The Middle East Channel

Don’t pretend the U.N. can save Syria

It is time to set Lakhdar Brahimi free. After a year's service as envoy for the United Nations and Arab League to Syria, the veteran Algerian mediator faces the final breakdown of his efforts to end the war. Disillusioned with both the Syrian government and its opponents, he came close to resigning in May. Since then he has hung on, mainly because his departure would look like an admission that a peace deal is impossible. His demeanor suggests that he is painfully conscious of the hopelessness of his situation.

A week ago, with Western military action against Damascus apparently looming after the regime's suspected use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it looked like Brahimi finally had a way out. If the United States and its allies launched missile or air strikes without a U.N. mandate, he could resign with a clear conscience. Yet since Britain balked and U.S. President Barack Obama declared that he would put the issue to Congress, there have been calls for Brahimi to make a last-ditch attempt to show there is still some diplomatic way out of the crisis. 

This weekend, for example, the International Crisis Group argued that the U.N. envoy should make "renewed efforts" to help the United States "optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough." Over the next week, Brahimi and his boss U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are likely to talk a lot about the need for restraint and compromise. But the chances of brokering honest negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels remain remote. It would be foolish, or just dishonest, to claim that Brahimi and Ban as individuals or the U.N. as an institution can overcome the political obstacles that have frustrated multiple mediators since 2011.   

Brahimi has certainly never had much of a chance of forging a peace deal. He was called up to defend the U.N.'s honor after Kofi Annan stood down as Syria envoy in August 2012. He has been frustrated by the obduracy and bloodthirstiness of President Bashar al-Assad and the maneuverings of Assad's opponents in the Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia, which have never had much interest in a compromise peace. His one success was to engineer regular meetings on the crisis between senior Russian and U.S. diplomats, raising hopes for a backroom deal.

By the second quarter of this year, however, he had concluded that he could achieve no more. He was on the verge of resigning in May, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry upset Brahimi's plans with his joint call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a new peace conference in Geneva to follow up on talks in the Swiss city convened by Annan in July 2012. Under pressure from Kerry, Brahimi agreed to stay on to oversee the conference. But with the Syrian government ruling out Assad's resignation and rebel leaders bickering publicly over whether to attend at all, "Geneva 2" has been repeatedly postponed.

Brahimi and Ban Ki-moon have been reduced to a sort of Greek chorus in the Syrian tragedy, sternly cataloging the unfolding horrors of the war and making pleas for peace, yet unable to shape events. The U.N. duo did manage to get some traction last week, warning the West not to take military action without a Security Council mandate and demanding that U.N. weapons inspectors have time to investigate Ghouta properly. While U.S. officials indicated that they did not want to get bogged down in U.N. process issues, their British counterparts felt obliged to float a Security Council resolution approving military action to protect Syrian civilians. While the British were primarily motivated by memories of Iraq and public opposition at home to non-U.N.-mandated action, Ban and Brahimi's calls for caution did feed into debates in London in the run-up to Thursday's parliamentary vote against military engagement.

Nonetheless, Brahimi appears to be fatalistic about the future of his diplomatic process, telling journalists, "the Russians and the Americans are both telling me they remain committed to Geneva 2, but what will happen, I think, we will know only if and when this military action takes place." In reality, the events of the last fortnight have already rendered Brahimi's strategy of trying to build consensus between Russia and the United States over Syria null and void. An eventual U.S. military strike, Lavrov made clear this week, would "push the planned Geneva 2 a long way back or even kill it altogether."

But even if the United States steps back from launching strikes, it will be very hard for Moscow and Washington to agree on any diplomatic alternatives. The Obama administration is out of patience with Russia's obstructionism at the U.N. while President Vladimir Putin has poured scorn on U.S. statements about the Ghouta atrocity. Brahimi's bet that the two powers could eventually be induced to cooperate has decisively failed. The Syrian government, meanwhile, is treating the delay in Western action as a victory -- the idea that Assad's emissaries would negotiate in good faith in Geneva is just not credible.

So what is left for the U.N. to do? One option would be for Brahimi to stand down and Ban to appoint another envoy to inject fresh energy into diplomacy. But this would largely be window-dressing. It is hard to think of any potential envoy who could really make a difference. Since the Syrian conflict has escalated, diplomats have kicked around a range of other names. Former Finnish president, and successful mediator in Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari was one serious early alternative to Annan. But some ambassadors at the U.N. have previously told Ban that it would look farcical to name a third envoy: if the U.N. is to have any further role in peacemaking in Syria, the Secretary-General should lead it himself.

Ban probably doesn't want to do that. He has spoken out strongly against the violence in Syria for two years, infuriating Assad, but engaging directly in negotiations would put his personal credibility at risk. The Secretary-General might prefer to take a higher-profile route, using the upcoming meeting of world leaders for the new session of the U.N. General Assembly (starting September 24) as the basis for a peace conference. There has also been talk of Australia, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month, trying to find common ground between the United States and Russia.

The chances of either the General Assembly or Security Council delivering significant diplomatic dividends are, however, minimal. Putin is not even scheduled to attend the General Assembly. Hawkish Arab leaders, still intent on ousting Assad, may use the assembly as a platform to demand forceful action against Assad, undermining any peace initiatives. While European policy makers still place considerable weight on the Security Council, especially after the British vote, the Obama administration will not wait for a U.N. mandate for military action if it can secure congressional backing.   

Rather than scrabble to pull off an unlikely diplomatic coup, Ban could challenge the United States and Russia -- along with the main Middle Eastern powers -- to find a way out of the impasse they have created. One option would be for Moscow and Washington, and their various European and Arab allies, to send delegations of intelligence and military officials to Geneva for discussions on how to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again. In the short term, it may be easier to make progress on this limited goal than to search for a broader diplomatic breakthrough. In the longer term, if Russia and the United States can find a way to cooperate on the chemical weapons issue, it could allow them to rebuild some of the trust they have lost.

Brahimi could still play a role in convening discussions of this type. But once he has done so, he should be allowed to step away from the Syrian war. He has worked hard to end the war. But if there is no hope of compromise between the United States and Russia, he cannot continue indefinitely. To do so would simply be to nurture false hopes about the vanishingly small prospects for a diplomatic solution on Syria.

Richard Gowan is Research Director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The fragmenting FSA

As the United States moves closer to taking military action against the Syrian government, the leadership of the mainstream armed opposition force has chosen a curious time to appear to be on the verge of unraveling. Known generically as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this assortment of mostly secular defecting Sunni Arab officers and mostly Islamist volunteers has attempted several reorganizations. The most recent of these is now seriously threatened by a resignation threat from senior commanders.

The most durable and potentially promising was the formation of the province-by-province military council (MC) system, formed in late 2011 and early 2012, and then the Supreme Military Council (SMC), established in December 2012. The SMC, whose joint staff is headed by General Salim Idriss, included commanders inside the country as well as exiles and was intended to overcome the gap between commanders on the ground who hold real power and the exiled opposition. 

On August 22, four of the five front commanders threatened to resign from the SMC, promising to break "red lines" and work "with all forces fighting in Syria," a clear reference to the war's growing Salafist-Jihadist contingent. The statement was read by Colonel Fatih Hasun, who is the commander of the SMC's Homs Front and the deputy chief-of-staff, that is to say, Idriss's deputy and the most senior officer inside the country. Hasun added that rebels would no longer respect demands by outside powers that they not attempt to take over government-controlled chemical weapons sites. In addition to demanding action in response to the government's use of chemical weapons in Damascus, Hasun also demanded better weapons and said they were tiring of the "false promises of those who call themselves Friends of Syria."

While the resignation seemed tentative, Hasun was less equivocal about the other red line -- the opposition's Salafist-Jihadist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- both of which the United States has designated as terrorist entities linked to al Qaeda. Directly behind Hasun on the wall was an Islamic flag, with a pre-Assad Syria FSA flag draped to the side, a nod perhaps to the Salafists. Sitting to his right was a bearded cleric in Salafist garb. He directly stated, "we call upon all" FSA units to work with all others fighting the regime. Adding insult to injury, on August 25 Muhammad Tabnaja, field commander in Latakia for the Ahfad al-Faruq Brigade in Latakia, resigned citing the lack of support from the SMC.

The relatively moderate Salafist Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), which is tied to the SMC, also appears to be moving toward the more militant Salafist wing of the opposition, a shift likely caused by the lack of outside support and perhaps also Saudi Arabia's more recent support for the anti-Islamist coup in Egypt. Ahmad Abu Issa al-Shaykh, the head of the SILF, openly defended Jabhat al-Nusra as a legitimate part of the opposition in an interview with Al Jazeera, despite his ideological differences with the group. Zahran Alush is head of the Islam Brigade, the largest SMC-linked unit in Damascus (it controls the area around East Ghouta, site of the recent alleged chemical weapons attack). Alush published an ardently sectarian, anti-Shiite video on July 25, openly welcoming "jihadists from Iraq" and elsewhere, a reference to ISIS. More recently, in late August, Alush openly criticized the SMC through his Twitter account, although he has not formally resigned from it.

The SMC has been something of a shell for months, though, and when opportunities have arisen to make command decisions, it has fallen flat. This became most obvious in early June when the SMC attempted to remove Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaydi, commander of the Aleppo Military Council. Ostensibly the move was because Akaydi shouldn't be both an MC commander and part of the SMC, but the real reason -- according to Akaydi and other rebel leaders -- was because of his intervention against Hezbollah in Qusayr in May. Akaydi left Aleppo to fight in Qusayr and threatened to launch rockets against south Beirut, which upset Lebanese members of the SMC.

Most telling is what happened when the SMC's decision removing Akaydi was announced. Akaydi ignored it, then after brigade-level commanders within the AMC rejected the decision, he did an interview in which he mocked the SMC as made up of people "who are into travel and hotels and have no connection to what is happening on the ground." He did clear Idriss of involvement, however, and Idriss promptly apologized to Akaydi and then traveled to Aleppo to meet with him and praise him.

Coordination with Jihadists groups is not really new. Operationally they have all long coordinated operations against regime forces, and this has grown with time. On August 6, after the rebel takeover of the Menagh air force base in Aleppo, Akaydi stood together with a group of mostly Salafist commanders. After speaking first, Akaydi handed the microphone to the local ISIS commander, Abu Jandal.

Even more embarrassing are major operations in which the jihadists clearly out-organize and out-fight the SMC groups. This happened a few weeks ago in the rebel Latakia offensives, in which the former formed a "Mujahidin Operations Center" and bore the brunt of the battle. SMC rebels also had a presence, and Idriss even visited Latakia on August 11 to show support, but they quickly withdrew leaving jihadists to go head-to-head with Assad's Alawite militia forces there.

Idriss responded to Hasun's threatened resignation by saying he "rejected" it, as if he had the power to do so. More meaningfully, on August 25 Reuters reported a 400-ton arms shipment coming across the Turkish border. Such shipments would need to come regularly, and there have been similar announcements before; on June 21 the SMC's Louai al-Miqdad had trumpeted a similar event as if it would change the course of the fight. Furthermore, Syrian National Coalition (SNC) President Ahmad Jarba is now reportedly trying to form a real "National Army," starting in the south based in Jordan with support from Saudi Arabia. Time will tell if Jarba's new initiative comes to anything, given the failure of past efforts. And since Hasun has not issued any new statements, he may be waiting as well.

As things stand now, in the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour the Salafists and Jihadists dominate and the FSA's military council structure is essentially nonexistent. In Homs, Dara, and Aleppo they are close to parity, with a more modest presence in Damascus, Idlib, and northern Latakia. Were Hasun's announcement to become reality, it would leave the SMC with only a fragment of an organization outside the southern province of Dara, where Southern Command head Bashar al-Zoubi was the only one of the five commanders not to join the statement. Reports of increased weapons shipments through Jordan are probably the best explanation for the difference.

The impending U.S. strikes, depending on their severity, could give the rebels some breathing room. Yet only if the SMC finally develops a functional command structure can it be a credible ally to those whose aid it seeks. Once Assad falls, a new war will immediately start, and the balance of power in that war will depend on whether rebels identifying with mainstream Syrian society can organize themselves now.

Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Uticensis Risk Services (www.uticensis.com), a firm specializing in Arabic-language research. Follow him on Twitter @uticensisrisk.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images