Brahimi: Geneva I Communique was 'superficial'

In the first of a three-part interview with Al-Hayat, former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, talks about the reasons behind the failure of his mission, saying that he faced criticism from both the regime and the opposition.

al-monitor Lakhdar Brahimi attends the annual Munich Security Conference, Jan. 31, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Lukas Barth.

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united states, united nations, syria, russia, lakhdar brahimi, geneva, diplomacy

Jun 26, 2014

I asked Lakhdar Brahimi: "Would it bother you if I asked you about your failure in Syria?" He replied: "Not at all. I failed. The personal issue is not important. What's most dangerous is that the international community has failed to remove Syria from its ordeal, and Syrians also failed to come to an understanding on a formula to stop their country's rush toward 'Somalization' in every sense of the word."

When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took control of Mosul, Brahimi repeated his warnings that the continuation of the conflict in Syria could make the country a threat to its neighbors and even countries further afield. The scene of the Syrian war and its course rekindled the embers of the conflicts in Iraq, and now the Arab world is watching with fear as two maps are torn apart and both coexistence and borders fall.

Neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition liked Brahimi. The regime wanted him to consider what was happening in Syria to be nothing more than a foreign conspiracy; it was not interested in Geneva [talks] or a transitional phase. Meanwhile, the opposition wanted Brahimi to achieve what they were unable to impose on the ground: convincing President Bashar al-Assad to leave or relinquish his powers. Thus, Brahimi faced attacks from multiple directions. 

Brahimi tried to construct an international umbrella over his efforts, but he soon realized that the Geneva I Communique was superficial, and the distance between the the American and the Russian [stances] could not be bridged. He tried to think up a regional umbrella, but discovered the depth of the existing rift. 

He wasn't able to end the conflict, or even decrease the suffering. During his mandate, 138,000 people were killed; towns and villages were destroyed; and millions were displaced both internally and abroad. Perhaps for this reason, Brahimi tried to resign a year ago. However, pressure was exerted on him, so he remained but without actual hope. 

I asked Brahimi about his mission and the difficulties, as well as the meetings he held with those concerned with the file or influencing it. I met with him three times, which allowed for questions about his experience in Iraq and other issues.

Here is the text of the first installment of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  Why did you accept the mission in Syria, which had begun to be described as "nearly impossible"?

Brahimi:  I'm surprised by the position from which you pose such a question. When the mission was proposed to [former UN Envoy] Kofi Annan, he asked for my opinion. I responded to the effect: "Close your eyes and say 'yes.'" The UN cannot resign from its role just because the situation is difficult and complex, or because the risk of failure exists, is large, or likely. Given that I replied to Annan in this way, it seems clear that I should act in the same way when the issue was proposed to me.

Does a person like me have the right to refuse the mission if there is a hope — even if very modest — of helping the Syrian people solve their crisis or reduce their suffering? I was aware that the mission was very difficult and success was in no way guaranteed, but I treated the mission as a duty. The UN cannot and should not turn its back on Syria. This is even more true for the Arab League. When the road is easy and clear there are many people [willing to take on the mission]. Yet when the task is daunting, it must be dealt with as a duty, far removed from concerns of personal failure, media campaigns and fabrications. Given that I was charged with [the mission] by the UN, and I'm an Arab, I could do nothing but try, even though I felt that the issue was not nearly impossible, but rather truly impossible. 

Al-Hayat:  So you felt that the mission was impossible before you began. Why is this?

Brahimi:  [I felt it was] impossible because I had been in contact with Annan throughout the duration of his mission. We met, brainstormed together and were constantly in touch. I was privy to what was going on. It was clear that the regime considered what was happening to be nothing but a foreign conspiracy and that it was its duty to fight it with all means and thwart it. It was also clear that the opposition — along with those who supported it in the region and throughout the world — was insistent on [the belief] that there was no solution other than overthrowing the regime. They opposition would say: "We can't talk to anyone from the regime until after its overthrow." I would respond: "Why would you talk to them if the regime had already fallen?" 

Al-Hayat:  Why did Russia agree to the Geneva Communique? Did it fear the fall of the regime, or did it want to give it a chance to catch its breath?

Brahimi:  This happened during Annan's mission. Only God knows [why Russia agreed]. What's clear is that the text that was issued was discussed very quickly and ended in an agreement. And this was a huge achievement. However, it was mainly a consensual text between the Americans and the Russians, i.e. between [former US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov. 

The first step in the application of this agreement [should have been] to turn it into a decision from the UN Security Council. Here the devil appeared in the details. It became clear that there was a disagreement. For the Americans, it was a foregone conclusion that there was no role for President Assad in the transitional phase. For their part, the Russians said: "We didn't talk about this."

Al-Hayat:  Is it true that this matter had not been discussed?

Brahimi:  I wasn't there. I'll repeat: the text was consensual. And these kinds of texts often contain a measure of uncertainty. With wording, you can justify ambiguity or [prevent] opposition to facilitate the agreement. Yet when it comes to implementation, you have to express your position clearly, because you have to either object or agree.

Al-Hayat:  Can you tell the Arab reader what is the essence of "Geneva"?

Brahimi:  The Geneva I [Communique] was issued on June 30, 2012, and it was an attempt to create a framework for Syrians to agree on a solution to their problem. The terms "with Syrian leadership," "with the approval of the Syrians" and "with the participation of the Syrians" were repeated in the communique, i.e. [there was an emphasis on the fact that] the framework was put in place for Syrians to reach a solution. In parallel, there was a conjecture among the Americans that, after all that had happened, Assad could not lead the transitional phase or have a role in it. As for the Russians, they were saying that this topic [whether or not Assad stayed] should be discussed at its time, i.e. the transitional phase should begin with the regime and opposition sitting down together. The Russians stuck to this rhetoric and said the same thing to the Syrian opposition delegation that visited Moscow before the Geneva II conference. The Russians said to the Syrian opposition: "We'll bring you to the room, and you'll sit with the regime and agree on what you want."

Al-Hayat:  The communique was ratified in the Security Council but "accidentally"?

Brahimi:  Yes. It only passed in the Security Council accidentally, on the occasion of the ratification of Resolution 2118 regarding chemical weapons in Syria. I think that in paragraph 16 [of the resolution], it notes the Security Council's support for the Geneva I Communique. This happened on Sept. 27, 2013, almost 16 months after the birth of the Geneva I Communique. And this gives you an idea of the devils that lie in the details. 

Al-Hayat:  Thus, can we say that when the Geneva I Communique was presented to the Security Council, a difference in calculations appeared between Washington and Moscow, and they were not able to [support] it via a resolution, only for it to be referenced later by accident? 

Brahimi:  This is absolutely true, and it explains a fundamental aspect of the difficulties: a difference in calculations between the United States and Russia. Annan had hoped for a Security Council resolution expressing unified support for the Geneva I Communique, but when this didn't happen it was considered that his mission was practically over. The issuance of [such a] resolution was taken for granted by him, and when it didn't happen during this debate the Americans and Russians discovered that their agreement was superficial. 

Al-Hayat:  Are we to understand that the Geneva I Communique between the Americans and the Russians was consensual and superficial, and ambiguity foiled the transitional phase? 

Brahimi:  Yes, it was consensual and superficial. This meant it was not possible to enter into a transitional phase since there was no agreement on the mechanism of this stage. The Geneva I Communique provided for a cease-fire and the formulation of a transitional governing body with full powers. 

Al-Hayat:  Was the expression "full powers" a consensual formula?

Brahimi:  Yes, the Americans say that this means all executive powers would be with this [transitional] body, and thus President [Assad] does not maintain a role in this stage. They also noted that the powers include overseeing the army, security forces and intelligence. Meanwhile, the Russians say: "We agree to these words, but there is no indication that the president must go. The president is in place until the end of the transitional phase when the Syrians agree on an arrangement themselves, as is the case for the transitional body, which must be formed via consensus." 

Al-Hayat:  Your mission began in the middle of a discrepancy between the Americans and the Russians. 

Brahimi:  Yes. I was appointed at the end of August 2012. The following month I went to the Security Council. 

Al-Hayat:  By the way, who nominated you and was behind your appointment? 

Brahimi:  That's a good question. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon contacted me, and it was he that presented my name to Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, not vice versa. 

Al-Hayat:  Was there anyone competing with you for the position?

Brahimi:  I didn't hear [of any]. Perhaps because there aren't many idiots like me. 

Al-Hayat:  And what is the story behind the Syrian regime's refusal of [deputy UN-Arab envoy] Nasser al-Kidwa? 

Brahimi:  I was appointed and Kidwa remained in his post, because he was working as a deputy under Annan during his mission. The refusal by the Syrians of Kidwa came during the days of Annan. The Syrian government objected to him because he was appointed by the Arab League. They said they had previously worked with him and didn't feel comfortable [with him], and that he never visited Syria. 

Al-Hayat:  Did he have no role?

Brahimi:  No, he had good relations with the opposition and worked within this framework. 

Al-Hayat:  You went to the UN?

Brahimi:  Yes, and I noted the presence of two persons who had a clear interest in the Syrian situation and were worried about its course and consequences, namely Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov. Thus, from the beginning I decided that work should be done with these two, given the importance of the role of their countries and since the differences between the people of the region are very strong in relation to Syria. The rift within Syria was large, too. The regime believes that the crisis is nothing but a foreign conspiracy that it has to confront with all means. The opposition believes that the regime had tortured, killed and destroyed, and the solution begins with its demise. I spent about an hour with Clinton and about 40 minutes with Lavrov. 

Al-Hayat:  What did Clinton want?

Brahimi:  She wanted a solution that would end the conflict. She confirmed that Assad could not continue [as president] or have a role, and that the regime couldn't remain as it was. 

Al-Hayat:  Was she with overthrowing the regime or removing the head of the regime?

Brahimi:  I don't want to speak on her behalf. She was, at the least, intent on there being no role for Assad. For me, it was important that I felt she was interested in Syria and in finding a solution, and that she was searching for a way out from within the red lines drawn for the US position. These lines included the stipulation that there be no role for Assad. 

Al-Hayat:  What resulted from your meeting with Lavrov? 

Brahimi:  [My] first observation was that he knows Syria well. He knows the people and he follows up and reads [about the situation in Syria] a lot. He refers to the relevant persons by name and knows their positions, Hassan Abdel Azim, Ahmad Jarba and others. The second observation was that he is very concerned with the topic. Of course, there is a difference between the readings of Clinton and Lavrov. I felt that my duty was to try and bring the two teams back to the Geneva I Communique and converge viewpoints. I didn't consider it something easy, but there was no other option than trying to obtain a US-Russian umbrella for efforts toward a solution. 

Lavrov and Clinton met during conferences and events and touched on the Syrian issue. I tried to bring them together in a special meeting dedicated to Syria, and we could not do that until Dec. 6, 2012, in Ireland. 

Al-Hayat:  How was the meeting?

Brahimi:  We met and it was a good meeting. A decision was made for the assistants of both [Clinton and Lavrov] to meet in Geneva, and we would meet with both. Thus, William Burns, the No. 2 figure in the US State Department, came to Geneva. As for the Russian side, deputy foreign ministers [Mikhail] Bogdanov and [Gennady] Gatilov came. 

Al-Hayat:  Did Lavrov and Clinton discuss the fate of Assad in Ireland?

Brahimi:  No, and we did not make much progress in the second-rank meetings in Geneva. The reason for this is that every time we tried to take a step forward, we were faced with the issue of the transitional body and full powers, and a dispute would appear between the two teams. On March 6, 2013, the Arab foreign ministers made a decision to give Syria's seat in the Arab League to the opposition until the crisis was resolved and elections were held. I told them: This means you've resolved the issue and my role has ended. I believe this decision made things more complicated and wasn't necessary. I also wonder how compatible it is with the Arab League's charter. 

The horizons were blocked. In April [2014], I went to the secretary-general of the UN and asked to be discharged from my mission, eight months after it began. The secretary-general, along with John Kerry, Lavrov and others, insisted that I continue. Kerry told me: "Can you wait a little bit, I'm going to Moscow and I'll try to get something from them." I was sure that he would not get anything, [but] I agreed. On May 7, a historic meeting was held between him and Lavrov. They agreed that the Syrian crisis was very dangerous and there was no military solution, thus a political solution was needed. [They agreed that] they would work together and with others to reach such a solution. This was a good agreement. I said that day that this is the first good news regarding Syria in a long time. 

Here they said: "Let's search for a way to translate this US-Russian statement." This was followed by meetings, sometimes between Kerry and Lavrov and other times at the level of their assistants. The truth is Kerry was in a hurry and wanted to hold the Geneva II conference as soon as possible. The Russians were pointing out the difficulties. 

Here is an important point when it comes to reading what happened: In 2012, the opposition [was in a good position]. The opposition thought that it would win the battle, to the extent that a TV channel — I think Al Jazeera — spoke about a plane arriving from Venezuela to Damascus airport to transfer Assad and anyone who wanted to go with him. The opposition's morale was high and they felt that they were on the road to a complete victory. In 2013, perhaps after March, the morale of the regime increased and it considered itself the winner because of what it had achieved on the ground. At this point the opposition and parties supporting it felt that Geneva II should be delayed to allow the opposition to adjust the situation on the ground. 

Here a dualism emerged related to the so-called "Arab Spring," which I'd say that most, if not all, people miscalculated. 

Al-Hayat:  How were your meetings with Assad?

Brahimi:  The first meeting was good.

Al-Hayat:  Did he welcome your mission?

Brahimi:  A lot [laughing]. Assad, [Foreign Minister] Walid Moallem and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad used to tell me: "We want to help ensure the success of your mission [laughing]." I would respond: "It's not me who needs to succeed, you need to solve your problem." I imagine that Assad never doubted for a single day that he would be victorious in the end, and that he never once thought about making concessions, especially to the opposition residing abroad that was supported by Western states and [some] states in the region. I don't think he ever thought about conceding anything to them.

Al-Hayat:  Do you mean that he didn't think, not even once, about leaving?

Brahimi:  I feel that he didn't think about this at all. As to whether this was a personal position or rather it came in light of the influence of those around him, I don't know the answer. One day I said to him: "Enough, rather than being the king, why don't you be the 'king-maker'?" I said this to him twice. The first time, he responded: "Why not, I won't stay forever." Yet the second time he said: "I am a Syrian citizens and they are talking about democracy. If I decide to nominate myself [for the presidency] and the people vote for me I will stay, if they don't vote for me I will leave. I am a Syrian citizen and no one can deprive me of my right to nominate myself." 

Al-Hayat:  In which meetings did you discuss the issue of the transitional phase [with Assad]?

Brahimi:  In all the meetings.

Al-Hayat:  What did you suggest to him?

Brahimi:  That he be the "king-maker." This was the most important proposal. Of course, I spoke in a very respectful manner. One time I told him that our countries are in need of change, and our people feel that we have abandoned them and disappointed them. We haven't given them what they expected from us, and thus they are waiting for change. They want to have a say when it comes to managing their affairs. He responded to the effect that he agrees with what I said in general. In November, we talked about the Geneva II conference and he said, "We are ready and we'll go, but if the meeting does not take an explicit and clear decision on the subject of terrorism, it will be useless." Regarding terrorism, he meant that the states neighboring Syria should close their borders and prevent the flow of men and arms. 

Al-Hayat:  How long did the [meeting between the two sides in Geneva] last?

Brahimi:  Not long. The first time less than an hour. The second time was a little longer, about an hour. 

Al-Hayat:  Let's talk about the miscalculations regarding the "Arab Spring." 

Brahimi:  The people considered [former Tunisian President] Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a strong man who had strict security institutions that would arrest those who dared to speak, even in their homes, against the president. They felt that [the outbreak of the Arab Spring] was not a very serious issue, and [just] the story of a man who set himself on fire and the occurrence of some demonstrations. Yet [Ben Ali's regime] fell in less than a month. [Mohamed] Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17 and Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14. 

Then came Egypt. They talked about a state with well-established institutions and the huge size of the security establishment. Hillary Clinton herself said [that former President Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator].

Al-Hayat:  So the Americans did not support ousting Mubarak? 

Brahimi:  No, they did not. Their envoy [former ambassador to Egypt] Frank Wisner said that Mubarak told him that his son's nomination for the presidency was out of the question, and that he would complete his term and not run for a new term. Yet Mubarak fell on Feb. 11, in less than a month. As for [former Libyan President] Moammar Gadhafi, they said that he didn't have a state and army in the conventional sense, and that merely a strike from the French and British would uproot him. Yet he lasted seven months and it cost them a lot. 

When it came to Syria, they said, "This time we won't [make] mistakes and Bashar will fall soon." When Kofi Annan came and spoke about the need to negotiate, the opposition and its supporters were annoyed and wondered what this man wanted. And when I came and spoke about a political solution, they said, "This man is worse than his predecessor. There is someone talking about an attempt to protect Bashar or extend his time in power, and this was not mentioned or proposed in any way. It was clear to us that Syria, after all that happened, was in need of change." They leveled accusations against me, and the Syrian opposition — represented at the time by the National Council — boycotted me. Georges Sabra launched a campaign against Brahimi. A severe form of injustice occurred. I was tasked with a mission based on the Geneva I Communique, and I wasn't an obstacle to any on the ground resolution for this party or that. 

The "hired pens" in the Arab region dealt with me as an enemy. Articles appeared in Turkey, considering any talk about a political solution a form of support for the regime. I don't object to a writer or journalist criticizing me, but on the condition that he or she investigates the facts and reality and doesn't attribute things to me that I do not believe in. The regime, for its part, was not happy about my presence, because it knows the essence of my mission and its writers attacked me. Thus I received [criticism] from both the regime and the opposition. In fact, I expected some Arab media outlets to deal with this particular point with more professionalism. [I expected them] to realize the complexity and balances and not give priority to wishes over facts when talking about what is happening. 

I don't blame the opposition for its feelings of victory in 2012. They had heard from major and important states that the conflict was resolved and the departure of Assad was a sure thing. Therefore the opposition viewed the call to negotiations as an attempt to help the defeated. In 2013, after making advances on the ground, the regime felt that the idea of negotiations was an attempt to help the defeated party. Imagine, an opposition that has resided abroad for years is hearing from major intelligence serves that the Assad regime is close to falling. Do you expect them to deal positively with an invitation to negotiation about the future of the regime in Syria? 

Al-Hayat:  Did you hold talks with a number of heads of states in the region?

Brahimi:  Yes. In November 2012, I was received by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Honestly I can say that my talk with him was excellent. He is a very informed and realistic man. We spent a full hour together. He realized that the opposition was divided and that overcoming this problem was very difficult, if not impossible. I told him that a military solution seemed impossible, and efforts must focus on a political solution. He encouraged me a lot to work in this direction. I found his position to be rational. 

Al-Hayat:  In the summer of 2013, there was a very important turning point. 

Brahimi:  Yes. On Aug. 21, when the issue of chemical weapons in Syria was raised.

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