Syria – The Failure of Three Wise Men: Lakhdar Brahimi

For more than four years now Syria has been one of the most blazing trouble spots in the world. Especially due to the emergence of ISIL and their high degree of violence, the ongoing mediation initiative of the United Nations seems to have been forgotten by most observers. Therefore this series deals with Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, three men who have been trying to bring peace through diplomacy in a conflict that transcends most people’s imagination of violence. The following article briefly analyzes the mediation of Syria’s second Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, from August 17th 2012 until May 30th  2014.


by Felix Tröltzsch

The Rise of a Mediation Legend

Lakhdar Brahimi does not only know how to play the game of mediation, he is a retiring star in the world of international peace. The Algerian national was born in 1934 and gained an exceptional diplomatic reputation since the start of his diplomatic career in 1963. After having held office as advisor of the Algerian president and ambassador to Egypt, Sudan and the Arab League, he became Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1991 to 1993. Shortly after that, under UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he was appointed Special Representative (SRSG) for Haiti (1993-1996) and leader of the UN mission to observe the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa(UNOMSA). Furthermore, from 1997 to 1999 Lakhdar Brahimi served as Special Envoy to Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2004 as head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and from 2004 to 2005 as SRSG in Iraq.

Besides his practical work, the Algerian diplomat is seen as one of the most important thinkers in the United Nations framework. Publications like the “Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations”, also called the “Brahimi Report”, or “The Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation” have shaped the United Nations and its understanding of mediation. On the basis of the  Brahimi Report for example, the United Nations introduced its “Responsibility to Protect” principle, a revolutionary step in international law as it obliges the international community to prevent genocides under any circumstances, also against the will of national governments if necessary.

Who gets Kofi Annan’s Job?

When Kofi Annan resigned as mediator in Syria in August 2012, he left behind an almost impossible task. Therefore, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had to find someone with a great reputation, even greater mediation skills, no current occupation and, most importantly, someone who would be accepted as go-between by all conflicting parties. Despite the importance of the mission in Syria there were almost no speculations about Annan’s successor, probably because it was very difficult, even for the world’s top diplomat, to find someone who fit the needs. According to one of his former assistants, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was already 80 years old, only took the position because “he knew no one else who would even try”. This suggests that it was of great personal importance for Brahimi, who had worked in the Middle East for decades and maintained many personal contacts in the region, to stop the violence and start a democratic peace process in Syria.

The new Joint Special Representative for Syria inherited many of his predecessors formal tasks and responsibilities. Brahimi’s mission was based on the same mandate as Annan’s and he used the same mediation team[1]. The only important difference besides his formal title[2] was that the new headquarter of the Syria mission was moved from Geneva to New York. Kofi Annan had mentioned the missing support of the UN Security-Council as major obstacle for his mission. Accordingly, even before his first action, Brahimi signalized that he was determined to cultivate intensive contacts to the most important UN body. Moreover, Lakhdar Brahimi also used the Six Point Peace Plan as basis for his efforts and tried to revive his predecessor’s diplomatic network.

Five Phases of His Mediation

In retrospective, Brahimi’s efforts can be divided into five major phases. Firstly, Lakhdar Brahimi took time to  establish contacts, meet up with relevant actors and build up the trust of the conflicting parties. For this purpose he constantly lowered international expectations, kept a low profile and tried not to blame anyone in the first weeks as SRSG for Syria. As his first official act, the SRSG traveled to Syria and stated that “[c]hange is necessary, indispensable, unavoidable [but…] it is too early to speak about who should stay and who should go”. During this visit, he talked to President Assad and his government as well as to opposition leaders, who criticized him because of his restrained standpoint. After that, he also met with various diplomats from China and Russia to gain support for his upcoming peace plan.

Secondly, after Brahimi had set up the basis for his mediation, he kept Kofi Annan’s Six-Point-Peace-Plan in place as he believed in the necessity of a transitional government, a democratic peace process and of course in the absolute importance of a Syria-wide ceasefire. To reach the latter goal, Brahimi publicly announced his idea of a four-day ceasefire on the Muslim Id al-Adha holiday, the festival of sacrifice, in mid-October 2012. After the Iranian government complied to his idea, Assad and the main[3] opposition groups as well agreed to the ceasefire. Although no weapons were withdrawn from the front and Assad insisted on the loophole of defensive attacks, Brahimi could register his first small success as mediator in Syria. Unfortunately, the truce was already broken on October 25th, its first day, by fights in Homs and Aleppo as well as a car bomb that killed five people in Damascus. He naturally condemned the violations, without blaming either side, only stating that he was “terribly sorry that this appeal has not been heard to the level we hoped it would”. Consequently, in the second phase of his mediation, Lakhdar Brahimi’s first success and his first failure were only a few days apart.

During the third phase of his mediation, he then initiated a two way strategy to advance his mission. On the one hand, Brahimi urged negotiations between Hillary Clinton, the US Foreign Minister, and her Russian counterpart Sergej Lavrov about the situation in Syria and a way to oust Bashar al-Assad. Doing so, he tried to build up pressure on the Syrian government, who struggled with militarily gaining rebel groups. On the other hand, Lakhdar Brahimi traveled to Syria again to meet Bashar al-Assad for the second time. In retrospect this visit must be seen as the mediators last attempt at convincing Assad to agree on a transitional government in Syria.  This strategy, however, did not prove to be successful. Just three days after his visit to Syria, on December 30th 2012, Sergej Lavrov publicly announced that there was “no possibility” to persuade Assad to step down, effectively announcing that Russia was not willing to give up on the Syrian dictator. With this strong Russian backing, the Syrian government then denounced Lakhdar Brahimi and rejected every call for Assad’s ousting.

The Syria conflict could not be solved within the country anymore. Therefore, the only way for Lakhdar Brahimi to bring peace to Syria was a collective action and a strong mandate of the UN Security-Council. To achieve that, between February and October 2013 Brahimi met with all relevant actors, trying to convince them to support his boldest step yet. After many long negotiations, the mediator announced his next move: An international conference attended by all important third countries and conflict parties that would be taking place from January 23rd to January  31st and from February 10th to February 15th 2014 in Geneva. The so called Geneva II talks, which based on the Geneva Communiqué of 2012, were meant to reach an agreement regarding the future role of Bashar al-Assad and the transitional government in Syria. However, making a long story short, even this peace conference was not able to break the deadlock in Syria.  While Brahimi managed to bring the Assad regime and the opposition physically together for the first time in the conflict, the parties were not willing to compromise and did not agree on anything, except the immediate termination of the talks. Hence, Brahimi’s second success developed into his deepest letdown as mediator for Syria.

From an objective point of view, the failure of the peace conference, the ongoing violence in Syria and the deadlock in the UN Security-Council meant that Brahimi’s mission had failed. In spite of that, the go-between kept on working. In March 2014 he visited Iran, trying to stop Assad from applying as presidential candidate with the help of the newly elected and more liberal president Hassan Rohani. Brahmi was concerned that “if […] President Assad becomes a candidate […] it’s very difficult in moving ahead in the Geneva process”. Brahimi’s work and negotiations non-withstanding, Bashar al-Assad ran for office and once more got elected amidst strongest doubts about the conduct of the election. Due to that, because violence had intensified in Syria during his peace mission and since the UN Security-Council did not agree in the matter of Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi decided on May 13th to lay down his office with effect of May 30th 2014.

Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria. 22 August 2013. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria. 22 August 2013. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

Styles of Mediation

After the analysis of Lakhdar Brahimi’s mediation it is now possible to find out how he mediated and which styles of mediation he used.

  • Scope: inclusive mediation

Brahimi clearly used an inclusive approach during his mission in Syria and included all relevant actors, no matter from which side. He met with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, representatives of the Syrian opposition as well as government officials from Iran, Jordan and Turkey. Moreover, the he moved his headquarters to New York to create more intensive contacts to the UN Security-Council and to the US government. Nevertheless, in contrast to Kofi Annan, who focused very much on talks with Syria’s neighboring countries, Brahimi concentrated mainly on negotiations with Russia, China and the USA to obtain a strong decision in the UN Security-Council.

  • Method: fostering mediation

The Algerian diplomat mediated in a very fostering manner. Brahimi did not use threats or set any strict deadlines during his mission. Before initiating the Id al-Adha ceasefire and before organizing the Geneva II talks, he asked the conflicting parties in Syria about heir opinion. Furthermore, in contrast to Kofi Annan, he did not denounce or condemn Bashar al-Assad and his government openly. Lakhdar Brahimi did not blame any specific party until the end of his mediation.  When asked who was responsible for the ongoing stalemate after the Geneva talks, he answered “probably me”. Furthermore, instead of pointing out his problems at the end of his mediation, he apologized for his failure. The experienced diplomat remained neutral during the time of his mediation and tried not to exasperate anyone. He wanted to build up leverage not by publicly denouncing Assad personally, but in a more subtle way by convincing Russia, the USA and the UN Security-Council to do so.

  • Focus: wide peace

Like his predecessor, Brahimi as well focused on a wide peace from the beginning of his mission on. With his mandate, he had the task to make peace and to initiate a peaceful and democratic political process in Syria. In the first weeks of his mission, he used Annan’s Six-Point Peace Plan as guiding principle and after the Id al-Adha truce had failed, tried to establish a political process that implemented the Geneva Communiqué. Above all, the wide peace was reflected by the Geneva II talks, which included negotiations about a ceasefire but, more importantly, dealt with the political system of future Syria.

Effects of the Peace Mission

It becomes apparent that Lakhda Brahimi mediated in an inclusive, fostering and wide manner. He used even less public pressure than his predecessor and thereby gave all actors the chance to save face. Furthermore, in contrast to Kofi Annan, who was very active in the region, the Algerian diplomat focused more on the decision-making of the UN Security-Council and especially planned to win over Russia for a robust peace mandate. Without doubt, this was a very sensible approach but did not help to stop the violence in Syria in any way. After the Il al-Adha truce had failed and the fighting had reemerged even worse, Brahimi was completely unable to convince the Syrian regime of other ways to short- or long-term peace. Due to the lack of pressure in his mediation, neither the Syrian opposition, nor the government was ever forced in any way to lay down their weapons or to obey the agreed ceasefire. The same must be said about his international negotiations. As Joint Special Representative for Syria he never openly criticized the Russian government for not firmly cooperating.

Added together, Brahimi rightly focused his mediation strategy on the UN Security-Council and its veto powers Russia and China. However, the most influential UN body did not meet Brahimi’s expectations and lacked the determination to mandate a robust peace mission and to initiate political change in Syria.  Due to the constant support of Russia, Bashar al-Assad was never at risk of losing his office or facing consequences for his policies. This made it easy to reject proposals and break agreed-upon principles. Consequently, after the Geneva II talks had failed and Assad was reelected, the only tool that Brahimi had left was to terminate his post and to make way for a fresh mediator with new ideas.

Author Biography

Felix Troeltzsch is a regular contributor at the Global Public Policy Watch. He recently graduated from the University of Jena with a master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Peace Studies. Before that, he studied International Relations and American Studies at the University of Leipzig and University of Warsaw. Felix is mainly interested in international conflicts, security policy, human rights, the European Union and the Middle East. During several stays abroad he has dealt intensively with the Balkans and the Black Sea region.


[1]    There is very view information about Brahimi’s mediation team. However, no reports indicate major changes in his supporting team.

[2]    Brahimi was called Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and Arab League. Kofi Annan was the Joint Special Envoy of the two organizations. Yet, this was only a formality without significant effect.

[3]    Since at this time the Syrian opposition was already divided in many fractions, naturally not every group agreed to the ceasefire. Al Nusra for example rejected Brahimi’s idea.

Picture credits:

Cover Picture – UN Geneva under a 2.0 generic (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0) creative commons license

Boarding Pass – Oxfam International under a 2.0 generic (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0) creative commons license

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