Syria peace prospects dim as Brahimi heads for the exit

The resignation of UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who has built his career on easing the most difficult conflicts, marks just how intractable Syria's civil war has become.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP/File
UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi gestures during a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva in January. Mr. Brahimi will resign as the joint UN-Arab League envoy on Syria after a nearly two-year effort that failed to bring peace to the war-ravaged country, the UN chief announced Tuesday.

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.

The resignation of the United Nations special envoy to Syria provided a new indicator of the dim prospects at present for a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria, which has killed more than 150,000 since March 2011.

Lakhdar Brahimi's departure comes as the Syrian regime, emboldened by a string of battlefield victories, gears up for elections to renew Bashar al-Assad's presidency, a move that Mr. Brahimi reportedly once said would spell an end to negotiations. 

He is the second international diplomat to try to find a resolution to the crisis, a key component of which would be a political transition that would remove Mr. Assad from power. Liz Sly, who covers Syria for The Washington Post, succinctly notes: 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Tuesday that Brahimi will step down on May 31 after two years on the job. The Algerian diplomat has built a career of working on seemingly intractable conflicts – he helped broker an end to the Lebanon civil war, served as the UN envoy to South Africa during the landmark 1994 elections, and then went on to both Afghanistan and Iraq, again as the UN envoy. His predecessor on Syria, Kofi Annan, is a former UN secretary-general and chairman of The Elders, a prestigious group of global leaders working on peace and human rights issues of which Brahimi also is a member.

But the Syrian conflict, with the Gulf countries amassed behind the Syrian opposition and Iran and Hezbollah throwing their weight behind the regime, proved too much for both of them. Mr. Annan resigned after only six months.

"I go with a heavy heart because so little was achieved," Brahimi told the UN Security Council on Tuesday, according to a transcript obtained by Reuters. "I once again, humbly apologize to the Syrian people."

The council's deadlock prevented the passage of multiple resolutions on the conflict. Since Brahimi took over in August 2012, two peace conference have failed, a lauded chemical weapons agreement seems to have been violated, and the UN has stopped updating its death toll. Foreign jihadis have overrun the homegrown rebel forces, opening up a second battlefront within the ranks of the opposition.

And after early losses to the opposition in the north, then a grinding stalemate, the Syrian regime has been on a year-long winning streak, capped with the recapture of Homs last week, once acclaimed as the "capital of the revolution." The victory in Homs sets Assad up well ahead of the June 3 presidential election. He is the frontrunner.

"[Brahimi] has always said presidential elections mean the end of Geneva.... You cannot discuss a political transition when one side is organizing elections," one senior diplomat told Foreign Policy.

Secretary-General Moon's comments at the press conference announcing Brahimi's resignation could be summed up as "If Brahimi can't fix this, who can?": 

"As you know, we have had former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and after him, we have had Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the most brilliant and experienced persons, not only in the region, but the whole world, so he knows all the people involved. So with his experience, I thought, and we thought, it was a natural expectation that he would have been able to deliver, that we would have been able to deliver all together. But somehow, because of the divisions, because of the divided world, here and there, within the United Nations and in the region, we have not been able to make any progress. In the course of three years, many people have been killed and many people have been displaced internally and have become refugees. Almost three million people are now refugees – 2.8 million people. And half of the population is now affected; they need humanitarian assistance."

Brahimi has long threatened to quit, typically reiterating it when mediation efforts between the Syrian regime and opposition seemed to be grinding to a halt, Foreign Policy notes. "Every time I wake up and I think I should resign, but I haven't," he said in April 2013. He raised the threat again earlier this year to compel Russia to put greater pressure on the regime.

"I knew it was coming, we all knew it was coming, it was a long time coming," said Ahmad Fawzi, who served as Brahimi's communications advisor on Syria and had worked with the Algerian diplomat for 20 years. "It's been a very long and frustrating road."

While Fawzi praised Brahimi for leading "a master class in conflict management and conflict resolution," he said that there was simply no common ground between the Syrian regime and the opposition on which to forge a deal. "You know the saying: ‘Where there's a will, there's a way?'" he said. "Well, where there's no will, there's no way."

Fayez Sayegh, a senior member of Syria's ruling Baath Party, called Brahimi a "biased man who interfered in Syria's internal affairs" and welcomed his resignation, the Associated Press reports. According to Reuters, Russian envoy to the UN Vitaly Churkin told reporters, "We believe that the show must go on ... to find a political solution to Syrian crisis." Russia has blocked most Security Council efforts on Syria. 

Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said that Brahimi does not deserve blame for "all of the mistakes," Reuters reports. "The American administration made mistakes, the French government, the British, the European Union, Qatar, Saudi ArabiaTurkey – all of them made mistakes," he said, according to Reuters. "The main mistake was the interference by these foreign powers into the domestic affairs of the Syrian people."

US Secretary of State John Kerry did not agree. "It is the fault of a party, Assad, who will not negotiate, who absolutely refused to negotiate at every single session," he told reporters in Washington.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian diplomat and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, voiced the despair being felt:

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.