By Oliver Miles
The new UN and Arab League representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP
The new UN and Arab League representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Monday that he is standing in front of a brick wall, that he can see no cracks in it at present, and that he is frightened of the weight of responsibility placed upon him – people are being killed, and "we are not doing much", he told the BBC. So what is the point? Can he possibly succeed where his predecessor, Kofi Annan, failed?
First, the Algerian is by far the best man for the job (except perhaps because of his age – he is 78). His experience in international affairs is extraordinary. When I first met him 30 years ago he already had 16 years as ambassador of his country, including eight in London, where he was considered an outstanding success.
Since then he has held many Algerian, Arab League and UN appointments including a key role as Arab League special envoy to Lebanon when he crafted the Taif agreement of 1989 which was the beginning of the end of the 15-year civil war. As UN representative in Iraq in 2004 following the American invasion, his proposals on the formation of an Iraqi government were ignored by the Americans with tragic results. His peacemaking and peacekeeping appointments for the UN also included South Africa, Haiti, Burundi and Afghanistan.
In retrospect it is clear that Annan's high international profile as former UN secretary-general raised expectations which could not be met. Brahimi raises no such expectations because he is less well-known and because of his modest personal style, as exemplified by his BBC interview. But he knows the protagonists in the Syrian crisis as well or better than Annan, and he has the advantage of being an Arab – from far-away Algeria, therefore not automatically seen as taking sides.
But what about the brick wall? What can he actually do? So long as the Syrians are determined to go on fighting, the fact – however unpalatable – is that nobody can stop them. But it is also a fact that even civil wars come to an end, either because the bloodletting goes on until one side or both can fight no longer, or because the parties realise in time that they cannot achieve a military solution and must compromise.
The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, is an example. Lebanon is of course Syria's neighbour and the two countries have much in common, although the Lebanon war was a very different story. A feature of that war was countless ceasefires, broken countless times; the lesson to be drawn is not that ceasefires are useless, but that eventually the firing stopped. Peacemaking paid off.
Internally, there are some signs that both the Syrian government and the rebels may have begun to realise that military victory is not to hand. Externally, President Morsi of Egypt has proposed a Syria contact group made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. This could be important because it suggests that Egypt may be ready to resume its role as an important regional power, and also because it shows that the concept of a threatening Shia crescent and implacable hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims is largely spurious.
There will be no quick results, and impatient commentators will argue that the role of the international envoy is useless. Let us hope that the UN's security council powers and the Arab League will take the long view.
So far, unfortunately – apart from the appointment of Annan and now Brahimi – they have shown no sign of a will to work together, and Annan was right to accuse them of "finger-pointing". It is disgraceful that the west on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, concentrate on accusing each other of arming the parties in Syria, rather than on working together to stop arms getting through to either side – not that a civil war has ever ended because of a shortage of guns.
Eventually there will be a "crack in the wall", a chance of peace. Brahimi is our eyes and ears to spot it when it comes.
-This commentary was published first in The Guardian on 03/09/2012
-Oliver Miles is a retired diplomat and the chairman of MEC International