If we were to judge Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission based on the controversy that surrounded his appointment and his recent statements, then we must already consider it a failure. The veteran Algerian diplomat found himself in the eye of a storm once leaks were published revealing that he was the chosen successor to Kofi Annan as the joint UN-Arab League envoy. Annan decided to resign after he found that he was plowing the sea, and that his mission with regards to the Syrian crisis had not achieved any progress, and did not have any chance of success in light of the international division, the regional strife, and the internal escalation of violence. Many advised Brahimi not to accept the job and warned him that it was too late for peace efforts, and that there was no longer any room for compromise between a regime that persists with violence and murder and an opposition that has become more militarized and more determined for al-Assad to leave. However, Brahimi accepted the mission, either because he is used to difficult assignments, or because he could not adapt to life outside the theater of international politics, or because certain parties sought to persuade him to take over the mantle because the international community does not want to seem like it has abandoned diplomatic efforts completely in favor of a military solution, which seems no less complicated than a political one.
Only a few days after the announcement of his appointment, quiet criticisms of Brahimi transformed into an avalanche of attacks in the wake of the remarks attributed to him, whereby he reportedly said that it was premature to talk of whether or not President Bashar al-Assad must step down. The Syrian opposition interpreted these words as hint to the possibility of al-Assad surviving under a political settlement, and considered this to be a blatant disregard for the blood of the Syrian people and called for an apology from the new envoy. The opposition stressed that it was too late to talk about a political solution whereby al-Assad would still be present in the transitional phase, and that the minimum that is required is for the President and his entourage to leave, if the entire regime does not.
This uproar shows the difficulty of Brahimi’s task and the slim chances for diplomatic success in light of the military escalation and the tension between different parties involved in the crisis, both internally and abroad. Certainly Brahimi’s statements were interpreted in a distorted manner, in light of the highly tensioned atmosphere in Syria where there is no room for a careful reading of statements coated in diplomatic language with multiple interpretations and facets. If we return to read these statements, we find that Brahimi, when asked whether he would demand al-Assad to resign, actually said: “It’s much too early for me to say. I don’t know enough about what is happening”. There is a clear difference in meaning between these words and the interpretations that claimed he was alluding to the survival of al-Assad in power. Nevertheless, Brahimi was forced to issue new statements in order to clarify his first remarks, and in order to explain that he did not say it is too early to talk about al-Assad’s departure, but rather that: “What I said is that it’s early for me to say anything related to the content of this issue. That’s what I said…Regarding whether Assad has to step down or not, I didn’t say that it’s too early for him to step down”.
Brahimi has much experience when it comes to thorny issues, and is known for his patience and perseverance in his maneuvers between conflicting parties, but he will find the Syrian crisis to be a much harder test than any of the previous crises he has mediated or acted in. The furor over his recent statements is only a small sample of what he will face in the days to come. Yet this reality is not lost on the discerning Brahimi, and he has acknowledged that divisions within the Security Council thwarted Kofi Annan’s previous efforts, and that his first task is to overcome these divisions, saying: “The problem is not what I can do differently, it is how others are going to behave differently”. This may be part of the diagnosis of the problem, but it certainly does not offer a solution to the dilemma of overcoming these divisions, nor does Brahimi put forward a vision of how he can make “others” behave differently. The divisions within the Security Council are at their peak, especially between Russia and China on the one hand, and the US, France and Britain on the other. These differences make it seem like the world has returned to the Cold War. The Russians and Chinese believe that the West is imposing its own solutions and models, passing these through Security Council resolutions, and that this could set a precedent for other areas and conflicts, including those within the Russian and Chinese domain. This was expressed by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that the outcome [of the Syrian crisis] will impact how future conflicts will be resolved; “either following the UN Charter, or democracy by bombs”, as he put it. Yet the real problem is that everyone is using the UN Charter for their own purposes and objectives, and the demands of the people are becoming less significant in the face of states’ calculations and their interests, and modern history offers us many examples of this. As for the talk about “democracy by bombs”, this avoids the plain truth, namely that the revolutions begin peacefully and only become militarized after tyrannical regimes resort to bloody repression, and external interests and calculations interfere with internal movements.
The Syrian crisis offers an example of this and more; it is not only intertwined with conflicting international calculations, it also overlaps with regional conflicts and internal complexities and sensitivities, and the regime is prepared to use extreme levels of violence to cling onto power. This is the atmosphere that thwarted Annan’s mission and this is what Brahimi faces in the days ahead, whilst the suffering of the Syrian people continues to escalate. But the difficult question is should the new envoy pull out?
Despite all the reservations, Brahimi’s withdrawal would mean leaving the arena free of any sound other than the noise of gunfire and the groans of the victims and the bereaved. It is true that the regime is gradually eroding, and that the opposition is gaining more strategic locations and power, but the military option may not materialize any time soon, especially considering the internal complexities and the external entanglements, which means more suffering for the Syrians and more problems for the country in the future. Thus the window should not be closed on the peaceful solution, however impossible it may seem, even to give al-Assad one last chance to leave safely and spare Syria more bloodshed.