x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Brahimi departs his impossible task

The resignation of the Algerian diplomat shows the international disarray over ending Syria's civil war

When Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat, was given the task of being the UN and Arab League’s representative for Syria 21 months ago, he worried that the international community was not doing much. On Tuesday, when he announced he would step down in two weeks, that assessment had not changed much.

Mr Brahimi was asked if he had a message for Syrians. “Apologies,” he said, “that we haven’t been able to help them as much as they deserve.”

But it is not Mr Brahimi who needs to apologise. It is the international community. Mr Brahimi has been a tireless campaigner for a negotiated settlement, searching for nearly two years for a way to end the fighting and start a political transition. He has had the ear of the powerful, in the United States and in the UN Security Council. All have pretended to be deaf. The concerted political will that is required to push Russia and Iran to talk seriously is lacking. As long as the refugee crisis doesn’t overwhelm neighbouring countries, the international community seems happy to watch Syria disintegrate.

Certainly, the Syrian government must share some of the blame – and the UN Secretary General apportioned some in his remarks this week – but few will be surprised by that. The Assad government has waged a murderous campaign against Syrian civilians to maintain the grip on power of Bashar Al Assad and his regime. They were never likely to compromise.

Other names are now being touted for Mr Brahimi’s role, but the fact is that replacing the negotiator without a new plan is a recipe for failure. Mr Al Assad does not believe he can be toppled. Until he feels that is likely, he will not negotiate, nor will his backers, Russia and Iran, talk seriously about a post-Assad Syria. Diplomacy, therefore, must be backed by the threat of force, including arming the rebels. Otherwise there will only be war inside Syria and talk outside.

The tragedy of Syria is that, more and more, it appears as if the war will continue to rage. Despite retaking Homs, the so-called capital of the revolution, Mr Al Assad is nowhere close to controlling the whole country. It is unlikely he ever will. It may fall to another diplomat to do for Syria what Mr Brahimi helped to do for Lebanon with the 1989 Taif accord that eventually ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. The world must ensure that Syrians do not have to wait that long for a resolution.