The Resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi: A Chance for a New Approach to the Syrian Tragedy

Ban Ki-moon has all the instruments he needs to show real leadership on Syria. All he has to do is break free of restrictions, traditions, and narrow ambitions to improve his performance.
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The resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi as the joint United Nations-Arab League representative illuminates the collective moral failure of both organizations and their member states, but in particular the failure of the United States and Russia in shouldering their responsibilities. This has led to the growth of international terrorism activity in Syria, while the regime enhanced its capacity to come down hard on the moderate opposition and the civilians, though no one is innocent from contributing to the fatal mistakes in Syria. Brahimi admitted to many of his mistakes in his last briefing to the Security Council this week, but the Security Council remains the leader in failure when it comes to the Syrian crisis, having caused the latter to snowball and become one of the world's largest humanitarian disasters in recent times.

Brahimi's biggest mistake was wagering on American-Russian accord, when the Russian government was deliberately misleading the veteran diplomat and the Obama administration paying him lip service without offering substantial support. His second biggest mistake was accepting the Iranian role in Syria, to the point that he legitimized this role, when Iran has been for the past years violating a clear UN Security Council resolution banning the Islamic Republic under Chapter VII of the UN Charter from supplying weapons and officers -- and Hezbollah fighters -- to Syria. At the same time, Brahimi's relationship with Arab parties, especially Saudi Arabia, continued to deteriorate. His third mistake was dealing with the Syrian opposition with annoyance on account of its fragmentation, without taking into account its lack of experience and cohesion, while he dealt with the government in good faith, because of its centrality in the efforts to find political solutions. But the Syrian government, from the outset, was determined to foil the basic idea behind the transitional political process endorsed by the Geneva 1 communiqué and the Geneva 2 conference, namely, to establish a transitional governing body with full powers to replace the current regime. Damascus then launched a scathing attack against Brahimi for objecting to holding the presidential election in June, which undermines the idea of establishing a transitional governing body. Brahimi has proposed ideas to the Security Council that resemble a seven-point plan, and resigned his commission after apologizing to the Syrian people for the failure, stressing that there can ultimately be no military solution in Syria. There will definitely be a third person to take over what many call mission impossible, which neither former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan nor veteran diplomat and negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi could accomplish successfully.

This is a chance not only for a new approach in dealing with the Syrian tragedy, but also a window to demand all players to stop being distracted with superficial calculations or bipolar balancing acts on the corpses of the Syrians. The humanitarian catastrophe also threatens regional peace and security. It is also a testament to a grave failure that led to the growth of international terrorism, which will return to terrorize all those who helped revive it -- not just in Syria, but also in their own backyards.

There have been reports that the UN Secretariat would like for the third representative or envoy to exclusively represent the UN, rather than be a joint UN-Arab League envoy. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must not commit such a fatal error. Any cornering of the new envoy and the removal of the Arab part of his or her prerogative will be an unacceptable insult for which Ban Ki-moon would be blamed and met with widespread criticism.

For one thing, the Syrian government was always adamant about removing the Arab cover from the mission of any international envoy. If Ban Ki-moon defers to this Syrian stratagem, then it would appear clearly that he was kowtowing to Damascus's dictates.

For another, the Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Elaraby, as he told Al-Hayat, had never heard from Ban Ki-moon about such intentions. Elaraby said that he continued to work with Ban Ki-moon to find a distinguished international figure at the level of former head of state pursuant to Ban Ki-moon's desire. If Ban Ki-moon takes an unexpected decision and abolishes the Arab part represented by the Arab League from the new envoy's mission, this would be a political blow to the member states of the League, especially the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia.

Nabil Elaraby told Al-Hayat that he does not insist for the third representative to be a non-Arab, "nor should he necessarily be an Arab." He said he had discussed names with Ban Ki-moon, and agreed on the need for the envoy to be a prominent international figure. Among the names proposed is former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. According to Elaraby, Rudd is a "respected international figure." Elaraby said he knew Rudd personally, and had all the respect for him and his good faith toward the Arabs. These same qualities, according to Elaraby, also apply to veteran Spanish diplomat Javier Solana, who is acceptable to Damascus, although his age works against him. According to a reliable source, Solana is the Syrian government's preferred choice for which it is now lobbying.

The Arab League is required to stop hiding behind the failure of the Security Council and the UN Secretariat. If the Arab League wants the new envoy to be a joint one, it must do much more. To be sure, the Arab League did not contribute at all in supporting Lakhdar Brahimi's mission. The Arab League now must shoulder its responsibilities and obligations arising from having a joint envoy, because this is not some honorary degree. It is a serious responsibility, especially at a time of increasing talk about regional roles in resolving the Syrian crisis, in a way that bypasses Arab countries as a whole.

Indeed, there is talk about a regional/international approach - emerging out of the Munich Conference - bringing together the United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey to help resolve the Syrian crisis, as a way of circumventing the Saudi opposition to legitimizing the Iranian role in Syria.

Any move by Ban Ki-moon to abolish the Arab part of the new envoy's mission will also serve to neutralize the Arab role -- Saudi and Egyptian in particular -- in Syria. This is a serious matter, one that is at the heart of the geopolitical equation. Accompanying this push is increasing clamor for a basic Iranian role in any approach to the Syrian crisis, which raises doubts and questions about what could be in the mind of the UN Secretariat and Secretary-General.

It is Ban Ki-moon's duty to not legitimize the Iranian role in Syria, while Tehran is blatantly flouting resolution 1727, which prohibits its military involvement in Syria. The UN Security Council is burying its head in the sand to avoid facing that flagrant violation of a resolution it had adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter. But this does not mean that Ban Ki-moon has to follow in the footsteps of the Council, because he in turn is responsible for the collective disregard of those violations, which set a very dangerous precedent at the UN.

Nevertheless, Ban Ki-moon should not boycott Iran or cancel talks with Tehran on Syria. But he must avoid falling into the trap of giving Iran the lead in determining the fate of an Arab state by sidelining important Arab actors such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Lakhdar Brahimi has briefed the Security Council on an Iranian four-point plan on the future of Syria, and said that Tehran was willing to seek the postponement of the presidential election if the Security Council endorsed its points: a) a ceasefire; b) a national unity government; c) a constitutional review aiming in particular at reducing the powers exercised by the President; and d) Presidential and legislative elections organized under UN supervision.

Regardless of whether these points are good or bad, presenting an Iranian plan on the future of Syria with an Iranian pledge to seek the postponement of the Syrian presidential election if the UN Security Council adopts Tehran's points is a blatant interference that must be rejected rather than being submitted to the Security Council without consulting or informing the Arab countries.

It might be said that Iran has put forward a four-point plan while Saudi Arabia contented itself with opposing the legitimization of the Iranian role in Syria but without proposing a plan in return. Such criticism would not be misplaced. It is time for Saudi diplomacy to replace the approach based on protesting, complaining, and grumbling with a clear plan and a new approach to resolve the Syrian crisis. However, this does not invalidate the cardinal error in presenting an Iranian plan for the future of Syria at the Security Council without consulting the Arab parties or briefing the Arab League, which is supposed to be represented by the joint envoy as well.

Brahimi referred to statements made by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier this year calling for removing all non-Syrian fighters from Syria through Iranian cooperation with others. What Brahimi did not mention, however, is that Zarif had dodged important issues arising from this call, for example, when he was asked in Davos whether he was willing to apply this to Hezbollah. At any rate, Brahimi said he heard something similar from the Saudi foreign minister, and called for cooperation on "this consensual issue, if necessary only at the Security level."

Brahimi also called for a stop to the flow of arms to Syria through regional cooperation with Ban Ki-moon "as part of an agreement not as a condition for it." He said, "The Secretary General would be happy to himself lead a process of consultations with all the interested parties" to put an end "to the flow of parallel with the extraction of all non-Syrian fighters from the country."

This is a new approach that deserves attention, no matter how many hurdles and bad faith it encounters from all those concerned. Ban Ki-moon must turn it into a personal initiative and to act immediately to build on it, by taking it upon himself to engage both the Saudi and Iranian leaderships.

This week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal extended an invitation to his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to discuss various outstanding issues -- led by the Syrian issue. This is an opportunity for Ban Ki-moon -- also with the appointment of a new envoy -- to think in a visionary and creative way to claw his way to an essential role in the formulation of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, a necessary and essential condition for a political settlement of the crisis in Syria.

The regional approach is certainly important, but this does not absolve the Secretary-General of the daunting task that requires firmness and determination vis-à-vis U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to underscore to them that their stances toward Syria have harmed the United Nations as an organization. It is high time for him to stop hiding in the shadow of the Russian-American relationship and the paralysis of the Security Council. It is time for him to decide that the humanitarian disaster and egregious violations of international humanitarian law in Syria require him not just to issue a statement here or there, but also to come up with a coherent initiative, with vision, firmness, and determination.

Ban Ki-moon has all the instruments he needs to show real leadership on Syria. All he has to do is break free of restrictions, traditions, and narrow ambitions to improve his performance. One of the best things this could achieve is to embarrass all parties at the Security Council, at the Arab League, and at the levels involving the United States-Russia, Saudi Arabia-Iran, and the Syrian government and opposition, to push them into stopping to hide behind their fingers. Failing Syria will be a black mark for all sides and will cost them dearly, sooner or later, no matter how long they bury their heads in the sand.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi

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