It is time to set Lakhdar Brahimi free. After a year’s service as envoy for the United Nations and Arab League to Syria, the veteran Algerian mediator faces the final breakdown of his efforts to end the war. Disillusioned with both the Syrian government and its opponents, he came close to resigning in May. Since then he has hung on, mainly because his departure would look like an admission that a peace deal is impossible. His demeanor suggests that he is painfully conscious of the hopelessness of his situation.
A week ago, with Western military action against Damascus apparently looming after the regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it looked like Brahimi finally had a way out. If the United States and its allies launched missile or air strikes without a U.N. mandate, he could resign with a clear conscience. Yet since Britain balked and U.S. President Barack Obama declared that he would put the issue to Congress, there have been calls for Brahimi to make a last-ditch attempt to show there is still some diplomatic way out of the crisis.
This weekend, for example, the International Crisis Group argued that the U.N. envoy should make "renewed efforts" to help the United States "optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough." Over the next week, Brahimi and his boss U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are likely to talk a lot about the need for restraint and compromise. But the chances of brokering honest negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels remain remote. It would be foolish, or just dishonest, to claim that Brahimi and Ban as individuals or the U.N. as an institution can overcome the political obstacles that have frustrated multiple mediators since 2011.
Brahimi has certainly never had much of a chance of forging a peace deal. He was called up to defend the U.N.’s honor after Kofi Annan stood down as Syria envoy in August 2012. He has been frustrated by the obduracy and bloodthirstiness of President Bashar al-Assad and the maneuverings of Assad’s opponents in the Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia, which have never had much interest in a compromise peace. His one success was to engineer regular meetings on the crisis between senior Russian and U.S. diplomats, raising hopes for a backroom deal.
By the second quarter of this year, however, he had concluded that he could achieve no more. He was on the verge of resigning in May, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry upset Brahimi’s plans with his joint call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a new peace conference in Geneva to follow up on talks in the Swiss city convened by Annan in July 2012. Under pressure from Kerry, Brahimi agreed to stay on to oversee the conference. But with the Syrian government ruling out Assad’s resignation and rebel leaders bickering publicly over whether to attend at all, "Geneva 2" has been repeatedly postponed.
Brahimi and Ban Ki-moon have been reduced to a sort of Greek chorus in the Syrian tragedy, sternly cataloging the unfolding horrors of the war and making pleas for peace, yet unable to shape events. The U.N. duo did manage to get some traction last week, warning the West not to take military action without a Security Council mandate and demanding that U.N. weapons inspectors have time to investigate Ghouta properly. While U.S. officials indicated that they did not want to get bogged down in U.N. process issues, their British counterparts felt obliged to float a Security Council resolution approving military action to protect Syrian civilians. While the British were primarily motivated by memories of Iraq and public opposition at home to non-U.N.-mandated action, Ban and Brahimi’s calls for caution did feed into debates in London in the run-up to Thursday’s parliamentary vote against military engagement.
Nonetheless, Brahimi appears to be fatalistic about the future of his diplomatic process, telling journalists, "the Russians and the Americans are both telling me they remain committed to Geneva 2, but what will happen, I think, we will know only if and when this military action takes place." In reality, the events of the last fortnight have already rendered Brahimi’s strategy of trying to build consensus between Russia and the United States over Syria null and void. An eventual U.S. military strike, Lavrov made clear this week, would "push the planned Geneva 2 a long way back or even kill it altogether."
But even if the United States steps back from launching strikes, it will be very hard for Moscow and Washington to agree on any diplomatic alternatives. The Obama administration is out of patience with Russia’s obstructionism at the U.N. while President Vladimir Putin has poured scorn on U.S. statements about the Ghouta atrocity. Brahimi’s bet that the two powers could eventually be induced to cooperate has decisively failed. The Syrian government, meanwhile, is treating the delay in Western action as a victory — the idea that Assad’s emissaries would negotiate in good faith in Geneva is just not credible.
So what is left for the U.N. to do? One option would be for Brahimi to stand down and Ban to appoint another envoy to inject fresh energy into diplomacy. But this would largely be window-dressing. It is hard to think of any potential envoy who could really make a difference. Since the Syrian conflict has escalated, diplomats have kicked around a range of other names. Former Finnish president, and successful mediator in Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari was one serious early alternative to Annan. But some ambassadors at the U.N. have previously told Ban that it would look farcical to name a third envoy: if the U.N. is to have any further role in peacemaking in Syria, the Secretary-General should lead it himself.
Ban probably doesn’t want to do that. He has spoken out strongly against the violence in Syria for two years, infuriating Assad, but engaging directly in negotiations would put his personal credibility at risk. The Secretary-General might prefer to take a higher-profile route, using the upcoming meeting of world leaders for the new session of the U.N. General Assembly (starting September 24) as the basis for a peace conference. There has also been talk of Australia, which holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency this month, trying to find common ground between the United States and Russia.
The chances of either the General Assembly or Security Council delivering significant diplomatic dividends are, however, minimal. Putin is not even scheduled to attend the General Assembly. Hawkish Arab leaders, still intent on ousting Assad, may use the assembly as a platform to demand forceful action against Assad, undermining any peace initiatives. While European policy makers still place considerable weight on the Security Council, especially after the British vote, the Obama administration will not wait for a U.N. mandate for military action if it can secure congressional backing.
Rather than scrabble to pull off an unlikely diplomatic coup, Ban could challenge the United States and Russia — along with the main Middle Eastern powers — to find a way out of the impasse they have created. One option would be for Moscow and Washington, and their various European and Arab allies, to send delegations of intelligence and military officials to Geneva for discussions on how to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again. In the short term, it may be easier to make progress on this limited goal than to search for a broader diplomatic breakthrough. In the longer term, if Russia and the United States can find a way to cooperate on the chemical weapons issue, it could allow them to rebuild some of the trust they have lost.
Brahimi could still play a role in convening discussions of this type. But once he has done so, he should be allowed to step away from the Syrian war. He has worked hard to end the war. But if there is no hope of compromise between the United States and Russia, he cannot continue indefinitely. To do so would simply be to nurture false hopes about the vanishingly small prospects for a diplomatic solution on Syria.
Richard Gowan is Research Director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.