WASHINGTON — It took barely 10 minutes for things to go wrong at the first meeting between Syrian opposition activists and Lakhdar Brahimi, the new U.N. envoy to Syria, who’s charged with trying to find a way to end the bloody, 18-month-old crisis.
Brahimi had been publicly bleak about such prospects, and one member of the Syrian delegation thought he should see how those low expectations were mirrored by protesters in Syria. She showed him a demonstrator’s sign that read: “Welcome, Mr. Brahimi, to your Mission Impossible. Why didn’t you send us Tom Cruise?”
Brahimi exploded in a tirade accompanied by finger wagging and shushing when she tried to explain, the opposition delegate, Rafif Jouejati, whose father was a longtime Syrian envoy to the United Nations, recalled this week in one of the first descriptions of the meeting, which took place over the weekend on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The exchange chilled the room, she said, and what followed was a tense and unfruitful encounter with a man whose mission she and other activists described as “doomed.”
Syrian delegates who met with Brahimi said they were disappointed to find that the new envoy, who’d served to mixed reviews in similar roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t offer even a hint of a plan for reviving the moribund diplomatic track. Worse, they said, he offended them with what they perceived as his lack of interest in the messages they were trying to relay from ordinary protesters, who were largely off-limits to Brahimi when he visited Syria for a first round of talks with President Bashar Assad and regime diplomats.
“He talked to us as though we were schoolchildren, and we represent people who risk their lives on a daily basis. He owed us a little more respect than that,” said Jouejati, who’s among the activists consulting with the State Department on transition strategies for Syria.
“Even if he’d been pleasant,” she added, “the Arab League and U.N. have had a combined total of three failed initiatives.”
Brahimi’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There’s little debate about whether Brahimi, a former Arab League official who’s also served as the foreign minister of his native Algeria, was the right choice for peace envoy to Syria’s civil war; there simply was no other candidate for the job.
After a frustrated, stymied Kofi Annan resigned the post in August, the U.N. beseeched Brahimi to take perhaps one of the most unenviable jobs in the world: referee among an unorganized armed opposition, a fractious civilian opposition and Assad, whose regime has shown itself to be ruthless. No side has indicated a willingness to negotiate or to respect cease-fire agreements for more than a brief interlude.
Add to the mix 300,000 refugees, a death toll of around 30,000, hundreds of jihadist fighters and five volatile neighboring countries, and it’s easy to see why Brahimi said at the U.N. that there was “no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward.” The situation, he told reporters, “is getting worse and it’s a huge threat to the region.”
That threat to the region already is bearing out, with Turkey on Thursday authorizing the use of military force against Syria in response to an incident Wednesday in which an errant Syrian shell that landed across the border killed five Turkish civilians.
The Syrian government apologized, but Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, and its Western allies appear to be seizing on the incident to ratchet up pressure on Assad. They put the matter before the U.N. Security Council, hoping for a resolution that includes wording on the “responsibility to protect,” a phrase that analysts said could create an opening for a Libya-like international military intervention.
Syrian opposition forces have long sought the imposition of a no-fly zone, but the United States has resisted any form of military intervention, and Syrian allies Russia and China have vetoed resolutions that could lay the groundwork for such a move.
In a roundabout way, Syria specialist Leila Hilal said, events with Turkey might pressure Assad enough for Brahimi’s team to wrest some concessions from a regime that’s otherwise shown itself to be intractable. However, she quickly added, there are still far too many variables to warrant a surge of optimism in a diplomatic solution, and she said Brahimi was wise not to give false hope.
“He’s looking long-term. He’s not going to come out with another unrealistic plan for which there’s no traction,” said Hilal, the head of the Middle East Task Force for the New America Foundation, a Washington research center. “There’s no sense that the opposition is going to back down on its insurgency, and Assad is not going to lay down arms.”
Brahimi’s own boss, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has said both sides seem determined “to see the end by military means.” U.S. and other Western officials are similarly downcast about the prospects of a renewed diplomatic push.
With a deadlocked Security Council that’s unable to support Brahimi’s mission and a series of unfruitful meetings with regime and opposition delegates in recent weeks, it’s unclear to many Syrians why the United Nations is continuing to push diplomacy at all.
“We knew, of course, that Kofi Annan had the support of the Security Council and was unable to achieve anything. It’s obvious that Brahimi doesn’t even have the support of the Security Council, so I don’t think he can achieve anything at all in the near future,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the opposition Coalition for a Democratic Syria who met with Brahimi in New York last week.
An added wrinkle is the addition of jihadist and other rogue groups to the opposition struggle. With not even half the rebel militias operating under any semblance of a unified Free Syrian Army banner, analysts said, it would be exceedingly difficult for the opposition to guarantee that all forces would abide by a cease-fire even if Brahimi were able to negotiate one.
“It would be hard to enforce a comprehensive cease-fire for the insurgency at this point in time because of these (jihadist) brigades,” Hilal said. “They’ve formed and appear to be acting in an aggressive way that’s inconsistent with other brigades that appear to have a clearer military strategy.”
Frustrated with the Security Council’s deadlock, some Syrian dissidents are sidestepping Brahimi and pushing directly for U.S.-led action, though they said they didn’t expect any change in the U.S. reluctance to intervene until after the presidential election in November.
By then, they said, the death toll will be higher, the neighbors will be drawn in even more deeply, sectarian tensions will have hardened and no one can say how cohesive a force the rebels will be.
“When diplomacy fails, it’s time for the militarized front to take over,” Jouejati said. “Everybody hopes for a diplomatic solution. I don’t think Brahimi is going to be the one to do it, but he may surprise us all.”