Kofi Annan resigned as the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria after less than sixth months on the job. Lakhdar Brahimi has been the envoy for less than five. He is unlikely to care if he holds the post for more or less time than his predecessor. Brahimi has admitted that he thinks about resigning daily. He has had a foul few weeks, culminating in a public clash of wills with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. But while his chances of orchestrating a peace deal are now vanishingly small, he should not quit quite yet.
The trajectory of Brahimi’s time as envoy has been the opposite of Annan’s. The former U.N. Secretary General began his efforts very publicly, moving quickly to set out a formal peace plan. He gradually shrank from the spotlight over time as it became clear that the plan was not working — although he spoke out fiercely against the West and Russia over their roles in the crisis when he resigned in August 2012.
Brahimi, by contrast, got off to a deliberately quiet start. He avoided damaging public pronouncements, although his failure to condemn Assad early on left the rebels suspicious of his intentions. He reportedly explored alternatives to Annan’s basic plan — a ceasefire followed by talks on a transition — but could find no compelling alternative. His first public gambit was to try to arrange a ceasefire in October 2012. After this failed, he retreated back to quiet diplomacy, launching open-ended talks with U.S. and Russian officials.
Some see these talks (the second of which was held last Friday) as a sign of diplomatic desperation. Annan also made a point of courting the Russians, with U.S. support, but to little effect. Yet whereas Annan’s goal was to get Moscow to sign onto his transition plan, Brahimi’s intentions have been more opaque. The likeliest explanation is that he hopes to create the framework for more serious talks between Moscow and Washington if, and when, Assad falls, making Russia rethink its stance at last.
Last month, it seemed possible that this moment was at hand, with confused reports that Russia was starting to turn against Assad. Brahimi appeared to shift gear to a public peace drive, with high-profile visits to Damascus — reiterating proposals for transitional talks under "strong observation" by a new U.N. peacekeeping force — and Moscow. This backfired. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a press conference with Brahimi to affirm that Russia would not help force Assad out. Assad’s bellicose public address on January 6, ruling out serious discussions of a transition and offering grotesquely unrealistic proposals for peace on the regime’s terms, effectively killed off the envoy’s efforts.
So while Brahimi started his tenure in a very different style to his predecessor, he has ended up in a version of the trap that Annan fell into: making a public push for a specific peace plan and seeing it die.
This has at least given Brahimi license to speak his mind, and he has indicated that he sees no political future for Assad. After this grueling episode, the envoy has every reason to stand down. But there are still ways in which he can do Syria some service. The first is to consolidate his channel between the United States and Russia. When Assad’s final defeat does come, Moscow and Washington will need to coordinate their public and operational responses on everything from humanitarian aid to chemical weapons. They don’t necessarily need Brahimi to do that, but he may be able to help them navigate the looming chaos.
In parallel, Brahimi and his team should make sure they have contingency plans for working with regional powers in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s fall. Syria’s fate is likely to be shaped by how effectively Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other backers of the rebels can control their friends in this period. If they can persuade them to show restraint, there may be a chance to negotiate a post-Assad settlement. If they fail to manage this, the country may become another Somalia, as Brahimi has repeatedly warned.
Brahimi may not be at the center of diplomacy in this urgent phase. But he should be ready to use his network of regional contacts to urge and inform a coordinated diplomatic response. He may also have to undertake a particularly unpleasant mission: a visit to Iran to try to gauge its response to Assad’s fall.
One last task for Brahimi is more personal: to think through ways to restore the Syrian people’s severely damaged confidence in the United Nations. Despite its failure to respond effectively to the country’s slump into war, the United Nations — along with other organizations such as the World Bank and Arab League — may well still have to play a major role in rebuilding Syria. As of now, post-war problems may seem very abstract, although U.N. officials have been thinking about what lies ahead. But a rapid diplomatic response to Assad’s fall will need to be backed up by a wave of humanitarian aid, reconstruction assistance, and possibly peacekeepers.
Brahimi should use the diplomatic clout he has left to line up international support for a rapid post-conflict drive to get aid and economic assistance into Syria once Assad goes. If the United Nations is able to respond fast and effectively in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s fall, it may help avert a general collapse. And it may do a little to atone for the U.N.’s failure to save Syria from civil war.
Richard Gowan is Associate Director for Crisis Diplomacy and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.