Does Lakhdar Brahimi have any good options for ending the Syrian war? Brahimi has served as the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria for more than three months, having been chosen to replace Kofi Annan in August. Unlike Annan, who tried to mediate a resolution to the conflict under constant media scrutiny, Brahimi has adopted a low profile. But like Annan, he has struggled to find a way to bring the regime and rebels together.
Brahimi’s sole significant public initiative to date was an effort to engineer a temporary cease-fire during the Muslim holiday of Eid in late-October. The agreement fell apart in less than a day, and some Islamist rebels refused to participate at all, raising corrosive doubts about the envoy’s leverage. Meanwhile, the Security Council, having fought itself to a diplomatic standstill over Syria in the first half of the year, has concentrated on other, less divisive crises during Brahimi’s tenure.
Brahimi has warned that Syria could become another Somalia . He has continued to promote peace proposals based on those set out by Annan, which centered on a long-term cease-fire followed by formal negotiations on a political transition. U.N. officials have been working on a range of concepts for a peacekeeping force to back up these ideas. But do the proposals have any credibility left?
When Annan first talked about crafting a transitional process, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had little incentive to take the plan seriously. Assad’s forces were still winning most pitched battles with the rebels. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime was weathering Western sanctions, and Russia was determined to defend it in the Security Council. Now the rebels have the military advantage, and there have been small — though possibly deceptive — signs that Russia is reconsidering its position on Syria. Russian and U.S. officials met in Geneva this weekend to talk about their options, concurring on the need for a political process .* But Brahimi’s position remains tenuous at best.
As yet, the Syrian regime has made no public indication that it will negotiate seriously. Instead, it appears to be edging toward the use of chemical weapons . Even if Assad were suddenly to agree to a mediated settlement, his opponents might well choose to push for a decisive victory rather than a compromise.
It’s easy enough to see how a « Somalia » scenario could emerge if the rebels refuse to negotiate and Assad or his generals unleash chemical weapons — a move that would, at last, drag in outside forces. Moreover, there are growing concerns that, no matter how the war ends, there will be a wave of revenge attacks against the Alawite minority that backed Assad, and possibly other ethnic groups. The rebels often lack discipline and have no strong central control, and they have committed atrocities already, although not on the scale of those carried out by pro-Assad forces.
All of this means that Brahimi needs to have a range of Plan Bs on hand if the situation starts to spiral out of control quickly. There are three basic options available.
The first of these could be called « surrender management. » In this unlikely best-case scenario, the regime could be persuaded to accept defeat. By surrendering, Assad and his backers might secure their own personal safety and probably the right to exile, as well as security guarantees for the Syrian army and minorities. Brahimi could help broker the terms of an agreement, and a rapidly deployed peacekeeping force would almost certainly be required to underpin the deal. Brahimi cannot be seen to draft the terms of a surrender document prematurely, but he and his staff should have an outline of one that they can table if there is ever an opportunity. In the meantime, they should consolidate plans for getting a first wave of peacekeepers on the ground as fast as possible when necessary.
If, as seems likelier, Assad and his circle fight to the death, Brahimi’s second option is to urge the rebels to show restraint in victory and get the still-fissiparous opposition to agree on a framework for reconstruction. This would mean persuading the rebels that they will lose international credibility if they slaughter the Alawites or others, and arranging a rapid injection of international aid to buoy up Syria’s battered economy. It would also involve more extended talks on an interim government and constitution, in many ways similar to the Bonn negotiations of post-Taliban Afghanistan, where Brahimi played a huge role. Here, too, feeling out potential diplomatic allies, peacekeepers and donors for postconflict reconstruction will help speed the process when the time comes.
The final option involves the « Somalia scenario » itself. In this case, Assad could fall but Syria would then fragment into a patchwork of warring fiefs. Brahimi is said to be especially worried about the break-up of the army in this scenario. If there is a general collapse, his priorities will be to get all factions to accept humanitarian aid, while minimizing the risk of chemical weapons use and creating back-channel mechanisms for talks on an eventual peace deal. To deal with Somalia, the U.N. has maintained a political office in Kenya to facilitate negotiations since 1995, although its envoy moved to Mogadishu this year. Brahimi’s staff need to have a plan for a similar long-term role.
In any of these scenarios, unknown factors come into play. Will Assad use his chemical weapons, upsetting any hope of diplomacy? Will Russia and the West find some sort of diplomatic modus vivendi, strengthening Brahimi’s position? Will some rebel factions continue to reject his assistance altogether? Brahimi, who has almost unparalleled experience with ugly negotiations, must be aware of these challenges and many others. But while his overall position is weak, there is still a significant chance that he will end up having to manage the next phase of the international response to Syria by default. The more contingency plans he has ready, the better.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.