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Dr Musa A Keilani: New man on old mission
August 29, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been named special UN and Arab League envoy on Syria, faces one of the most difficult missions. He told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday that he was “honoured, flattered, humbled and scared” at the prospect of leading the effort to end Syria’s worsening 17-month conflict.

Brahimi, who agreed last week to replace Kofi Annan as the special representative on Syria, is not due to take up the post officially until Sept.1, but diplomats said Brahimi had already filled Annan’s role.

“The Syrian people, they will be our first masters,” he told Annan. “We will consider their interests above and before anyone else. We will try to help as much as we can, we will not spare any effort,” he said. “Let’s try and see what we can do.”

France’s UN envoy, Gerard Araud, has aptly described Brahimi’s effort as an “impossible mission.”

It is easy to see how impossible the mission is. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is determined to stay in power. Any private or public talk about Assad agreeing for a political compromise is nothing but hogwash. It believes that it would be able to contain the 17-month rebellion through the use of brutal force against the people.

Focused and well-charted international action is needed to end the bloodshed in Syria. But the UN Security Council, which was created for the very purpose of intervening in situations similar to that of Syria, has been rendered helpless because of divisions among the big powers, with Russia and China blocking any action. That was what prompted Annan, a former UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to give up after six months as the international Syria envoy.

The regime has made many mistakes and committed many crimes. The opposition has also made mistakes and been guilty of serious crimes, foremost among which was taking up arms against the regime since that offered the rulers of Damascus with the justification to launch military action to end the rebellion. But the world is left in the role of a helpless witness.

Russia and China repeatedly vetoed Western- and Arab-backed resolutions that criticised the Syrian government and threatened it with sanctions. Moscow said the United States, Europe and Arabs were seeking regime change in Damascus.

Brahimi has said he wants to know precisely how the UN could help him to ensure his mission had a better chance of success. That is indeed the key question that the world also wants to be answered.

Another factor that has raised regional and international concern is the lack of a cohesive Syrian opposition. The world has seen how the Libyan conflict has petered out and does not want a repetition in Syria after a hypothetical departure of the Assad regime.

Reports say that a small group of Syrians has completed plans for the day after Assad falls. It is said to be among the first substantive effort by Syrians themselves to plan a transition for post-Assad Syria and avoid what many fear will be continued bloodshed even if he leaves power.

No single opposition leader has emerged who could unify the country.

Even if Assad goes there is no guarantee that the bloodshed will stop. The worst-case scenario of a years-long civil war remains a distinct possibility because the Syrians themselves are divided into rival camps.

That concern is said to be behind the Day-After Project, which was helped by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

According to Steven Heydemann, a Syria expert at the government-funded USIP, the Syrian opposition group was worried over the possibility that the collapse of the Assad regime could be followed by “a spike in sectarian violence.”

The group was worried “that there would be a lot of residual anger and a lot of perhaps residual violence that might undermine prospects for a transition to democracy.”

The Day-After Project reportedly calls for a transitional period to restore stability and begin national healing, return people to their homes and cities, and ensure cross-sectarian dialogue, followed by elections.

It calls for the armed forces to assume the role of protecting borders and not in an intelligence function to spy on citizens.

It says that the transitional government should concurrently offer relief, repatriate refugees living abroad, construct housing to replace homes destroyed in battle, and resettle those who are internally displaced.

It calls for Syrians to undertake a weapons clean-up programme with the different armed factions so there is a clear delineation between armed forces and civilians.

Overall, the project sounds good.

In the meantime, the situation in Syria is worsening. Dozens of armed rebel groups are reportedly waging urban guerrilla warfare against the Syrian regime.

Large numbers of armed militants have crossed into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, offering some credence to the regime’s argument that “foreign elements” are behind the conflict.

Brahimi, a veteran diplomat, must be aware of the difficulties facing him and pitfalls of dealing with the deception of the Syrian regime.

The beginning point should be convincing the rulers of Damascus that there is no way out for them other than accepting that their heyday is over and the regime has to make way for a new national leadership. The UN will have to exert immense pressure on the Assad regime, but it has to start with Russian and Chinese support.

Moscow and Beijing should not be allowed to get away with their argument that the conflict is Syria’s internal affair and any effort to end it will mean external intervention in the country.

That argument no longer applies because hundreds are dying in Syria every day, making it incumbent on the international community to stop the bloodshed. Moscow and Beijing should adopt a clear position and that will determine the success or failure of Brahimi’s mission.

The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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