UN Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi likely to step down; successor sought

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 2, 2014 

Switzerland US Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi for a bilateral meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, April 17, 2014

JIM BOURG — AP

— The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is likely to step down this month and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has begun the search for a successor, according to senior Western, Middle Eastern and U.N. diplomatic officials.

The officials blamed Brahimi’s decision to resign on the frustration at the languishing peace talks between the warring sides after the collapse of negotiations in February, as well as Brahimi’s age. The Algerian diplomat is 80.

“No decision has been taken, but he had already expressed his desire to step down for quite some time,” said a senior U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Brahimi’s tenure.

Brahimi met Friday in New York with Ban and was slated to brief the U.N. Security Council on May 13, U.N. officials said.

“He’s serious this time, but he has to talk to the secretary-general,” said a top Western envoy close to Brahimi. Said another, “He’s 80, feels tired, and for health reasons, feels he has to quit.”

Possible successors include Michael Williams, a British national and former U.N. envoy in Lebanon; Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister; Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary-general and European Union high representative; and Kamel Morjane, a former Tunisian foreign and defense minister.

Some of the diplomats said Morjane is the front-runner for the post because he comes from the Middle East and speaks Arabic.

Morjane, a former U.N. assistant high commissioner for refugees and special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helped defuse tensions between the United States and the European Union over a politically charged trade dispute over bananas at the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s.

With the warring Syrian sides deadlocked in a bloody war of attrition that has uprooted millions from their homes and claimed more than 150,000 lives, Brahimi has been unable to find a way to bring the warring sides together after two rounds of talks in Geneva. A former foreign minister of Algeria, he apologized to the Syrian people for the lack of movement after he adjourned the talks in mid-February.

“We haven’t helped them very much,” he said.

Brahimi’s Syria stint has drawn criticism from many sides, with some Western envoys voicing disappointment that he hasn’t pushed for a bigger role for women in the peace effort while the opposition has accused him of not being critical enough of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He was said to have had good chemistry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a good rapport with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, but the Ukrainian crisis and tensions between Moscow and Washington sidelined his efforts, despite his reputation as “a superb diplomatic troubleshooter,” in the words of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi in the Syria post.

A senior U.S. official, who has spent many hours with Brahimi in the search for a peace accord, told a group of reporters recently, “He’s really extraordinary. He is one of the quickest minds I know. He remembers every detail. He remembers every date. He sees and hears everything going on in the room.” The official spoke anonymously under the conditions of the briefing.

Brahimi first appeared on the global diplomatic stage during Algeria’s struggle for independence from France as the representative of Algeria’s National Liberation Front in Southeast Asia, based in Indonesia, from 1956 to 1961.

In 1963, the first president of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, appointed Brahimi, 29 at the time, to be ambassador to Egypt and the Sudan and as Algeria’s permanent representative to the Arab League in Cairo. In 1989, it was Brahimi, then undersecretary-general of the Arab League, who brokered a cease-fire among Syria, the Lebanese army and the Christian Lebanese forces of Gen. Michel Aoun that ended the Lebanese civil war.

Moncef Khane, Brahimi’s chief of staff, said Brahimi has a reputation for always being composed.

“He levels with people, but he’s not a man who likes to argue, he’s not confrontational, it’s not his style,” he said. “He can take a punch and he can hold his punches, he’s always composed.”

He also does not require briefs from his staff, Khane said, adding, “He knows what he wants to say, and what he does not want to say.”

Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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