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As Civil War Appears To Be Reaching An End, U.N. Envoy Prepares To Leave Syria


Syria's brutal civil war appears to be grinding to an end, though not the end the U.S. had hoped for. President Bashar al-Assad remains in power backed by Russia and Iran. And as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Syria, the United Nations is also getting ready for a change there. Its longtime envoy leaves this month with little to show for his efforts. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Three prominent international diplomats have tried to resolve the conflict in Syria. Staffan de Mistura spent the most time on the job over four years. As he prepares to step down, he was trying to get all sides to work on a new constitution that could help end the war.


STAFFAN DE MISTURA: But there is still an extra mile - an extra mile to go.

KELEMEN: De Mistura called the conflict a dirty, brutal, horrific war as he addressed the Security Council one last time today.


DE MISTURA: I deeply regret what has not been achieved. And I'm sorry more couldn't be done and was not possible. I think we in the Security Council together should share that regret, too, and I know we do.

KELEMEN: De Mistura says it's too early to say what might change after President Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. U.S. forces are there to battle ISIS. They're not part of Syria's broader civil war. But pulling them out does undermine U.S. influence in how the war will end, says Mona Yacoubian, a former Obama administration aide official now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

MONA YACOUBIAN: Without skin in the game, as it were, I think it really does hamper our ability to really influence that process, which as of now is very much stalemated.

KELEMEN: And she worries about the message the Trump administration is sending to friends and foes alike.

YACOUBIAN: I think there's a deepening impression by both allies and adversaries that the U.S. is not reliable. And so for allies, this is obviously disconcerting news. And in terms of adversaries, I think they see this as opportunity. Whether it's Russia, Iran, ISIS, I think all of them interpret this as opportunity.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with NPR says the U.S. remains committed to its allies and partners and to Syria diplomacy.

MIKE POMPEO: Here at the State Department we've been working diligently for a long time, including the entirety of my time in service here, to achieve the U.N. process led by Staffan de Mistura and now by his successor to get a political outcome in Syria.

KELEMEN: It was just a few days ago that his envoy, Jim Jeffrey, was vowing to remain in Syria to ensure that ISIS would not be able to regroup and to meet other U.S. goals, including a different Syrian government.


JIM JEFFREY: It's not regime change. We're not trying to get rid of Assad. We just want to see a regime again that does not produce the kind of horrors that we have seen. Finally, we think that Iran has to get out of there. And when we say Iran, we're talking about Iranian ground troops.

KELEMEN: And the administration argues that the world won't help Syria rebuild unless those goals are met. The needs are vast, says Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria. He compares it to post-World War II Europe.

JAN EGELAND: Syria is Dresden. It's Stalingrad, really. And you drive for hours, and that's what you see - ruins.

KELEMEN: Egeland is also leaving the job this month lamenting the many failures of diplomacy going back to the first U.N. peace plan in 2012.

EGELAND: The absolute No. 1 lesson is never let the small war become a big war.

KELEMEN: Because a big war with many factions and countries involved is much harder to stop. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREMOR'S "CARACOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.