West considering new mediator for Syria, as Assad regime teeters
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi floated as replacement for Kofi Annan; radical Islamist groups cut secret agreement to divide up power in the country after Assad falls.
In the absence of a military solution, diplomacy continues to be the international community's main focus in the Syrian crisis. On Saturday U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu discussed setting up a protected military zone in northern Syria. However, the two did not reach any final agreements.
Replacement of former international mediator Kofi Annan with Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. an experienced Algerian diplomat, is also being floated. Despite Annan's dismal failure and his effort to blame Syria, the West has no choice but to give mediation another chance.
The 78-year-old Brahimi, who might be a better choice than Annan, has yet to explicitly accept the mission. Brahimi still wants to know how much room he will have to maneuver, how much international backing he can expect to receive and, most pointedly, what the exact purpose of his mission is meant to be - whether his job is to merely reach a cease-fire or to tap into his expertise in creating new governmental systems.
Brahimi has already worked several diplomatic "miracles." He was extremely successful in managing negotiations between the various factions in Lebanon in 1989. With the support of Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria, he helped bring about an end to the 15-year civil war there. The Taif Agreement, which he helped create, established a new balance of power in Lebanon.
At the time, Brahimi held numerous talks with Hafez al-Assad, and he is well aware of the ins and outs of the Syrian power pyramid. Twelve years later, Brahimi succeeded in brokering an agreement between rival factions in Afghanistan, bringing in Hamid Karzai's temporary government.
Will he accept the current challenge and succeed where Annan failed? It depends on the fatigue of the Syrian government and the backing he receives from China and Russia, and even more so on support from Iran, which is already beginning formulate its relations with a post-Assad Syria.
If Brahimi accepts the job, his first mission will be to unite the opposition groups under a single leadership, a feat which eluded all former mediators including the Turkish foreign minister and intermediaries appointed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Arab League.
The term "Syrian opposition" currently refers to at least 14 civilian groups inside and outside Syria, which define themselves as "revolutionary movements"; some 15 opposition political organizations, mostly operating abroad; and the Free Syrian Army, which includes nine brigades and 10 battalions. Each brigade holds its own district capital, with no common leadership and little coordination to hold them together. This list does not include "private" militias of street gangs, al-Qaida activists who arrived from Iraq or Islamic volunteers and armed militants unaffiliated with any particular organization.
The brigades and battalions fighting within Syria are already forming coalitions aimed at seizing power after Assad's fall. Thus, for example, opposition elements report a secret agreement between six radical Islamic groups - including the Friends of the Prophet Brigade, which is part of the Free Syrian Army fighting in Damascus – bent on creating a religious state in Syria. These sources also point to the immense influence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the opposition leadership abroad, which constitutes more than 10 percent of the National Syrian Council, the largest political opposition body.
Several of the brigades and battalions bear names taken from Muslim history and many of the fighters sport thick beards to indicate their religious affiliations. Any mediator will need to find a common denominator between all these opposition factors, as well as between the religious and secular movements.
This is also the reason the West has so far refrained from directly arming the rebels with heavy weapons - preferring instead to transfer funds for the rebels to purchase arms and bring them in via traditional smuggling routes from Lebanon and Iraq.
The split between the fighting forces hinders not only the Western powers' hopes of formulating a political and military plan, but also poses endless problems to the Syrian regime, which cannot "liquidate the terrorist infrastructure," since this "infrastructure" operates independently in every city and district. While rebel forces can claim successes, even as far as morale is concerned, whenever they kill senior military officials or damage the symbols of power, the regime cannot respond in the same way.
The consequence is that the Syrian army can only continue bombarding populated centers, causing an influx of refugees, while fighting rebel units in dozens of different locations, thus being forced to divide its forces and sustain heavy blows in a war of attrition that could last for months. This situation could actually work in favor of the U.N.'s new mediator, who could exploit the fatigue of both sides and bring about, at the very least, a cease-fire.