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.