The United Nations named veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to the daunting task of trying to bring peace to war-torn Syria, with the French chairman of the Security Council conceding that the envoy was being sent on an "impossible mission."
Brahimi, 78, will take over from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who announced two weeks ago that he was quitting at the end of this month as joint special envoy for the world body and the Arab League. Annan cited frustration with infighting on the Security Council that prevented him from presenting a united front in his efforts to bring together loyalists of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the disparate rebel factions fighting to oust him.
Annan was unable to get either side in the now-17-month-old conflict to abide by a cease-fire that was agreed upon in April, the first of six steps he had outlined for putting an end to the bloodshed. The U.N. Security Council also rolled back from another element of Annan's peace plan when they voted to end the observer mission for Syria, a concession that the once 300-strong contingent was in too much danger while fighting persists.
Russia and China have used their vetoes as permanent members of the rotating 15-seat Security Council to block sanctions and condemnation of Assad for deploying heavy weaponry against poorly armed opponents and unarmed civilians. Russia, a longtime ally of Syria and key supplier of its arms and aircraft, fears a loss of influence in the Middle East if Assad is toppled. China routinely opposes international censure of human rights abuses in hopes of avoiding diplomatic precedent that could one day be directed at Beijing.
Brahimi was reportedly offered the job as special representative on Syria last week but accepted it only on Friday.
"The violence and the suffering in Syria must come to an end,” Eduardo del Buey, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in announcing Brahimi's appointment at a New York news conference. "The secretary-general appreciates Mr. Brahimi's willingness to bring his considerable talents and experience to this crucial task for which he will need, and rightly expects, the strong, clear and unified support of the international community, including the Security Council."
Brahimi, a former foreign minister in his native Algeria, has served on some of the United Nations' most challenging missions over the last two decades, including stints as special envoy on Afghanistan before and after the U.S. invasion in the fall of 2001. He oversaw negotiations in Bonn, Germany, that led to the selection of Hamid Karzai as interim president. As special envoy on Iraq, Brahimi helped assemble an interim government to succeed the U.S. occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
As Arab League envoy for Lebanon during that nation's civil war, Brahimi was acquainted with the Assad dynasty that has been in power in Syria for four decades, a connection that may assist in his reviving a diplomatic process widely considered to have failed.
France's U.N. ambassador and current Security Council president, Gerard Araud, told journalists in New York that Brahimi's long contemplation before accepting the job was likely because it's an "impossible mission."
Brahimi is on record, though, as saying that conflicts are man-made problems and are therefore resolvable with the proper will of the parties and the international community.
"I might very well fail, but we sometimes are lucky and we can get a breakthrough," Brahimi told the BBC in an interview from Paris. "These missions have to be undertaken. We have got to try. We have got to see that the Syrian people are not abandoned."
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran U.N. diplomat seen at a 2004 news conference in Baghdad, has accepted the post of special representative of the United Nations and the Arab League. He replaces Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief stepping down at the end of August. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images