Only close cooperation between the United States and Russia can end the “terrible tragedy” in Syria, says Lakhdar Brahimi, the highly respected international mediator in the Middle East for more than two decades.
Brahimi, who led United Nations missions in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq before becoming the special joint envoy of the Arab League and the UN on peace efforts in Syria from 2012 to 2014, adds that Russian and American diplomats have in fact been working cooperatively for several years, but they have not been helped by Western intelligence agencies and politicians who continue to insist that President Bashar al-Assad will certainly fall sooner or later, contrary to realities on the ground. He calls their analysis and influence “utterly condemnable.”
Brahimi, also the author of monumental report in 2000 on the shortcomings of UN peacekeeping, spoke in an interview on March 14 as a tenuous ceasefire continued in Syria. He touched on the wider context of the crisis, including his work with two US secretaries of state, the advantages Russia built up over the years in Syria beyond military ties, the “sophisticated and nuanced” superiority of Moscow’s diplomats in the region, and the fatal mistakes or miscalculations of President Bashar al-Assad that caused the deaths of many thousands of Syrian civilians, drove many thousands more into exile, and alienated most of those who survive. He was speaking in a telephone conversation from Cornell University, where he is the first international practitioner-in-residence at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.
Brahimi said that it is too early to know why Vladimir Putin suddenly announced, to general surprise, that he was drawing down his military forces in Syria. “The Russians surprised everybody when they decided to go in in September,” he said. “Now he sits down with two ministers and announces, ‘We are leaving.’” Brahimi wonders how significant it will prove to be that Putin and Obama spoke almost immediately after the news came out, amid reports that the Russians and Americans have been talking a lot about Syria. “Things have got so bad that Russians and Americans working together is an absolute necessity to start working a way out of this nightmare,” he said.
Brahimi said he did his “very, very best to bring them together,” first in tripartite talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, beginning in New York and Ireland in 2012. “From there on, we had several meetings, the three of us,” he said.
Later he watched the developing relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov. “When Ukraine happened, I saw that Kerry and Lavrov kept their contacts and continued to talk to one another on the phone and whenever there was an opportunity to meet. That was very positive. Then again, in the long interview with Obama recently in the Atlantic, there is one sentence there where he said rather positive things about Putin. So that is also one of the rays of hope that one has to look at.
“On the other hand,” he said, “I have said publicly several times there is an air of Cold War revival, and that on both sides there is a nostalgia for the Cold War that you can see expressed in some statements both by Russians and by Americans. You have quite a few Americans who say, ‘Let’s see if we can do to the Russians in Syria what we did to them in Afghanistan.’ In September in New York, if you look at the speech of Putin [in the UN General Assembly], there were very combative, uncompromising parts of that speech.”
But on Syria, he said, he has found an underlying understanding:
I think that everybody realizes that we have waited far too long to really take this crisis in Syria seriously. There are still a few around who are grumbling and looking for a military solution. But I hope that at long last everybody really understands that there is no military solution, and that nothing good will come out of waiting.
What I found from day one was that Lavrov and Clinton were the people who were really focusing on Syria. I’m sure they had their objectives, their intentions, their red lines, and so on, but they were looking for a way out. Others were talking about what I called the day after: Assad is gone, or he’s going, or he will have to go and it is a matter of weeks, perhaps months.
From the beginning, Brahimi said, “the analysis of Russia was much more sophisticated, more nuanced, less simplistic. There’s no miracle there. It’s not because the Russians are more clever than anybody else. It is because they have been in Syria all the time.
“They have thousands of engineers—not only military officers helping use their hardware, but also a lot of engineers working with Syrians on industrial plants and things like that,” he said. “Plus, thousands of Russian women are married to Syrian officers. And the Russians have a tradition of academic interests in Syria.”
Turning to diplomacy, Brahimi said that the superior knowledge Russia had accumulated was evident. “[Mikhail] Bogdanov, the deputy Russian foreign minister and the special envoy of President Putin for the Middle East, speaks Arabic as well as I do,” Brahimi said. “He had been ambassador to Syria for nine years, in Israel for five years, and in Egypt for, I think, five or six years. I don’t think you have anybody like that on your side.” He added, moreover, that it was “unfortunate that the embassies of important countries had disappeared from Damascus.”
That diplomatic advantage led to a lack of enthusiasm in Moscow for the Arab Spring. “Whereas everybody was saying: ‘Look, if [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali has fallen in Tunisia in 27 days, and the mighty pharaoh [Mubarak] fell in even less than that, how long is this boy in Syria going to last?’ The Russians were saying from day one: ‘No, no, no. Syria is different.’ Yes, the Russians supported Syria, but that was an analysis born out of knowledge of what was taking place.”
Brahimi said that he tried telling those who saw Syria as the next domino to fall not to forget that Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, had built a system with the president and his family as the keystone in the middle holding it together. “So before you take that stone,” he said, “you must be certain that the dome will not fall on your head.” Saying that Bashar must go tomorrow was not very smart, he added. “Yes, take him by all means, but before that make sure that you don’t want to create another Iraq.”
Bashar al-Assad made fatal mistakes or miscalculations in the light of rising protests in the region, Brahimi said, beginning with his refusal to defuse the first opposition demonstrations in Syria in the city of Daraa.
“Assad said this is a foreign conspiracy, and somebody around him whom I will not name said, ‘Come on, those kids in the city of Daraa who wrote graffiti on the walls—teenagers—are they part of the conspiracy?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ So everything was a conspiracy. When people advised him to go to Daraa and talk to people, he said, ‘Why should I?’ So from his point of view, he has been fighting terrorism and protecting the Syrian people from these evil foreigners who are planning to destroy Syria.
“Is this his sincere belief, or is it not? I have no idea,” Brahimi said. “It can’t be entirely sincere. Surely he must have known that a lot of things were not right in his country. A lot of people think that if he had gone to Daraa and spoken to these people—and done what the king of Morocco did: Immediately say, ‘Yes, I heard you. Things are not right in our country. Let us see how we can change things together’…. The Turks claim that this is also the advice they have given him.
“I think I would not be betraying any confidence in saying that the Russians also advised him first of all to stop bombarding the cities of his country and listen to his people and reach out and find a political solution. Both Bogdanov and Lavrov have done that on several occasions.” (Ironically, Russia has also been widely accused of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and institutions, including local government offices, courts, and hospitals, after it intervened with military force to support the Assad regime in September 2015.)
Brahimi said that Moscow was not only suspicious of the Arab Spring but also well aware of its aftermath. “They have said, ‘Are you Westerners really happy with how things are in the countries of the Arab Spring?’ Putin has said to visitors from the Middle East, to Americans—to us, the Elders [a group of retired international figures led by Kofi Annan], when we went to Moscow in June—‘Yes, we understand that the situation is extremely bad. We understand that a solution is required. But what is the solution? You want Assad to go? How is he going to be replaced? If you have ideas, we are willing to listen.’”
Brahimi’s stint as a peacemaker was frustrating. When he said publicly that the Assad family could not assume they would rule for another 40 years, “the government was very unhappy with me. On the other hand, the opposition and the people who support it are even more unhappy with me, because I was saying there was no military solution.”
As a mediator, he had little to offer on Syria. The reception among opposition supporters was cold. “‘Do you, Mr. Brahimi, coming alone, with nothing in your hands except a mandate from Mr. Ban Ki-moon and Nabil Elaraby [of the Arab League], say that Bashar is not going to fall next week, whereas the CIA, British intelligence, the French, the Turks, the Saudis are telling us, ‘Yeah, he’s falling.’”
He has contempt for the critics. “You make a mistake and say, Bashar is going to fall, maybe in a month or two or three, but then one year later, two years later, three years later, you are still repeating the same thing.”
Still, he says he found that “the people who listened to me, even if they didn’t agree with everything I said, were the Russians and the Americans. I could have an intelligent discussion with them. Not with the countries of the Middle East. I never saw Obama. I never saw Putin until last year. But Lavrov and Hillary Clinton for a while, and then Kerry, are the people I met with, and I have no complaints about working with them. We disagreed, but there was throughout an intelligent conversation.”
The Americans, however, had no diplomats in Damascus, which put them at a disadvantage. The US Embassy and others closed early on in the Syrian civil war.
“As a rather ancient diplomat now, the one lesson I have learned is that diplomats are needed when there are problems,” said Brahimi, 82, a former Algerian foreign minister. “If there are no problems, you can afford to have no embassy or no ambassador. But when you have problems, you desperately need somebody on the ground. We in the Arab world have also been guilty of breaking relations—with Britain over Zimbabwe, with the US over Palestine. Now, looking back, I think that was not very smart.”
On January 27, Brahimi was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sciences Po in Paris for his role as “a central figure of international diplomacy and peace negotiations for the past 25 years.” He is, the citation said, “an unconventional diplomat.”