The affable Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, replaced the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan with high hopes. Although Brahimi admitted that his was a “very difficult mission,” and that he was “scared,” these observations were less fatalistic than his “nearly impossible” connotation uttered a few weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Brahimi was appalled by the ongoing killings, as he described the bloodshed in Syria as “staggering” and the destruction as “catastrophic.” Presumably, one of the reasons why he accepted the job was to reach a cease-fire, before proposing a permanent settlement among warring factions. “I think it is not my right to refuse to give whatever assistance I can to the Syrian people,” he told reporters a few days ago in Cairo after talks with League Secretary-General Nabil Al Arabi.
Will Brahimi succeed where Annan failed?
It may be worth recalling that Annan was unsuccessful because major divisions within the Security Council persisted between Moscow and its acolyte, Beijing, on one hand, and Washington and its allies, London and Paris, on the other. This enormous gap remained solidly in place, which meant that Brahimi was on an impossible mission, and that was why chances for success were infinitesimal.
After a leisurely week trekking between his Paris home and the UN headquarters in New York, the 78-years old Brahimi arrived in Cairo last Sunday, where he coordinated with League officials ahead of his long anticipated visit to Damascus. Reuters reported that Brahimi met with officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the Syrian crisis, although it was nearly impossible to figure out what these well-meaning representatives could agree on. Inasmuch as Tehran continued to insist that President Bashar Al Assad would not leave office while Cairo, Riyadh and Ankara called for his departure, it was difficult to fathom what they might even talk about. Moreover, Iran persevered in its demand that Saudi Arabia and Turkey end their covert military aid to the Syrian Free Army, without even considering stopping its own military air bridge that rushed arms as well as men ready to fight for Al Assad.
Like Annan before him, Brahimi presumably wished to devise a mechanism that would stop the violence, ensure Syria’s territorial unity, reject foreign military interventions and, if possible, launch a political reconciliation process or a mere dialogue, ostensibly to achieve the Syrian people’s “aspirations for democracy, freedom and dignity.”
Naturally, Brahimi will try to enlist Iran, and may have already spoken with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who invited the new envoy to visit the Islamic republic. After cordial encounters with the ayatollahs, Brahimi was likely to return empty handed, because Tehran was in no position to end “crimes against humanity.” Remarkably, Iranians were still talking about a political solution as the only way to restore durable peace in Syria, oblivious to the catastrophe underway. It did not occur to its decision-makers that revolutions—like the 1970 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah and ushered in Ayatollah Khomeini’s vilayet-e faqih ‑ almost always succeeded when nations rose against unjust rulers. It remained to be determined whether Brahimi would somehow manage to persuade Iranian leaders that the Syrian Revolution was not a mere uprising, and that tactical delays would not alter the epochal strategic changes under way in the Levant.
In the event, Brahimi received some help from Moscow towards his undeclared goals. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Russia wished to organise a conference that would assemble all of the players in the conflict, including several opposition groups, ordinary citizens and, of course, the ruling Ba‘ath Party leadership. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the French daily Le Figaro that this contemplated conference would be prearranged along the lines of the Ta’if conference that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989.
Coincidentally, Lakhdar Brahimi was the League of Arab States envoy who helped broker an end to the suspended Civil War in Lebanon, though the chief reason why that conflict stopped was due to an agreement reached between then Speaker Hussein Al Husseini and future Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Of course, Brahimi played a role, though it was critical to make the distinction between 1990 Lebanon and 2012 Syria. Two decades ago, Moscow and Washington displayed agreement, while they currently flaunt contempt towards each other on the Syrian Question.
Time will tell whether Brahimi will succeed, although as long as Security Council members remain at odds, the killings will continue simply because Syrian revolutionaries do not have a choice. Every Syrian who is fighting the regime knows that the moment they embark on a dialogue, they will simply die, one by one. Most are amply aware that this is the fight of their lives and that there is no going back except for well-meaning envoys.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).