away, and that would be an even bigger tragedy.

And what is going on now?

Intense discussions with the Assad government, the opposition and the concerned countries. There is a lot of distrust between all parties, but the people of Syria have no time. As I said, they are exhausted.

What happens if it works?

If it does work in Aleppo, in a hurry, then we could replicate it in other places and meanwhile use that example in order to promote a national political process which should lead to the end of the conflict and a Syria which will hopefully be a country which can start reconstruction in line with what has been indicated in the Geneva conferences.

But that will not stop ISIS?

You are right, but ISIS cannot only be stopped by air campaigns. It needs to be stopped by the fact that ISIS take advantage of the weakness and internal conflict of countries. It is like a political Ebola.

And what about Iraq?

Yes, if the country is in turmoil. If any community is excluded or marginalized, in particular the Sunni community, you will find a fertile ground for ISIS to enter and take over as it has done in some parts of Syria and Iraq. Therefore they need to stabilize these countries in order to be able to isolate and fight ISIS.

Is ISIS getting weaker?

That is a difficult question. They do find it more difficult to progress in their campaign. The example has been Kobani. They persisted, but they did not take over.

Is this experience of yours similar to the ones you had in Iraq or in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia?

The answer is yes, but it is very different because this is probably the largest humanitarian crisis of this current century. Because there are so many players and so many countries involved and because this conflict has been going on for three and a half years and it is getting worse.

Two highly dignified and respected mediators, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have tried very hard to get a solution, but they could not find sufficient support in order to achieve that because the countries involved and the Security Council were divided.

Won't the oil crisis change things in the region?

The Syrian crisis is more complicated than simply to link it to the oil crisis.

What motivates you?

When I was 17, I saw in Cyprus a child killed in front of me by a sniper, and that produced in me a level of healthy outrage that pushed me to choose a profession which could contribute to counter such horrors. Then there is the incredible dignity and courage of the many civilian victims which I have met in the 19 conflicts where I have served as a U.N. envoy.

Do you have a real hope of peace for Syria?

Two answers. I am affected by a chronic disease called optimism and therefore I have hope. Second, I can see in the eyes of the Syrian people that they are all asking for the end of this terrible conflict. No one has a strategy to win it militarily, and the risk is that the entity who could take advantage of this conflict could be ISIS. Therefore I believe that it would help all concerned countries and governments to realize that there is an urgent need to end this conflict through a political process and not through fighting.

Syria War In October