Lakhdar Brahimi, the man who took over from Kofi Annan in August envoy to the Syrian crisis on behalf of the Arab League and the United Nations, never had much of a plan to jumpstart the type of diplomacy that is essential to ending the conflict. That is not entirely his fault. No matter how hard he might work, he cannot initiate peace talks when both sides are actively seeking the other’s destruction. Even for someone like Brahimi, who has been a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter for over fifty years, the civil war in Syria is a problem that many of his colleagues worldwide akin to mission impossible.
Just because resolving the war is hard does not mean that Brahimi has given up. Indeed, after spending weeks circulating around the Middle East for meetings and consultations, he managed to broker a short-term, tentative ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha which ends this Monday.
After receiving the formal plan from the envoy, the Syrian government stated that it would be willing to adhere to its demands, as long as the armed opposition, which the regime has consistently referred to as “terrorists,” does not use the calm to ambush its soldiers or resupply its men.
Brahimi’s initiative, however, is not really a ceasefire in the traditional sense of the word. With an opposition that lacks a strict and centralized chain of command and a regime that has a poor record of keeping its promises, the proposal is more like a general, ad hoc respite from the fighting than a hard-pressed, ironclad peace agreement.
It took only a few hours for violations to occur. By the end of the first day of the truce, activists reported a death toll of forty to as high as seventy, half of what the daily toll has been for the past few months but far from indicative of a ceasefire.
Violations are unfortunate but they are almost to be expected. The conflict in Syria has reached such a heightened level of violence that most of the parties engaged in the fighting are more intent on winning outright than negotiating. The Assad regime has shown no inclination that it is willing to talk with it opponents, despite the urgent calls of United Nations officials and Arab governments that dialogue is the only way that the war can end without violence spilling over Syria’s borders. The Syrian National Council has softened its negotiating position as of late but the conditions that it continues to put forth are still too stringent from Bashar al-Assad’s perspective.
The rebels, in the meantime, are far more interested in getting rid of the regime by force than sitting down with a president they think of as bloodthirsty and ruthless. With tens of thousands of lives already lost, Free Syrian Army rebel commanders are not about to cast away the sacrifices that have been made by opening up discussions with a government discredited in much of the world.
This is why Brahimi’s ceasefire, while noble, is not likely to lead to any substantial political settlement. You cannot lay the groundwork for negotiations if the people who matter consider talking a sign of weakness and surrender.