In contrast to his high-profile predecessor, Kofi Annan, the former Algerian diplomat and U.N. diplomatic troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi has sought to fly below the radar, resisting pressure to put down a peace plan that bears his own name.
But the next few days will provide the first real test of Brahimi's diplomatic skills, and whether several weeks of low key diplomacy, including a Damascus meeting earlier this month with President Bashar al-Assad, has borne fruit.
Assad has pledged to observe Brahimi's call for a cease-fire beginning Friday, the first day of Eid el-Adha, the Muslim Day of Sacrifice. In Damascus, Syrian state television broadcast a statement from the Syrian Armed Forces saying that military operations would cease in Syria from October 26 to October 29, but that "Syrian Armed Forces will, however, reserve the right to reply to terrorists attacks, attempts of armed groups to reinforce or re-supply, or attempts to infiltrate from neighboring countries
The Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups have also assured Brahimi that they would reciprocate if the Syrian military stops shelling them.
Still, there was little confidence in Washington and New York that Brahimi's cease-fire initiative would stem the bloodshed, which has left more than 30,000 dead, driven more than 350,000 Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, and placed more than 3 million people in need of outside assistance.
"Regime atrocities -- aerial bombardments, cluster bombs, shelling -- are mounting in Syria and threatening the security of the entire region," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted yesterday. "Many are duly skeptical about the prospects for even a temporary cease-fire, given Assad's record of broken promises."
In a sense, Brahimi's challenge is to reverse the conventional narrative on Syria: that the country's descent into a sectarian civil war is irreversible and that the only hope is to pick a favorite and hope they prevail.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has urged the rebels' backers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to withhold support for a military overthrow of Assad's regime, arguing that only an orderly political transition will save the region from a bloody descent into chaos.
Next week, Brahimi will travel to Moscow -- Syria's chief military and political ally -- and then on to Beijing to urge the pro-Syrian powers to convince Assad that he cannot survive in power and must accept a real political transition.
"The military approach pursued by both sides will bring no winner," Brahimi warned the 15-nation Security Council in a closed-door briefing on Wednesday, according to a council member who attended the meeting. "I need your unambiguous and unanimous support, or it worsens and spreads. Any plan that doesn't enjoy UNSC support is a prescription for failure."
Brahimi's cease-fire proposal is a small first step in broader plan for a political transition that is beginning to gradually take shape. Earlier this week, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous announced that the U.N. is beginning contingency plans for a peacekeeping mission in Syria that could be deployed in the event that warring parties agree on a cease-fire -- backed by a political transitional plan. Those plans, which would require approval by the Syrian combatants and the Security Council, would envision of a force of some 3,000 blue helmets.
"While staying below the radar, Brahimi has started to sketch out a longer-term peace plan, which may involve sending in a new UN monitoring force to oversee a fuller ceasefire," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation. "But that will only work if the Syrian army and the rebels believe that the other side will genuinely halt hostilities. This 'practice cease-fire' is basically an initial test of both sides' credibility.... The cease-fire proposal is a fairly low-risk gambit by Brahimi. If it succeeds, he gains extra credibility as mediator. If it fails, it probably won't do major damage to his position."
Brahimi has sought to dampen expectations, describing the cease-fire as a "modest" initiative aimed at easing the delivery of humanitarian assistance and hopefully leading to a more sustained cease fire that could pave the way for a political transition.
"He was not overly confident," said one U.N. diplomat. "He said ‘I can't be certain this pause will be effective: there is a lot of distrust between the parties. The hope is that the cease-fire can create some breathing space and pressure that could lead you down the road towards a more lasting cease-fire linked to a political process.'"
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.