Brahimi’s Last Stand?

The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on ...

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Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre

The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.

The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.

The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.

The political conference — which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers — is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.

Brahimi’s goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact — which was backed by Russia and the United States — represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s future.

There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.

So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.

Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.

The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.

The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad’s forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."

Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" — a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."

"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."

In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition’s ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate … in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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