Global media give a lot of coverage to most of the players in the Syrian crisis: the delegations from a fractious rebel front and the apparently intransigent Syrian government, as well as the high-profile diplomatic teams from the United States and Russia, led respectively by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The key figure managing the talks, however, is less often seen and heard. That is the way he likes it. From the earliest days of the joint effort begun last year by the United States, Russia, the UN and the Arab League to put diplomacy to work in the Syria crisis—first in eliminating chemical weapons and then on the larger and much more difficult, perhaps impossible, goal of a peaceful issue political transition—the man in the middle of news conferences and at the head of the negotiating table has been Lakhdar Brahimi, an 80-year-old Algerian diplomat who is the UN’s most experienced troubleshooter in the Arab Middle East and Afghanistan.
Brahimi, a formidable gentleman known for his quiet dignity and measured comments, operates from a deeply ingrained understanding of what may or may not be possible when dealing with what is now the world’s most dangerously turbulent region. He advises patience, pertinacity and small steps.
“These people did not meet once in three years,” he said of the warring Syrian sides when speaking to reporters in Geneva during a break in recent rounds of mostly unproductive talks. “They did not expect there would be a magic wand to finish the 1,000-mile walk. If we walk the first step it will be very good.”
From an American perspective, the apparent willingness of Kerry to give Brahimi the lead and support in the talks that he had often been denied by Washington in the past seems to reflect the Obama administration’s preference for negotiations over military action on Syria, Iran and other foreign policy issues. It also reveals a closer working relationship with the United Nations after years of disagreements and obstruction under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. For Brahimi, who remarked last year how much he appreciated that the American government was not led by a “gunslinger,” his personal relationship with Kerry has by all appearances been positive. His working relationship with the Russians is longstanding.
The Obama administration’s recognition of UN expertise was further evident in the now famously intercepted telephone conversation in early February between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. In the conversation about getting some action on a US-backed plan to start talks between Ukrainian factions, Nuland told the ambassador about a decision at the UN to have Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appoint a former Dutch ambassador in Kiev, Robert Serry, as mediator in the Ukrainian dispute to speed up negotiations that the European Union seemed slow or reluctant to start. “That would be great I think to help glue this thing and have the UN glue it and you know, fuck the EU,” said the voice on the tape unofficially identified as Nuland’s. Neither she nor the State Department has disavowed the identity of the speaker, and Nuland has apologized to the EU.
Lakhdar Brahimi, in his work as a political mediator and former head of UN missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, has always made clear in interviews that he was not in favor of wholesale nation-building and what was considered a Western penchant for cultural makeover. He talked instead of the need for a “light footprint,” avoiding the imposition of alien norms and behaviors on societies emerging from disorder and war. His reluctance to make women’s rights a central focus of peace negotiations in Muslim countries, for example, has provoked considerable criticism among feminists both within and outside these nations, although he has pledged to include women in the Syria talks.