WASHINGTON -- It took barely 10 minutes for things to go wrong at the first meeting between Syrian opposition activists and Lakhdar Brahimi, the new U.N. envoy to Syria, who’s charged with trying to find a way to end the bloody, 18-month-old crisis.
Brahimi had been publicly bleak about such prospects, and one member of the Syrian delegation thought he should see how those low expectations were mirrored by protesters in Syria. She showed him a demonstrator’s sign that read: “Welcome, Mr. Brahimi, to your Mission Impossible. Why didn’t you send us Tom Cruise?”
Brahimi exploded in a tirade accompanied by finger wagging and shushing when she tried to explain, the opposition delegate, Rafif Jouejati, whose father was a longtime Syrian envoy to the United Nations, recalled this week in one of the first descriptions of the meeting, which took place over the weekend on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The exchange chilled the room, she said, and what followed was a tense and unfruitful encounter with a man whose mission she and other activists described as “doomed.”
Syrian delegates who met with Brahimi said they were disappointed to find that the new envoy, who’d served to mixed reviews in similar roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t offer even a hint of a plan for reviving the moribund diplomatic track. Worse, they said, he offended them with what they perceived as his lack of interest in the messages they were trying to relay from ordinary protesters, who were largely off-limits to Brahimi when he visited Syria for a first round of talks with President Bashar Assad and regime diplomats.
“He talked to us as though we were schoolchildren, and we represent people who risk their lives on a daily basis. He owed us a little more respect than that,” said Jouejati, who’s among the activists consulting with the State Department on transition strategies for Syria.
“Even if he’d been pleasant,” she added, “the Arab League and U.N. have had a combined total of three failed initiatives.”
Brahimi’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There’s little debate about whether Brahimi, a former Arab League official who’s also served as the foreign minister of his native Algeria, was the right choice for peace envoy to Syria’s civil war; there simply was no other candidate for the job.
After a frustrated, stymied Kofi Annan resigned the post in August, the U.N. beseeched Brahimi to take perhaps one of the most unenviable jobs in the world: referee among an unorganized armed opposition, a fractious civilian opposition and Assad, whose regime has shown itself to be ruthless. No side has indicated a willingness to negotiate or to respect cease-fire agreements for more than a brief interlude.
Add to the mix 300,000 refugees, a death toll of around 30,000, hundreds of jihadist fighters and five volatile neighboring countries, and it’s easy to see why Brahimi said at the U.N. that there was “no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward.” The situation, he told reporters, “is getting worse and it’s a huge threat to the region.”
That threat to the region already is bearing out, with Turkey on Thursday authorizing the use of military force against Syria in response to an incident Wednesday in which an errant Syrian shell that landed across the border killed five Turkish civilians.