U.N. Syria mediator Brahimi is a master of patience

The 80-year-old Algerian has long been one of the most respected envoys in the world

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Despite the slim pickings from a week of U.N.-brokered peace talks between Syria’s warring sides, getting them to the table at all was a huge feat in itself.

But for international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, that was all in a day’s work in a job that requires patience, persistence, strong will and fine-tuned diplomacy.

The 80-year-old Algerian has long been one of the most respected envoys in the world, called in when the mission seems impossible.

“I’m not disappointed, because I did not expect any result this first time,” he said of the glacial pace of talks this week.

Saying that his dearest hope was end the brutal war, he warns that there is no “magic wand”.

“I know that this will not happen in a day, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or next week,” he told reporters.

With tensions aplenty behind closed doors in the Geneva talks, Brahimi has kept his sense of humor.

“At this rate, we’ll need 20 years. You’d better hurry up, as I won’t be around in 20 years,” he purportedly told delegates.

He has not been afraid to drop the smiles when, as alleged, a regime delegate accused him of being biased because he is a Sunni Muslim like most of Syria’s rebels, tersely calling the individual to order.

The Geneva talks marks the biggest international push so far to end a war that has cost more than 130,000 lives and driven millions from their homes.

They were organized after intensive shuttle diplomacy by Brahimi in the Middle East and the capitals of world powers, notably Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Brahimi wears two hats, as the Syria envoy of the U.N. and the Arab League.

As a veteran of Algeria’s war of independence against colonial ruler France over five decades ago, and later a foreign minister, he carries weight in the Middle East.

“The fact that he speaks Arabic, the fact that he understands the culture, must play a role,” Syrian opposition spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati told AFP.

He also works to ensure that all players get a hearing, however irreconcilable their views, acting as a conduit between them.

“Our delegation has expressed their gratitude to Mr. Brahimi for facilitating the discussion and for giving us an opportunity in the framework of Geneva II, giving us the opportunity to present the vision of a future Syria to the dictator,” said Jouejati.

Geneva II is diplomatic-speak for the Syria talks, rooted in 2012 conference here where world powers called for a negotiated political transition.

Brahimi, also fluent in French and English, earned his spurs in 1989 by helping the Arab League broker the deal that ended Lebanon’s 15-years civil war.

He was U.N. envoy to South Africa during 1994’s watershed elections that saw Nelson Mandela win office, then moved on to civil war-torn Yemen.

U.N. envoy to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, he was sent to Iraq following the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

“For a diplomat, Lakhdar is unusually blunt and unusually honest and straightforward. I think this works to his advantage as a mediator because you come to trust him early on,” Fred Eckhard, who was spokesman for former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, told AFP.

Annan was the international community’s Syria mediator, but quit in August 2012 after five months in the face of the intractable crisis, and Brahimi was called out of retirement.

Former war correspondent Harriet Martin, who profiled Brahimi in her 2006 book on mediators, “Kings of Peace, Pawns of War”, said Brahimi is a charming, clever strategist with a dry humor.

“He also has a quiet sense of his own power -- and the limits of it. Unlike other mediators he is not intimidated by the big diplomatic power games he is often caught in the middle of,” she told AFP.

She said his insurgent and political past made him a “poacher turned gamekeeper,” able to understand those anxious to win power and those desperate to hang on to it.

Ghassan Salame, dean of the School of International Affairs in Paris, knows Brahimi well.

“For a man of 80, his patience is limitless,” he said. “He looks for the soft spots of belligerents and works towards the final goal despite the rocky road.”

Brahimi himself acknowledges that despite the desire for headline-making breakthroughs, mediation is a long game.

“I am often accused of being too slow. But I think that being slow is a better way of going fast than precipitation. If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week,” he said.

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