When veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi took over as the UN’s Syria envoy on August 12th, 2012, the conflict’s death toll stood atan estimated 26,000, and there werefewerthan a quarter-million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries.
The moderate and largely secularist Free Syrian Army’s collapse was months away, as was the decisive Battle of Qusayr, which turned the tide of the war in Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s favour — perhaps permanently.
President Barack Obama would first speak of his administration’s chemical weapons “red line” eight days after Brahimi succeeded former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, but the chemical attack on the Damascus neighbourhood of Ghouta, which killed an estimated 1,400 people, was still a year off. Also in the future: two fruitless peace conferences in Geneva, Al Qaeda’s banishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from its network, and the UN’s January announcement that it would stop updating its count of the number of people killed in Syria, at 100,000.
Syria’s conflict became more complex and more violent during Brahimi’s tenure, the perhaps-inevitable result of a situation in which no side seems capable of completely defeating the other. Eastern and northern Syria are the domain of radical jihadist groups — as terrorism analyst Shiraz Maher pointed out, ISIS now controls more territory than the governments of Israel and Lebanon.
The Assad regime has received consistent support from Iran, which can send resupply flights over Iraqi airspace with minimal fear of harassment; the regime’s recent victories over the armed opposition, as well as the end to any real possibility of NATO or U.S. military intervention, have given Assad little reason to seriously negotiate. Brahimi served as envoy during a period when the dynamics of the conflict made a peaceful solution less and less likely.
This didn’t stop Brahimi for taking at least some responsibility for the failure of the peace process. In February, when the second Geneva conference ended with no tangible progress — as many as 6,000 Syrians were killed during the three weeks of negotiations — Brahimi made an extraordinary show of contrition.
“I am very, very sorry, and I apologise to the Syrian people,” he told journalists, according to Reuters. “Their hopes … were very, very high here, that something will happen here.” Brahimi’s tenure as UN envoy was fruitless, but significant nevertheless: it only proves that after three years of war, the resolution to Syria’s conflict is beyond the abilities of even the most experienced and personally-invested diplomat.
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