Half a century ago, in 1962, when I was the Middle East correspondent of the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, I learned that Algeria, following its hard-won independence from France, had sent an ambassador to Cairo and that President Jamal Abdul Nasser had put at his disposal one of King Farouq’s palaces. The ambassador’s name was Lakhdar Brahimi. As I was in Cairo at the time, I decided to call on him.
The palace seemed deserted. There was no one at the gate. I walked in and made my way through the gardens towards the great house, hoping to find someone there. Then I saw a gardener digging in one of the flower beds. “Where can I find Ambassador Brahimi?’ I asked him. ‘I am Lakhdar Brahimi,’ he replied. This was my first but — fortunately not my last — encounter with this remarkable man.
I have had the privilege of many conversations with him over the years — when he was ambassador to London in the 1970s, deputy secretary-general of the Arab League in Cairo in the 1980s, Algerian Foreign Minister in the early 1990s, or between his many assignments in Lebanon, South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was also kind enough to receive me at his home in Paris on a number of occasions.
What is the key to his personality? I would suggest that it is his utter conviction that negotiation rather than war is the best way to resolve conflicts — of which the Middle East has more than its fair share. My guess is that he reached this conclusion because of the torment his country suffered in its nearly eight-year struggle for independence from France, 1954-1962, the most bitter of modern anti-colonial wars. No savagery was omitted in that terrible war. Its catalogue of horrors included numerous acts of terrorism, cruel massacres, barbarous torture, ferocious counter-insurgency and equally ferocious reprisals. Devilish instincts were released on both sides. About 750,000 Algerians died and another two million were uprooted. France lost about 25,000 men. And after the war another 100,000 pro-French Muslims were murdered by the National Liberation Front. The war brought down France’s Fourth Republic, carried General Charles de Gaulle back to power, and anchored the Algerian army and security services in their country’s political life to this day. It was a trauma from which, one might argue, neither Algeria nor France has yet fully recovered. Certainly it has had profound effects on the subsequent history of both countries.
Brahimi has many qualities which prepare him for his difficult task in Syria. First of all, as a man of the Maghrib, he views the turbulent Mashreq with a certain valuable detachment. In other words, he comes to the conflict with no emotional baggage. Secondly, he is well-known and respected by all the Arab leaders, and also by the leaders of the external powers most directly involved in the conflict — the US, Russia, Britain, France and Turkey. All have welcomed his appointment as UN peace envoy. Thirdly, few people on the international political scene today can match his personal experience at mediating conflicts in different parts of the world.
But are the parties to the Syrian conflict ready for a deal? Can the many different fighting groups on the streets agree to put up their guns, even for a short spell, to allow negotiations to start? Can the squabbling exiles in Turkey and elsewhere agree on a common negotiating position? Can the Muslim Brothers be brought to the table with the regime? Is President Bashar Al Assad prepared to make the painful compromises which must eventually set a term to his leadership?
Brahimi is likely to tell all sides that their Syrian nation — its safety, stability, territorial integrity and the welfare of its population ‑ is far more important than their individual ambitions and hates. This is what he said in his first statement after his appointment as UN peace envoy: “Syrians must come together as a nation in the quest for a new formula. This is the only way to ensure that all Syrians can live together peacefully, in a society not based on fear of reprisal, but on tolerance. In the meantime, the UN Security Council and regional states must unite to ensure that a political transition can take place as soon as possible.
“Millions of Syrians are clamouring for peace. World leaders cannot remain divided any longer, over and above their cries.” Brahimi has some advantages over Kofi Annan, his unfortunate predecessor as peace envoy. The most notable of these advantages is that the various parties to the conflict are beginning to understand that a clear victory by either side is unlikely, and that a prolonged war will destroy the country and will serve no one’s interest — except Israel.
The Syrian regime does not seem about to fall but nor can it easily win what has become a hit-and-run urban guerrilla campaign, funded and armed from outside. The rebels may be getting better armed and organised but, to their bitter disappointment, they are beginning to grasp that they cannot count on an external military intervention. And without such an intervention they are unlikely to defeat the Syrian army. Washington, in turn, is beginning to worry that, if more jihadis join the fighting, Syria could turn into another Afghanistan. The last thing the US wants is to find itself on the same side in Syria as Al Qaida! Saudi Arabia and Qatar know that if a regional war were to break out — say between the US. and Israel against Iran — their economic and political interests could suffer. They might even find themselves in the line of fire.
Key regional leaders — King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, President Mohammed Mursi of Egypt, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran — are beginning to assume their joint responsibility to put an end to the conflict. Ahmadinejad attended the recent Islamic summit in Makkah, where he had an apparently cordial exchange of views with the Saudi monarch. Mursi, who was also at the Makkah summit, is to attend the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran later this month, the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian president in decades.
Mursi is reported to have suggested that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran form a contact group to resolve the Syrian crisis through discussion and reconciliation. This is a promising development since it suggests that major regional powers are beginning to take the destinies of their region in hand, free from the ambitions of outsiders. They face no easy task because, overshadowing the Syrian crisis, is the evident ambition of the US and Israel to affirm their regional supremacy. Such is the challenging context of Brahimi’s peace mission. He must be given every chance to succeed.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.