Drivers in Syria call her the “Iron Lady”, and President Bashar Al Assad’s officials say she’s “more man than any man” they know.
In the US and elsewhere, that would be considered sexist. In Syria, it’s the opposite: admiration for the woman who’s leading the multinational effort to destroy the country’s 1,300 metric tonnes of chemical weapons by the end of next month.
The Iron Lady is Sigrid Kaag, the former Dutch diplomat who heads the joint Syria mission of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Kaag’s appointment in October by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added to a growing roster of women taking on senior roles in international peace and security.
Thirty of the UN’s 193 members have female ambassadors, the most since the international body was created in 1945. Recently, Ban said he has named Major General Kristin Lund of Norway to head the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, the first woman to serve as commander for such a force.
Being a woman wasn’t a disadvantage to Kaag in getting the job, and the multitasking abilities she learnt in juggling motherhood and a career have only helped her in her Syria mission, she said in an interview in New York.
“In the region, contrary to what people often believe, women in leadership or women with a role are respected, and this is also the case in Syria, very much so,” Kaag said. “I have never ever felt I was treated any less.”
“Actually nowadays, apparently I’m given the nickname by counterparts that I am ‘more man than any man they know,’” she said, adding that’s also a way for people to tease her male colleagues.
“Drivers refer to me by a second nickname, the Iron Lady, but that’s only because I’m relentless in having to go to many, many places.”
That has its costs. Kaag, 53, is the mother of three teenagers and an 11-year-old, but she’s barely seen her family for seven months. She said she’s looking forward to reconnecting with them when her “finite” mission is over.
No wonder. Recently, 13 mortar rounds landed about 200 to 500 metres from the UN offices in Damascus where she and her staff members stay, Kaag said.
“I hope we live to tell the tale, that is for sure,” she said. “Literally.”
Kaag began her UN career in 1994 and has risen through the ranks to become second-in-command at the UN Development Programme and later regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or Unicef. She was based in Amman, Jordan, where she met her husband, Anis Al Qaq, a former Palestinian ambassador to Switzerland.
Kaag thinks the multitasking skills she earned juggling motherhood and her career are crucial to leading what she called a “very complex operation” in Syria.
“I firmly believe women are the best multitaskers, particularly when you are married or a mother, and you need to just keep your head cool,” Kaag said.
“Years of young children, working full-time, having to travel, toddlers, school, homework, managing complexity at home and managing the office” lets you use time efficiently, she said. “And this is something where we have no time in this mission. We have no time at all.”
With seven weeks until the June 30 deadline for the removal of all Syria’s chemical weapons, Kaag is running out of time. About 8 per cent of Assad’s declared chemical agents remains in a storage site near Damascus.
“The situation is so volatile, so diffuse with so many actors and armed opposition groups on the ground, it’s also fair to assume that your traditional command-and-control structure doesn’t seem to be necessarily in place,” Kaag said.
Kaag said she’s approaching the mission with a sense of pragmatism and without ego, “sort of looking at the problem for what it is and having a lot of common sense”.
“Not everybody has that, but I think that may be a gender differentiation sometimes,” she said. “With a lot of women colleagues, we don’t mind — ultimately you look at the results that need to be produced.”
Her success ultimately depends on her understanding of the Middle East, the complexity of its politics and the inner workings of the UN.
Kaag holds two master’s degrees in international relations from St Antony’s College at Oxford University and Exeter University, both in the UK She was chief of staff to the head of Unicef before taking on her present role.
She speaks Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish and Arabic. She’s most comfortable in the Palestinian dialect. She says she doesn’t have native fluency in Arabic, though she speaks to her Arab colleagues with ease.
The breakthrough in Kaag’s career, she said, came when Ann Veneman, who was the executive director of Unicef after serving as US agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, tapped her to be the relief agency’s chief of staff, which paved the way for other opportunities.
“We all need to be fortunate, but it is a great thing, particularly, when women in leadership positions can also be supportive of other women of the generations that come after that,” she said.
That’s what Kaag is doing for the mission’s office in Damascus, where only 10 to 15 of the 120 staff members are women.
“When I came the first few times and saw my own team in Damascus, I thought, ‘Oh my god, so many men!’” she said. “I organise what we call ‘the ladies’ meetings’, and I encourage them, I ask them about their plans and to say basically, ‘You can do it.’”
Her advice to young women is to be themselves while maintaining professionalism and respect for the job and the organization they represent.
“I dress in accordance with what I think the job needs, but with my own fun,” said Kaag, who in the interview wore a cream-coloured cropped jacket over an A-line shamrock green dress that complemented her blue eyes and blond hair. “I don’t subjugate my sense of style or taste.”
“You do represent an image to some extent,” she said. “In this case, it is the UN secretary-general and the director-general of the OPCW, so these are very serious responsibilities and expectations of the international community,” she said. “But you don’t have to fundamentally change.”
While ensuring that Syria’s chemical weapons are eliminated is Kaag’s immediate task. she says another of her duties is to help younger women realise that they have “the same chances as a man” to have both a family and a career.
“We need to create many more opportunities for women to sort of step in and out and not be penalised,” she said. “The younger generations, hopefully, when they see more women in the Security Council, in the leadership position, they will say, ‘Of course, I’ll just compete,’ and that they won’t agonise so much.”