Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 August - 5 September 2012
Issue No. 1112
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Brahimi: a man for all crises 000

Veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has mediated many challenging conflicts in the past, but in trying to find a solution to the Syrian crisis he is taking on a mammoth task, writes Ayman El-Amir*

With a grim warning that he was taking on a mission impossible, Algeria's seasoned diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi accepted to mediate the 18-month-old rebellion-turned-civil war in Syria. He is replacing, hopefully not following in the footsteps of, Kofi Annan, who threw up his hands last month after nearly six months of predictable failure and apportioned blame to everyone except himself. Brahimi should not, therefore, try to carry all the baggage Annan left behind or entertain the same grandiose illusions that Annan developed.

Brahimi's diplomatic record is not that of a man of illusions or impatience. He has acquired the unique talent of a man who sees a glimmer of hope in the darkest situation and where others do not. In accepting the assignment, he must have seen a chance that is worth exploring. Otherwise, his record would be tarnished by a mission that has already been undertaken and has proven to be impossible by a former secretary-general of the United Nations.

Of all the crises Brahimi had mediated, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) is th closest that comes to mind. The 15-year inter-sectarian carnage left 150,000 Lebanese dead, 200,000 more wounded and the country, once dubbed the Switzerland of the Middle East, in ruins. By the time the Arab League initiative was launched in 1989 and Brahimi named as the League's special envoy in Lebanon, the country had sunk into despair and its fighting sides were exhausted.

The protracted conflict and its human cost had softened up the country and made it ready for a final break. Brahimi, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the US, brokered a new, more balanced power-sharing formula between the Maronite Christian and Muslim sects. The Taif Agreement was immensely helped by the infusion of Saudi reconstruction and investment funds, channeled through Saudi diplomat Rafik al-Hariri who first became prime minister and was later assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut.

While the critical-destruction equation in the case of Syria has not yet been reached when compared to Lebanon, the situation has ripened enough to warrant more seasoned mediation. Massacres by the Al-Assad forces are escalating. The Syrian rebels are meeting tanks, helicopter gunships, bombers, rocket and field artillery bombardment with their bare chests. The number of refugees fleeing the war-torn country is rising, and the rebel Free Syrian Army is refining its tactics and making more effective attacks on the Syrian army, including planting car-bombs in the heart of Damascus.

As the civil war escalates and the daily casualties rise, from dozens to hundreds of informal initiatives by various countries are emerging. The meeting of the Conference of Non-aligned Countries now underway in Tehran will provide an international forum to broach such initiatives. However, divergent regional positions on the Syrian civil war call for the skills and patience of a mediator of the calibre of Brahimi.

Egypt has ventured into the situation by offering a four-party initiative that would also include Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi has gone further in calling for the departure of President Al-Assad, saying that the time has come for change, not reform, in Syria. To attract Tehran's cooperation, he said that Iran was part of the solution to the Syrian conflict, not part of the problem. Iran responded that its contacts and the Egyptian statement were a prelude to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been frozen under former president Hosni Mubarak under US pressure.

The change in the Egyptian position was heralded by former foreign minister Nabil El-Arab, now secretary-general of the Arab League, when he declared earlier on that Iran "is not an enemy state." Mursi's articulated position was further bolstered by the statement of the French president, Fran├žois Hollande, who called on the Syrian opposition to establish a provisional government in exile, saying that his country was prepared to recognise such a government. This is the boldest position that has so far been adopted by the anti-Al-Assad western alliance.

However, there is an inherent conflict of interest among the parties involved in the conflict. Iranian-Saudi relations are at their lowest ebb. The two countries are supporting antagonistic sides in the Syrian civil war. Iran has thrown its heavy regional weight, which includes Lebanon's Hizbullah, behind Al-Assad, seeing him as an Alawite and anti-American asset. Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, wants to cut the Iranian regime down to less than its warranted size. Both are directly and indirectly serving Israeli expansionist interests in the region.

The contrived Sunni-Shia conflict has already poisoned the Middle East-Gulf region, and it could make it virtually impossible for the parties in the Syrian war to stop killing and start talking to each other. The Free Syrian Army is sworn to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad who, in turn, is determined to "defeat the external conspiracy," his code-name for the revolution of the Syrian people. As it stands, the Egyptian initiative fails to meet the primary condition that the position of each participant should be at an equal distance from the parties to the conflict.

Iran has unilaterally offered its own initiative. Secretary-General of the Supreme Iranian National Security Council Said Jalili proposed to Al-Assad during a recent visit to Damascus the creation of a contact group to discuss a mechanism for establishing an expanded government of national unity to end the war. Coming from Iran, this would mean that Al-Assad would retain his position and his powers. For the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the proposal is a non-starter. However, there is a convergence between the Egyptian-Iranian positions that Al-Assad cannot maintain the status quo.

For China and Russia, it is becoming as clear as it could be that Al-Assad is more of a liability than an asset in ending the conflict. However, because of their own geo-strategic interests, they are unwilling to admit the fact that Al-Assad has to go. Whether he is pushed out of the window or chooses to jump makes no difference. In a situation where thousands upon thousands of Syrians are offering themselves as sacrificial lambs to Al-Assad's lethal Soviet-supplied weaponry, this means that the revolution has taken roots and that it has become irreversible. And the regional ramifications of the conflict are too scary to contemplate. This is probably the message President Mursi should carry to China during his visit there.

The Conference of the Heads of State of the Non-aligned Countries is meeting in Tehran on Thursday. Because of the size and divergent interests of its members, the Non-aligned Movement could be expected to come out with a statement of a general nature on Syria that would call for ending the conflict and moving the issue to the United Nations General Assembly. However, experience has demonstrated that such burning issues are usually settled first among the principal parties directly or indirectly involved in the conflict, and then sent to the UN for rubber-stamping. That is where Brahimi's mission comes in.

For Brahimi, the mission is a mammoth task. The momentum against Al-Assad is gathering force and the support of his allies is weakening, if only measured by the numbers and the ranks of the defectors. He has to work on several fronts, including Riyadh, Cairo, Washington, Paris, Damascus (and by extension Hizbullah), Moscow and Beijing, Istanbul, the Syrian opposition and Beirut. In his initial consultations and assessment he will have to decide whether there are sufficient grounds on which to build an end to the conflict, to launch a peace initiative, or to reassure the various parties that there would be no complete winners or complete losers when Al-Assad is safely eased out.

Brahimi is known for negotiation tactics that, to the maximum extent possible, leave no disgruntled losers. However, he will have to keep in mind that in a final peace accord, if this is at all attainable, the Syrian opposition will have to justify to its rank and file the cost of the 20,000 casualties that have been mowed down by Al-Assad's forces across the country, and he will have to reassure Al-Assad's political and military allies that there will be no reprisals against them on sectarian grounds.

This will be a long, drawn-out mission. The alternative is to let the revolution take its course, with all the grave national and regional consequences that this will involve.

* The writer is a former correspondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and a former director of UN Radio and Television in New York.

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