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Scholar Spotlight: Elpida Rouka

Elpida Rouka
November 29, 2018

The following interview is the first in a series of the European Studies Council’s Spotlight of Scholars in European, Russian or Eurasian Studies.

Elpida Rouka is a 2018 Yale World Fellow. She has most recently served as Chief of Staff to the UN Special Envoy on Syria whom she joined in September 2014. She remains part of his core good offices team to date. Previously, she was in Jerusalem where she led the political team for the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, an office which was set up after the Oslo Accords. She has worked for the United Nations for over 15 years and has most recently served as Principal Political Adviser for the UN’s Special Political Missions both in Iraq (2007-2009) and in Afghanistan (2010-2012) where she has dealt with aspects of facilitating peace and political processes, advancing regional dialogue, promoting human rights and assisting with the framework of electoral preparations. A Greek national, Elpida is a graduate of the American High School of Thessaloniki, Columbia College (Political Science and East Asian/Chinese studies) and SIPA/Harriman Institute in New York (Economic and political development program and Russian/Central Asian Studies).

Could you tell me a bit about what your current work involves and what brings you to Yale?

Well, right before I left for Yale I was working in Geneva, in the office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria [Staffan De Mistura] for whom I worked for the last four years, since he became the third UN special envoy on Syria. And up until a year ago, I was his chief of staff, which essentially in different foreign services translates into private secretary, ​​personal advisor, you name it. What brings me to Yale? It was a good time for me for various​ ​reasons, personal and professional, to take a bit of a pause and sort of reflect on what we do right or wrong in Syria, and by extension the United Nation’s work in conflict resolution and​ ​mediation. I​ ​couldn’t think of a better place than Yale. I didn’t go searching for it, I was​ ​prompted, and I thought after seventeen years of workaholism working with the UN in all kinds of war zones I could benefit from a bit of breathing space. In the UN peace and security field, particularly those of us who choose to go from one hardship mission to another, it’s sort of a rollercoaster and you never​ ​have a proper chance to download experiences and lessons learned.

I wanted to ask a bit more about your work in Syria. What would you say are some of the challenges you have faced?

I just to need to give you a little bit of context because that probably will help me think out loud too. The first UN special envoy appointed on this file was now late former secretary general Kofi Annan. He resigned in 2012 and was succeeded by Lakhdar Brahimi. Kofi Annan resigned 6 months after his appointment and after he had the International community (bar Iran and Syria) agree on what was called the Geneva Communique, which was in some ways the holy script for UN mediation on Syria — with the agreement of Russians and Americans — talking about the international community supporting a political settlement in Syria through a negotiated political transition. Lakhdar Brahimi succeeded [Annan] and he resigned after what was called the Geneva II conference in 2014, which was also co-sponsored by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That conference hit a stalemate for reasons that are long to explain, but it did. So, by the time Staffan De Mistura came on the job, in the summer of 2014, the Syria conflict had become even more polarized with more security concerns and spillover dimensions for the region and regional players. By way of contextualizing it, when Kofi Annan came up with what is called his Six Point Plan, calling for a ceasefire in Syria, the estimated death toll was just over 7,000 people; by the time Staffan De Mistura came, the estimated death toll was quarter of a million people, which just demonstrates the depth of violence and absolute madness of the human tragedy. Plus, we had two new factors, which were the reemergence of ISIL in neighboring Iraq, and then in 2014, the counter ISIL coalition under President Obama. Moreover, as I said, expectations were muted about a political process after the Geneva II conference reached a stalemate and world interest in Syria was falling fast because that summer was all about Ukraine and everything else, but nothing to do with Syria. But were it not for the two new factors (ISIL and anti-ISIL coalition), Staffan would not have been able to use them as a trigger to regain the international community’s attention on Syria. So, from the moment that we started in Syria, we knew there was no will to get the Syrian parties to come to the negotiating table. The approach was to find any entry points, opportunities for de-escalation of violence, starting which what became known as the Aleppo freeze. The idea initially backfired — partly as neither party had an interest in ceasing the fighting, but by late 2015, when Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov spearheaded an International Syrian Support Group, you actually had the framework — a nationwide ceasefire in exchange of a credible transition — and all the elements that were needed to push for an intra Syrian negotiated political solution.

So, what were the biggest challenges? First, if you look at the geopolitics around Syria, plus the immensity of the human tragedy — there are about 5 million refugees right now, 8 million internally displaced people, 11 million injured, and hundreds of thousands dead — you’re talking about the crisis of our generation, if not generations to come. So, in so many ways Syria is not about Syria; it’s about everything else but the Syrians. It’s about Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out their regional rivalries on Syrian soil; it’s about the West and Russia; it’s about Europe and refugees; it’s about Europe and the US; it’s about all kinds of geopolitics that have nothing to do with Syria which makes it more complicated. At any given point in time there are three circles around the Syrian conflict and the mediation effort that needs to be worked on: the intra Syrian one, the regional one and the international one. And all those circles need to be looked at simultaneously and not one at the expense of the other. So, in terms of global diplomacy, it’s the most difficult issue I’ve worked on. And the second challenge, as the UN, is to be able to always keep the political process alive, even when it looks like the war has been won and that it’s a military victory. Because even when the war is won — you may have lost depending on where you are — we should not lose the peace. And the third challenge is how do you keep a political negotiation on the table when the sitting government doesn’t want to negotiate power out and when the people on the opposition forces are saying how can we negotiate with these people when we are being killed and slaughtered on the ground.

How do you navigate this machinery that is the UN, which is made up of member states like the U.S. and Russia that have veto powers, considerable sway and their own geopolitical interests in mind? I’m sure it can get frustrating.

Sure, it gets maddening at times. But that’s diplomacy, right? If we all talked to like-minded people, there wouldn’t be a need for diplomacy. Diplomacy is about cutting deals. Not in any kind of sketchy way cutting deals, but about negotiating a give and take. You have to have a good understanding of what the agenda of each player is, in order to provide a counter balance. The biggest problem in Syria in particular is not just the veto power, which is very important, but it’s the fact that four out of five permanent members on the security council are actively militarily involved in Syria — and not on the same side. So, this is high stakes diplomacy, as high stakes as it can get on any file, and obviously you’ve got the Special Envoy and his mediation office, but you also have the UN Secretary General. As I said before, not everything is about Syria, even if it is about Syria. So, the Secretary General has to handle a lot of American-Russian dynamics, particularly within the Security Council. And there he has a different responsibility to that of the Special Envoy, who is focusing on diplomacy around issues of Syria and the region; the Secretary General has to keep the broader spectrum in mind — if parties are negotiating something, he has to consider how it impacts negotiations in other fields. How do you navigate all this? Well, as I said, we have to work with three circles all the time, which means that basically the Special Envoy needs to be on the plane all the time. That’s called shuttle diplomacy. That said, these are the same member states that created the International Syria Support Group, and they cosponored both a political negotiation and a ceasefire on the ground. And they adopted a resolution called Resolution 2254 (2015), which basically gives the roadmap or steps towards affecting a Syrian led and owned transition and empowers the Special Envoy to convene negotiations by way of mapping out that transition. That said, after 2016 when Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov’s understanding over Syria failed, and the US and Russian Federation suspended relations over a ceasefire in Syria, we had a temporary gap of American engagement within the Syria Support group given the change of US administration. Meanwhile Russia stepped in and created what’s called the Astana Process, where the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey are guarantors of de-escalation zones in Syria (essentially the zones replaced the earlier US Russian Federation cosponsored 2016 cessation of hostilities). Lastly, I should reference three tools of relevance: the UN’s convening capacity, that’s why it’s called the Geneva Process — so, in fact, Staffan De Mistura has been adamant that the parties come to Geneva, he doesn’t go to the parties. Second, we can offer legitimacy. So, even member states that may be criticized by one party or the other for their positions on Syria still want to be part of the international community and make their case. And third, and more importantly, is the UN’s moral voice, and the Secretary General is the highest authority, but he also has the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Special Envoy and his Senior Adviser Jan Egeland— speaking for those who cannot speak, for the detained, for the displaced, for refugees, for the dead.

You mentioned that your work in Syria has been some of the most high-stakes diplomacy​ ​that you’ve been involved with, but you’ve done plenty of other work as well. For instance, you served as Principal Political Adviser for the UN’s Special Political Missions both in Iraq​ ​(2007-2009) and in Afghanistan (2010-2012). Can you tell me a bit about that? More​ ​specifically, can you perhaps recall an instance where you faced a moral dilemma and talk about how you overcame it?

We face moral dilemmas everyday in our work. I should again contextualize. Both of those missions I again worked with Staffan Di Mistura who was the Head of Mission at the time, thus the continuation of our trust relationship with me ending up being his chief of staff on Syria. One thing I try to explain to people, is that Iraq and Afghanistan were very different from Syria in that they were post US military intervention transitions, where the sitting regime was deposed. Syria on the other hand has been an attempt to have the sitting president hand over power at the negotiating table. So very different concepts of what the UN can do as a mediator. Iraq and Afghanistan are also very different from each other. But from a strictly UN point of view, in Iraq it was 2007, so it was a very particular moment when the US military forces were implementing something called the Surge and it was several months before Iraqis were regaining their sovereignty, pursuant to a Status of Forces agreement with the US. And it was also a very important prime moment for a UN intervention, because it was after the fallout of Samarra, after the civil war, there was conflict fatigue, there was a surge, there was the Sadrist ceasefire, and it was  a general sense that whatever the UN and US’s differences were over the 2003  invasion of Iraq — which Kofi Annan had declared not consistent with international law — we decided to put those behind us by way of helping the Iraqis. And not so much a moral dilemma, but something that became an important intervention by the UN mission. At the time: there were about four wars going on in Iraq, the Sunni-Sunni, the Sunni-Shia, the Shia-Shia, the US- Sunni. The only conflict that had not yet erupted was the Arab-Kurdish conflict, and that became our entry point by way of helping the Kurds — who wanted to basically do a unilateral referendum to annex  what were called disputed internal boundaries, stretching from the borders with Iran to the borders with Turkey, with Kirkuk being the ultimate price, climb down from the impossible position they had put themselves in. We offered the ladder to climb down on and that became our smaller piece of getting involved in national reconciliation which was something the Iraqis didn’t yet want us to get involved in. But on the moral dilemma, I work for the peace and security side of the UN, and something that always hurt me a lot was, particularly in Afghanistan, there was a distinction between the humanitarian UN and those working for the peace and security side. And they would call us the black and blue UN, you can imagine which one is which. That I found always very hurtful, because of course the humanitarians would say they have the purest humanitarian principles whereas the peace and security folks cut deals with devils. So that brings you to the constant debate of peace and stability over transitional justice and accountability, and that debate is exponential in Syria. I don’t think we’ll ever resolve that debate, it’s a daily calculation, which one you go for first and whether you need to cut deals with very unsavory people in order to save more lives by the time they find a political settlement.

I assume you still had to work extensively with these same humanitarian agencies that may have had some criticisms of the peace and security side of the UN?

Absolutely. Afghanistan has one of the biggest NGO, INGO communities that have been working there for decades — and not just those who have links to the UN or the UN system. During 2010 in Afghanistan the humanitarian community had a huge disagreement with part of the direction the UN political mission was taking; instead of antagonizing the UN Special Representative publicly, they sat down with him and eventually decided to work within the system to affect change on the issues they cared most about without megaphone diplomacy. But yes, of course, we always work with humanitarians, they are an integral part of the UN system. As most humanitarians will tell you — despite disagreements at times because they want to maintain what they call humanitarian space although that space is rapidly shrinking in my view — humanitarian problems need political not humanitarian solutions.

Coming back to Yale. How do you transition from this life in the field to being here on a college campus? They seem like very different things.

Clumsily, I think is my answer. But all jokes aside, I never thought I would come back to academia, and even now it’s not really academia, it’s a fellowship, so it has a more practitioner side than academic. I also studied in another Ivy League school, I went to Columbia College and Columbia Grad School, so I wasn’t so shocked by campus life. I could’ve done without orientation weeks, let’s put it that way — I was oriented out. For me, it’s been slightly different than for other colleagues or fellow fellows, because this resembles the policy environment, where I feel most comfortable. Half of the Jackson Institute Senior Fellows are people I’ve worked with in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. So, I do feel at ease. It’s more like having chit chats with my old friends and colleagues. And I didn’t strictly come from the field, because with the exception of Iraq, Afghanistan and Jerusalem, on Syria I was working out of Geneva. So, it was basically the first conflict zone I worked on, but I wasn’t on the ground, which was of course another challenge. But it’s good to be back in an academic setting where we’ve got a bit more intellectual stimulation than we do in our daily bureaucracy, where we mostly deal with firefighting and being in a crisis mode as opposed to stepping back and reflecting.

And what specifically have you been up to?

R. ​Cross pollinating ideas, that’s what I’ve been up to. I must say my cohort are some amazing humans and I mean it. And I’ve been lucky to have met a lot of people in my life, within the UN context that are fascinating individuals, but these 15, I’m the 16th, are quite something. So, what have I been up to? As I said, cross pollinating ideas, mostly, and trying to use my experience in ways that benefit others. I don’t know how to put it better. Also trying to make linkages because I think this is a fascinating institution, I mean one of the best in the world, and there could be more interdisciplinary stuff. The best description of my previous work as chief of staff to the UN Special Envoy on Syria, was captured by someone who said Elpida was curating relations. So basically, curating relations is what I do best. That’s why my series here at Yale is slightly adjusted to that. I’ve purposely structured it as interviews, I’m interviewing my guests who are usually long-time colleagues and by now friends so it’s more like me having a chance to ask them the questions I never was able to, make the UN world more accessible and bring out answers about the individuals on a personal level not just their position in the UN. I’ve called it the Elpida Interviews: Something Old, Something New and Everything UN Blue. That’s one and the other one is the Unplugged series with non-UN folks.

It sounds like there are a lot of highlights of being a World Fellow at Yale. Any drawbacks?

It’s too short of a program, that’s the only drawback! It’s an explosion of ideas, of art, of everything, discussing legacies and story-telling, and all things Hamilton by the way. So, Hamilton has captured the spirit of our cohort. One of the World fellows most generously took us all to see the show and, in every conversation, now we end up quoting some story line in Hamilton, the biggest one being: who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story. The World Fellow program is self-described as incubation of modern leadership. So of course, a lot of our discussions revolve around what is leadership, what are the definitions. But it also about legacy, personal relations and moral and ethical dilemmas; it’s about life and our experiences and where we go next.

On the point of future, what about future plans?

For now, just enjoying my time here. But in all seriousness, I have a job to go back to. So, it’s the first time in my life I made a conscious choice of being in it this time for me and not constantly thinking about somebody else or what next. I’ve spent too many years thinking about what next, what next, what next! No, I mean, who knows? Life is full of opportunities. It can surprise you. The moment of possibility is right now.

And finally, how has the fact that you’re a Greek national impacted how you perceive the work you do, if at all?

​​So my maternal grandmother — after whom I am named — was from Asia Minor. She and her family were forced to flee from Smyrna in 1922 to mainland Greece. She was an early day displaced person, or refugee.  She was only 22 days old and not yet baptized. On the boat to Mainland Greece, she was named Elpida, which means hope, in the hope that one day they could return to their land, though they never did. My other grandparents are from Greek Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great. And all my grandparents, including the 98-year-old surviving philosopher — philosopher in the Greek interpretation of philosophizing life — believed in my work in the UN. And he still believes in it to date. And they all encouraged me to pursue the truth even if some thought I was chasing windmills. One of my earliest memories would be me asking my maternal grandmother:  “Grandmother why don’t you hate the Turks?” and she would tell me “It’s not the people, Elpida, it’s the politics. You have to remember that.” So that has sort of stayed with me for a while. And my Greek background has made for an interesting icebreaker whether I’m sitting down with Ulemas in Afghanistan, or with the tribes and/or Kurdish Peshmergas in Iraq, separately with Israelis and Palestinians, and most definitely with Aleppans.

I’ll leave you with a final anecdote. My paternal grandfather, who was very patriarchal, at the end of each meal he would sit with the male members of the family, while the women were sent to the kitchen, and tell stories. But he would keep me in, for some reason. So, one day, he goes, I’m going to tell you an anecdote. He goes “You’re in the Court, Elpida, the defendant stands up and gives his testimony, and the judge goes, ‘you’re right.’ And then the prosecutor stands up and gives his testimony, and the judge goes ‘you’re right.’ And then someone from the audience stands up and says ‘Judge, I’m sorry, the defendant and prosecutor are both right?’ And the Judge says, ‘you’re right.’”

Interviewed by Zainab Hamid, Timothy Dwight College, Class of 2019.