Turtle Bay

Return of the philosopher king?

Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. troubleshooter, has emerged as the front-runner to replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats. The appointment of the 78-year old Brahimi would propel another major international diplomatic figure into the middle of a U.N.-backed mediation process that has ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. troubleshooter, has emerged as the front-runner to replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The appointment of the 78-year old Brahimi would propel another major international diplomatic figure into the middle of a U.N.-backed mediation process that has shown little sign of success. But it remained unclear today whether Brahimi had accepted the job, or whether the Syrian government would accept him.

Brahimi remains skeptical about the prospects for peace, telling associates that he could envision the Syrian civil war developing into a protracted conflict that could last for years.

Brahimi, who is best known for his peace efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a well-known figure in Syria, having played a central role in negotiating a 1989 peace deal ending Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. The deal, known as the Taif Agreement, required Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon within two years.

Although Syria remained in Lebanon for another 15 years, the Syrian leadership has remained cool towards Brahimi. Another complicating factor is Brahimi’s daughter, Princess Rym Ali, a former CNN correspondent who is married to Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein — the brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Jordan has been active in the Western-backed effort to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.

U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman today met with Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, to discuss the prospects of Brahimi’s appointment.

The United States and the United Nations have routinely turned to Brahimi to undertake the most intractable diplomatic problems, and he played a central role in establishing a transitional government in Afghanistan. Later, he was recruited to help pave the way for a transitional Iraqi government. Last year, the United States approached Brahimi to gauge his interest in trying to mediate a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward described the efforts of American officials to identify a prominent foreigner — a "philosopher king" in Woodward’s words — to mediate a political deal that would allow the Americans to ultimately leave Afghanistan. "One possible candidate was Lakhdar Brahimi, the elderly United Nations diplomat who had helped engineer Karzai’s rise to power after the U.S. invasion in 2001. Could he deliver this? Brahimi was 76, perhaps too old for the monumental diplomatic mission."

Like Annan, Brahimi is member of a group of retired statesmen and women known as The Elders. This morning, the group issued a statement urging the warring parties in Syria, as well as their foreign backers, "to work together to end the bloodshed and move the country away from the abyss."

Brahimi, who lives in Paris, issued his own statement: "Syrians must come together as a nation in the quest for a new formula. This is the only way to ensure that all Syrians can live together peacefully, in a society not based on fear of reprisal, but on tolerance, In the meantime, the U.N. Security Council and regional states must unite to ensure that a political transition can take place as soon as possible. Millions of Syrians are clamoring for peace. World leaders cannot remain divided any longer, over and above their cries."

If appointed, Brahimi would likely work closely with a reconfigured U.N. political mission inside Damascus, though he would probably not live in Syria. Asked if Brahimi would take on the new role, Eduardo del Buey, the U.N. deputy spokesman, remained vague: "We have nothing to announce. If and when we have something to announce, we will announce it."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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