Giandomenico Picco Interview

‘We need leaders who can lead without enemy’

LONDON - This is the fate of Gianni, to be always in the shadow," a high-ranking United Nations diplomat once said during a private conversation. He was referring to Giandomenico Picco, the man who went on a risky mission to end the ordeal of few dozens of westerners held hostages by shadowy groups in Lebanon during the 1980’s. At that time, the "mysterious" hostage-negotiator – as only few people knew about his mission -- held the post of U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Special Assignments. His efforts to release the western hostages -- a mission successfully accomplished in the second part of 1991 -- came along with another difficult task, as head of the task force that negotiated the conclusion of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq conflict.Despite his studies in four different universities, he learned more “in the streets” to which he attributed whatever success he have had in “saving human lives and ending conflicts,” as he later disclosed. In Beirut, he got used “being picked up on a darkened street, blindfolded, and bundled into the back of a car” to meet the hostages’ captors. The operation which led to the release of those hostages took him to the United States, Lebanon, Israel and Iran, which was at war with Iraq. Some of the main players of that time remain in action three decades later, with of course “new comers” and other “ambitious regional countries” engaged today in a bloody “power struggle” for the control of an Arab region suffering from sharp divisions, mounting violence and all kinds of atrocities.Picco believes that what’s happening in the region today is a Sunni-Shiite war, and “Yes” he foresaw Iran’s growing ambitions, stating “I saw the Sunni star raising in the Easter part of the Levant (Pakistan) happening since the late 1970’s,”. And almost after that the Khomeini revolution open a new door to the Shiites” “The seeds (of a Sunni-Shiite war) were visible in the late seventies in the Eastern part of the Greater Levant, as far as Pakistan,” he said during an online interview with The Arab Weekly .“The architecture of the Levant from Pakistan to Lebanon has been changing for some time and more so, since the late 70s; that is to say since Iran and Saudi Arabia started their first ‘chess game’," he explained.For Picco, the bloody war that has been raging in Syria since 2011 was simply another phase of the “chess game” between the two Muslim countries.“It is not a civil war (in Syria) but the third chess game in the Iraqi -Syrian space in 30 years,” he said.When asked how such a war could come to an end and what would it take to reach a political solution at a time terrorist groups, such as the “Islamic State”, are further expanding and strengthening their control over large parts of Syria and Iraq, Picco said “the solution will not be found by reading the region with the glasses of the past: Syria and Iraq are part of the same ‘space’… a solution will come only when that entire space will be written in a new page of history.”With the wisdom and experience he had accumulated from his long-time diplomatic career, he said “Look forward not backward. We just need leaders with the courage to write that page and to do that, we need leaders who can lead without enemy. We cannot copy tomorrow from yesterday. We need the courage of writing anew.”He said “a solution may be achieved (but) only within the context of an area I called ‘the Syrian- Iraqi space’ … (and) only Iran and Saudi Arabia can lay the foundation to overcome the conflict in that space… They have to re write the architecture of the Levant. “He emphasized the need for “leaders who can have the courage to write a new page of history. Where are they? I hope they can be found in Saudi and in Iran, who are the leaders of Sunnism and Shiism. They have the major responsibility. Others may only be spoilers or helpers at a later stage.”Asked if he was to be approached today to negotiate the release of hostages kidnapped by the “Islamic State”, also known as IS and ISIS, he said “any case and anytime is different: most importantly history never repeats itself”.He recalled that “it took some two years to devise a formula” to end the hostage saga in Lebanon back in the 1980s, “to have it politically accepted by the parties involved (and no other) and then executed.”“In my experience, these operations succeed only if the negotiator has credibility which does not mean impartiality…. which is an abstract and indeed inexistent, and therefore useless concept invoked only by those who have never successfully negotiated." He further explained: “Impartiality, as a political concept, in our era had specific philosophical, political and regional roots, within the framework of the Cold War. Its limited use ended with the Cold War.”He went on, adding” "The political map of the international system changed with the end of the Cold War: from that moment on, multilateralism read UN system as well, has never resolved any conflict over the last 20 years That has been achieved only by ‘minilateralism’ or bilateralism’.” How he then sees the future of the Arab region?Picco re-emphasized “The future resides in the ability of Saudi Arabia and Iran to build together a new architecture for the Muslim world…The Chess Game for the future of the Greater Levant needs first an understanding between Riyadh and Tehran.”Only those two countries “can lay the ground for a first level of understanding” of this new architecture, which “will carry no more Western names of architects but Sunnis and Shiites names,” he concluded.