Lakhdar Brahimi is resigning as the international point man on Syria, the U.N. chief announced Tuesday, marking a second failure by the United Nations and Arab League to end the country's worsening civil war and highlighting the deep divisions among the parties and key countries on how to restore peace.
With Brahimi at his side, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy will step down on May 31 after nearly two years. Brahimi will be following in the footsteps of his longtime friend, former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, who resigned from the same job in August 2012 after failing to broker a cease-fire as the country descended into civil war.
Ban, who has been outspoken in trying to end the Syrian conflict since it began in March 2011, blamed Syria's opposition but especially the government, the divided U.N. Security Council which has been impotent, and feuding influential nations for failing to help Brahimi achieve a peace agreement.
"He has faced almost impossible odds, with a Syrian nation, Middle Eastern region and wider international community that have been hopelessly divided in their approaches to ending the conflict," Ban said. "That his efforts have not received effective support from the United Nations body that is charged with upholding peace and security, and from countries with influence on the Syrian situation, is a failure of all of us."
Brahimi managed to get officials from President Assad's government and the opposition to two rounds of U.S. and Russian-brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at establishing a transitional government, but they ended without an agreement. Diplomats said both sides sparred over responsibility for the bloodshed and Assad's future.
Brahimi had been working behind the scenes to start a new round of Geneva negotiations, but that effort was all but doomed when Assad's government announced that elections would be held on June 3. With Assad running for re-election and virtually certain to win, both Brahimi and Ban have indicated it would be impossible to get the opposition to new negotiations.
Ban pledged to keep working for peace and said he would appoint a successor to Brahimi but would take time to find "the right person."
Diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private said candidates mentioned include former Tunisian foreign minister Kamel Morjane, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, former U.N. Mideast envoy Michael Williams who is British, and former NATO secretary-general and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is from Spain.
Brahimi, 80, is a former Algerian foreign minister and longtime U.N. diplomat and troubleshooter in hotspots from Afghanistan to Iraq.
Ban said he "has long been recognized as one of the world's most brilliant diplomats." He said Brahimi's inability to end the conflict despite "his extraordinary talents... is a tragedy for the Syrian people."
The secretary-general renewed his appeal to the Syrian government and opposition "to show the wisdom and sense of responsibility that could allow a way out of this nightmare." He also urged everyone involved, including states with influence over the parties, "to reflect deeply on what we should do at this moment to generate hope of a better future for the people of Syria."
Brahimi said he was humbled by Ban's "extremely generous words on this occasion which is not very pleasant for me."
"It's very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state," he said.
Brahimi later briefed the Security Council behind closed doors.
Deep divisions between Russia — which supports Assad's government — and Western countries — which back the rebels — have prevented the Security Council from taking any effective action on Syria's war.
The Syrian conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in 2011. It turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown. Over the past year, the fighting has taken increasingly sectarian overtones, pitting largely Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam.
Activists say more than 150,000 have been killed in the fighting, and nine million have been driven from their homes, with some seeking refuge in neighboring countries and others fleeing to safer parts of Syria.
While Brahimi had many admirers, his dealings with the opposition were difficult. The opposition leaders he needed to talk are deeply divided and have no backing from Syrians either fighting inside the country or those who are refugees. In addition, the government branded Brahimi an American stooge from the beginning, though he did make several trips to Damascus.
Najib Ghadbian, U.N. representative of the opposition Syrian Coalition, expressed appreciation for Brahimi's work and reiterated the group's commitment to a political process. He said the coalition shared Brahimi frustration with Assad's government and urged "concerted international pressure that has so far been lacking" to get the government to engage in a political process.