The joint special envoy in Syria
It was among the most high profile jobs in diplomacy. Now it's like a curse, writes Graham Usher at the UN
Nearly a week after his name was first linked to the job Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian foreign minister and veteran UN troubleshooter, has yet to confirm whether he would be Kofi Annan's successor as the Arab League and UN's special envoy to Syria. He "hasn't said yes or no" said Ahmed Fawzi, Annan's spokesman, on 14 August. He added that Syria had agreed to Brahimi as the new Arab League mediator in the Syrian conflict.
Brahimi's caution is understandable. From a position that was once amongst the most prestigious (if toughest) in the diplomatic firmament the joint special envoy for Syria has become amongst the most onerous. "Why would anyone want to take the job?" asked one analyst.
The doubters include Brahimi himself apparently. Before he was tapped for the position by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the Algerian was reportedly telling associates that he envisioned the Syrian conflict as a protracted civil war that could last "years". Since he became a contender, the reservations have only deepened, say UN diplomats.
He reportedly told Ban and Arab League chief Nabil El-Arabi that he was concerned by the deadlock on the Security Council over Syria. If he takes the job, he would expect "strong support" from its 15 member states and, according to one source, the "same conditions" as Annan.
Among the conditions Annan mooted was the threat of sanctions to strengthen a council resolution on Syria. It proved a wholly divisive request. Russia and China vetoed the resolution. And the US and Western states have since viewed as futile any attempted action against Syria at the Security Council. It was the last of several schisms that eventually forced Annan to resign as special envoy. There is no reason to think Brahimi would fare any better.
What does Brahimi want with the position? In what so far has been his only public statements about Syria (posted on the website of the Elders, a group of retired statesmen and women committed to peace and human rights), he wrote:
"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."
As for Syria it "must come together as a nation in the quest for a new formula. This is the only way to ensure that all can live together peacefully, in a society based not on fear of reprisal but on tolerance".
These are admirable sentiments. They are also almost verbatim the Annan peace plan: his vision, based on Security Council resolutions, where a UN observer force in Syria monitors first a ceasefire then a Syrian led "transition" to a new political order.
That plan was wrecked by the Syrian civil war but also by the "divided" world powers which refused to trade compromise for their own regional imperatives of regime change (on the part of the US and the West) and regime protection (on the part of Russia and China).
The last piece of the Annan peace plan will probably come to rest on 19 August. The Security Council is expected to let the UN observer mission in Syria expire. The conditions for its renewal -- namely a major reduction in violence and withdrawal of the Syrian army's heavy weaponry from city centres -- "have not been achieved" acknowledged Ban in a letter to the 15 members of the Security Council on 10 August.
Sources say the observer mission may be replaced by a UN political mission or a "political liaison office" attached to the special envoy. The secretary-general wants "en effective and flexible UN presence in Syria", he wrote, not only to "work towards ending the hostilities" but, "where possible and agreed, to support the Syrians in taking the steps they identify towards a negotiated and inclusive political settlement".
Would such a role appeal to Brahimi? Unlike Annan's special envoy he would not be kingmaker, staking out the terms of a new Syria. The special envoy here would be a gatekeeper, keeping the UN flame alive in Syria until either one side in the civil war is victorious or both are so bloodied that, they accept a UN rescue out of exhaustion.
Brahimi lacks the stature of Annan. But he's no lightweight. He has a muscular diplomatic history in Algeria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Africa. Being a bit player on the sideshow of a war that, by his own admission, could last "years" may not be his cup of tea. On the other hand, at 78, it may be only the diplomatic swansong he is likely to get.