When word first circulated that Lakhdar Brahimi was going to succeed Kofi Annan as the join Arab League/UN envoy for Syria, I was skeptical of his chances for success. This is nothing against the abilities of Brahimi, who has had a storied career as a diplomat and peacemaker in some of the thorniest situations. Rather, the problem is structural.
Brahimi has no power of his own. His ability to coerce, cajole and otherwise compel Bashar al Assad to the negotiating table is ultimately derived from the Security Council. The Council, though, remains hopelessly divided on Syria with the western powers pushing for Assad’s ouster, and Russia steadfastly in his corner. Without unity of the Council, Brahimi’s job was all but impossible. Assad could ignore Brahimi’s entreaties without fear of repercussion from the Council.
Now, Brahimi is on the way out. The question is: should Ban Ki Moon and the Arab League appoint a replacement? I’m not sure what good that will do at this point. The political process will remain stalled so long as the Security Council is divided. A new joint special envoy could provide a figleaf of a political peace process, but that is it. There is precious little a new envoy can accomplish until the western powers, Russia and China get on the same page.
If the broader diplomatic dynamic changes in some way (specifically, if Russia decides it’s time to lean on Assad) then there might be space for a chief international negotiator to work. For now, that does not look like it will happen anytime soon.