U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s current mission in Syria has frozen in its tracks due to the military escalation, the lack of international consensus, and the belief among both the Syrian regime and the opposition that a military victory is possible. Nevertheless, the potential failure of Brahimi will drag Syria further into a protracted civil war before any agreement on a new power structure can be reached.
Brahimi, a seasoned diplomat who oversaw key regional crisis from Lebanon to Afghanistan to Iraq, took the Syria portfolio last August on the premise that he can find enough international support to end the conflict. That so far has displaced 600,000 people and taken 60,000 lives. Brahimi’s bet was on closing the gap between the U.S. and Russia by having them agree on a post-Assad transition framework, and then pressure the regime in Damascus into accepting it. Six months later, neither was achieved. The U.S. and Russia are still in disagreement over the role of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in any future transition, and the fighting has only raged around the country and the capital. Brahimi’s repeated trips to Syria faced more scrutiny from the regime, leading to a verbal confrontation with Assad in their last meeting on December 24th.
Media reports close to the regime indicated that Assad snubbed Brahimi’s request to transfer his full authority to a transitional government and did not appreciate the envoy’s voicing doubts about his prospects of running again in 2014. Assad called the meeting to an end after telling Brahimi that he does not see himself as “a captain of who flees the ship when it starts shaking”.
The status of the opposition does not help Brahimi’s in his task either. Almost two years into the conflict, the “National Coalition” -the main political opposition body - is still struggling to form a transitional government, a key element to grant it ground access and give it international legitimacy. The armed opposition, for its part, is also engulfed in its own divisions between the more radical groups such as Jubhat Nusra, and the more secular units inside the Free Syria Army. Jubhat Nusra labeled as “terrorist” by the U.S. administration, has gained ground in the last few months, after carrying key attacks against the regime in Idlib province and around Damascus.
Lebanonization of Syria?
Brahimi’s biggest hurdle today is the growing confidence in both the regime and the opposition that each can win and deliver a military knock-out punch to the other side.
However, and very much like neighboring Lebanon in 1975, Syria is systematically descending into a civil war. Similar to Beirut then, the grip of the central government is weakening in Damascus, while new militias are emerging and exercising control along sectarian and ethnic lines. Pro-regime armed groups such as Jeysh Shaabi and Shabiha have been acting as regime’s proxies while the military is stretched thin and fighting on several fronts. In a trend that was seen in Lebanon as well, the fighting is no more exclusive between the regime and the opposition. In Aleppo, the Jubhat Nusra rebels have clashed with the Kurdish (PKK) fighters, who in turn control most of Kurdish areas in the North after Assad withdrew his forces last June.
The Lebanon-ization of the Syrian conflict is something Brahimi familiar with and has repeatedly warned against. The envoy brokered the Taif agreement in 1989 which ended the Lebanese civil war after 15 years of fighting, and more than 150,000 deaths. At the core of Taif was a realization among the opposing Lebanese factions that neither can win, and a new power-sharing agreement is necessary to come in terms with the changing demographics inside the country. Regionally, the solid support behind the agreement from key countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran facilitated Brahimi’s accomplishment that was also backed by the United States, right after the cold war.
Unless a regional and international consensus forms around Syria and along with that a readiness from the fighting factions to look for a real compromise, Brahimi’s mission is doomed to fail, and Syrians should brace for a long war.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam