Will Lakhdar Brahimi’s Hard-Nosed Mediation Save Syria?

The arrival of Lakhdar Brahimi in Syria late last week drew little media attention. But his trip, and the larger mission of which it is a part, carry enormous consequences. Brahimi is the envoy appointed jointly by the UN and the Arab League to find a negotiated solution to the civil war in Syria. He takes over the mandate held by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who resigned in August when it became clear that his six-point plan, with a monitored ceasefire at its core, was getting nowhere).

Can Brahimi succeed where Annan failed to make progress? We must fervently hope so, since negotiations are the only chance to end the violence in the short term. A foreign intervention is very unlikely; neither can the disparate rebel groups force the surrender of the Assad regime any time soon. Arming the rebels is risky and in any case may be ineffective, given the Syrian regime’s overwhelming air and artillery capability.  In sum, the Syrian civil war looks increasingly to be a bloody and lengthy stalemate. This will prove devastating to the lives and livelihoods of the Syrian people—but it will lead to violence and instability in neighbouring countries too.

“The military solution that ended the civil war in Libya in 2011 obscures the fact that the vast majority of civil wars end not via victory on the battlefield but via compromise at the negotiating table.”

The fact that negotiations remain the best option is hardly surprising. The military solution that ended the civil war in Libya in 2011 obscures the fact that the vast majority of civil wars end not via victory on the battlefield but via compromise at the negotiating table. The language of ‘peace processes’ has been devalued in the Middle East, to be sure; but there is no reason to think that Syria or the region as a whole fall outside this broad global pattern.

Nevertheless, in Syria the prospect for successful negotiations seems poor. How will Brahimi proceed? Hints can be gathered from a 2005 interview[1] in which he discussed his technique and approach as a peace mediator, alluding to four lessons that characterize his approach to Syria thus far.

Lesson 1: Lower expectations

Eschewing grand plans or ideal outcomes, Brahimi will set modest goals and work to lower expectations. Shortly after his appointment, he announced prominently in an interview with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet that his task was “almost impossible” and that he was in front of a “brick wall” with “no cracks” that he could see. In fact, if he really thought it was an impossible job, he wouldn’t have accepted it. He faces a difficult task, but no less difficult that the Taif Agreement he brokered in 1989 to end the Lebanese civil war.

Further, Brahimi is likely to pursue a modest agreement that includes little beyond an end to the fighting and some basic rules for power-sharing in a transition process.  Though accountability issues loom large, don’t expect Brahimi to insist on an agreement that promises prosecution for war crimes. In response to criticisms that the Taif Agreement ignored human rights issues, he said: “If you accept these kinds of jobs, you [must] go and mediate between warlords, faction leaders, bandits—all sorts of people whom the human rights purists want to see hang. What I tell them is ‘Let me finish, and then go ahead and hang them’.”

Lesson 2:  Show scrupulous impartiality

Brahimi knows he’s walking into a situation in which the very idea of negotiation is anathema to many key players. To win their trust, he will go out of his way to favour no party; for example, he has refused to comment on the question of whether Assad must step down, stating, “I don’t know, it’s up to the Syrians”. When he was criticised by some of the opposition groups on this point, he replied, “[p]lease remember I am not joining your movement….and I do not speak the same language as you.”

Lesson 3: Consult widely, including with pariahs

The Taliban were not involved in the negotiations that led to the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan in December 2001 (which established the legal and institutional framework for the country in the wake of the U.S. intervention). Brahimi was a key player in negotiating that agreement, and already by 2004 he was publicly referring to the marginalisation of the Taliban as a “mistake”. It is one he is unlikely to repeat. Those who have worked closely with Brahimi point to his skills as a listener and his tactic of reaching out to all parties. Such an approach will be essential in Syria, not least due to the fragmented nature of the rebellion and the many distinct political, ethnic and religious groups in Syria (each of which has distinct views on what must be done to end the fighting.

It is not always easy to engage all parties, even the pariahs. Referring to his decision to meet a notorious war criminal in Lebanon, Brahimi said, “When I came to do Beirut I didn’t come to meet nice Lebanese. The nice Lebanese are in Paris.”

Lesson 4: Stay independent of foreign interests

Brahimi will make it clear that he stands apart from the particular concerns and interests of the various outside countries aiming to influence the outcome in Syria (including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the U.S., the Europeans and Russia). When he led the 2004 UN negotiation to form an Interim Council that would prepare Iraq for elections, he was publicly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East—even though it had taken a personal plea at the White House by President Bush to convince him to accept the job. He will talk to the Iranians no less than the U.S., the Russians and the Chinese; but none will find that he will do their bidding, or even that he is necessarily sympathetic to their point of view.

This approach will not always be popular or well understood. Yet given the rupture in the Security Council, such independence is essential to the success of his mission.

[1] The interview is published in Kings of Peace, Pawns of Warthe untold story of peacemaking, Continuum 2006, © Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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