"The biggest concern is that one day Syrians and everyone else will wake up to find that Syria has been completely destroyed." Lakhdar Brahimi discusses the conflict in Syria, from the biggest difficulties he faces to what will bring an end to the war, in an in-depth interview with Politically Speaking, the bulletin of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs.
Politically Speaking: Nearly a year has gone by since you took up this position, cautioning even then that it was practically “mission impossible”. When you look back on the past year of peacemaking, what have been the biggest difficulties? Is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t really see what could have been done differently. The crisis was complicated from day one. After former Secretary-General Annan left the job, people took it that he had failed because his Plan, his approach was faulty. People were demanding that I come up with a Brahimi Plan. It is now understood that what Annan had put on the table was perfectly adequate for a peace process to be initiated to end the terrible crisis that is destroying Syria. The problem, the central difficulty if you wish to put it that way, was and still is how to bring the Syrian sides and those who supported and support them to accept the very principle of a political solution. That is what we have been trying to do all along.
One of your first initiatives, some called it a trial balloon, was a proposed Eid Al-Adha holiday cease-fire. What did you take away from that experience?
What you call “the Eid cease-fire” proposal was in fact an appeal to all sides to the conflict to stop the killing for three to four days during that religious holiday. I was perhaps naive, but I thought that the government which claimed to be defending the country against terrorism and conspiracy, and the armed opposition which claimed to be protecting the people from a repressive regime, would find it difficult to say no to such a simple appeal. And indeed, the government as well as practically all opposition groups said yes.
Each said “I will stop if the other side did.” And although there was a very limited lull, each party said “we wanted to stop, but the other side did not.” The lesson from all of that experience is that a cease-fire in the highly charged atmosphere which exists in Syria will not take shape and hold if there is not a well organised monitoring system in place.
You last visited Syria in person late last year. Why have you not returned? How do you continue to assess the situation and communicate with the key players?
I have not returned to Damascus since the end of December 2012. I thought President Assad’s speech of 6 January 2013 was very disappointing and said so. The Syrian authorities found what I said very disappointing and said so. Their media were not only critical of my declarations — which would be perfectly acceptable — but insulting, at times in the most vulgar terms.
We have an office in Damascus, very ably led by my colleague and friend Mokhtar Lamani. Both the Syrian authorities and myself know that we need to keep communication channels open. Those channels are functioning. We also communicate with the opposition through its various representatives, both inside and outside Syria, both the civilian and armed opposition. We are also in touch with various groups representing civil society, including women, both inside and outside Syria and we are encouraging parties to make sure that civil society including women are included in any peace and reconstruction process.
Unfortunately, no real discussion over peace is taking place. The only framework where peace is seriously discussed is the one initiated in Moscow on 7 May by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United States Secretary of state John Kerry. The UN, through my office, is fully engaged with the United States and the Russian Federation and we had a number of trilateral meetings in Geneva with both governments.
Throughout this crisis, what has been your message to President Assad and his government, as well as to the Syrian opposition, and what is their response?
My main message to the Syrian parties has been and continues to be very simple. It reflects the attitudes which have been consistently expressed by the Secretary-General: that there is no military solution to this devastating conflict. Only a political solution will put an end to it. And the basis for such a solution does exist. It is the Communiqué issued on 30 June 2012, after the meeting, in Geneva, of the socalled “Action Group” of countries convened at the initiative of Kofi Annan. Since the 7 May meeting of Lavrov and Kerry in Moscow, the United Nations, Russia and the US are trying to convene what is commonly called “The Geneva II conference.” Unfortunately, the conditions for starting that conference with a reasonable chance of success are not there yet.
You have called the Security Council to task very strongly for failing to unite and to act on Syria. Could the Council have stopped the conflict? How specifically could a more unified international community have given you greater leverage?
The Security Council has a clear responsibility when faced with a crisis like Syria’s. Even a fully united and engaged Security Council cannot produce a magical solution. But their active, united presence on the side of the Secretary-General and myself would make a significant difference.
Therefore, we shall continue to call on them to come together and work with us to shoulder the responsibility of trying to help the Syrian people out of their tragedy.
It seems you have focused in recent months on trying to encourage convergences between key international players, Russia and the United States. Can you explain the thinking behind that approach? Are you asking them to be more flexible?
It was not difficult to see that the Syrians were unable to talk to one another and the region was too polarised to be of much help. Only what I call “the outer circle” could perhaps offer the opening needed to start something constructive. The Secretary-General and Kofi (Annan) were very much aware of that even before I arrived on the scene. At the centre of that outer circle is naturally the Security Council. At the centre of the Council is the P5 Group of Permanent Members, and the work I initiated with Russia and the United States aimed at promoting unity among Council members, a crucial factor that has so far eluded us.
As we speak efforts are underway to organise a peace conference. What would be the keys to a successful conference and what could be its outcome? In broad terms, what could a political solution in Syria look like?
Yes indeed, efforts are under way to organise that “Geneva II” Conference. The United Nations — meaning the Secretary-General and I — are working closely with the Russian Federation and the United States to kick-start that Conference. Others are joining the efforts in different manners. The immediate objective is to bring in two Syrian delegations: one representing the Regime and the other the opposition, to start a serious discussion on how to implement the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012. The ultimate objective is to end the war and help the Syrians put together a process, which in stages, would lead to what some are calling the New Syrian Republic.
There is also growing focus in international circles about arming the opposition. Some argue that the regime has the upper hand and that without balancing the situation on the battlefield the government would have little incentive to negotiate? What is your response?
As far as the flow of arms into Syria is concerned, I naturally share fully the view of the Secretary-General that the best that can be done is to stop that flow of arms to all sides in Syria. More weapons kill more people. The end of conflict is achieved by stopping the use of existing weapons, not by bringing in more of them.
When you look at the situation on the ground right now, what are your biggest concerns?
Ever since I started on this Mission, I said “the situation in Syria is bad and getting worse.” I am afraid that has not changed: the situation continues to be bad and continues to become worse by the day. The biggest concern is that one day Syrians and everyone else will wake up to find that Syria has been completely destroyed. Syria will not disappear. But the longer the conflict continues, the more difficult it will be to repair the physical damage and heal the deep physical and psychological wounds inflicted on the people.
What are your concerns about growing sectarianism in the conflict? How could this be addressed in the context of a settlement?
Yes, the sectarian aspect of the war is getting worse. This war is at the same time, a civil war, a sectarian war and a proxy war. Stopping the fighting is the first priority. Dealing with the consequences of this terrible situation will not be easy. I am reasonably confident the Syrian people will find the material and moral resources as well as the creativity to heal the terrible scars left by this war.
You have spoken recently about the dangers of spillover, particular in Lebanon. Can you speak to how this conflict is reverberating more broadly in the region and the Arab World? Can it still be contained?
The spillover is all too visible already. In a conflict of this nature, the national situation will be affected by interference from abroad. But that “abroad” will also suffer the effects of the conflict next door. See what is happening in the case of Lebanon. Hezbollah has taken the grave responsibility of intervening militarily in the conflict. It will suffer consequences in due course. Lebanon is already feeling very serious ill-effects from that intervention. The Iraqis think that the serious troubles in their country are at least partly a direct consequence of the conflict in Syria.
In fact the consequences may well be felt far away from Syria’s borders. Remember 11 September 2001. That was the direct result of the neglect of the conflict in Afghanistan.
Eventually all wars end and the guns go silent. When that happens, what role might the UN play and how prepared is the organisation to play that role?
You are right, wars end and the guns go silent. The question is: What would a war leave behind? The UN will certainly be expected to help the Syrians rebuild their country. The organisation, through its various agencies is already fully engaged to help Syrians cope, wherever they are, inside or outside their country. In addition to that a lot of work is being done to get the entire UN system well-informed and well-prepared to do what the Syrians may want them to do. The United Nations is also engaged in contingency planning. Should the Security Council so decide, the UN will be ready to establish a peace keeping mission to support a peace process and help stabilise the country.
Some say it is too late for a political solution, what is your answer to that? Is it still possible to see a united, democratic, peaceful Syria emerge at the other end of this conflict?
You just said all wars end and the guns go silent and I agree with you. You might have added that all wars end with a political solution of some sort. Syria will be no exception. The more a conflict goes on, the more difficult the political solution will be to achieve and the ultimate price to be paid will be high, be it in terms of suffering, in terms of physical and mental scars the people will have to cope with, and in terms of reconstruction of the country and the State.