LONDON: Implementing a mission that is “nearly impossible” is not a routine challenge — even for Lakhdar Brahimi. The new UN envoy to Syria has tackled some of the world’s most intractable conflicts in half a century as a diplomat. But Brahimi, replacing the outgoing emissary Kofi Annan, admitted on Monday that he felt the “terrible weight” of his appointment.

Unlike Annan, he has not said explicitly that President Bashar al-Assad will have to step down. Like his predecessor he will have to manoeuvre around bitter divisions within the UN Security Council and the apparently unbridgeable gap between the Syrian government and the opposition after 18 months of bloodshed in which some 20,000 people have died.

“I know how difficult it is — how nearly impossible. I can't say impossible — nearly impossible,” Brahimi told the BBC. “And indeed we are not doing much.”

Now 78, the Algerian official began his career representing the rebel FLN during its independence struggle against France. After 1962 he served as ambassador to Egypt and Britain. Later he was deputy head of the Arab League and its envoy to Lebanon towards the end of its 15-year civil war where he had to deal with “a lot of very bad characters” — an experience some believe may stand him in good stead in neighbouring Syria. He was Algeria’s foreign minister from 1991 to 1993.

In 2001 he was appointed UN special representative for Afghanistan and chaired the Bonn conference, famously forcing delegates to stay up all night until they reached agreement. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s UN envoy, said of Brahimi: “There is huge respect in the UN system for his experience, his political and diplomatic judgment and his subtlety in getting through the rocks in an extremely difficult subject.”

Three years later Annan sent him to Iraq to oversee the transition from the US-appointed governing council to a transitional government.

Brahimi attacked the US siege of Falluja, attracting smears — from Iraqi Shias as a Sunni, and from Americans who argued that as a former member of Algeria's governing elite, Brahimi was too wedded to the Arab world's authoritarian political culture.

Earlier he served as UN special representative to Haiti and to South Africa, building his reputation as a “national treasure” of the world body. Brahimi is also a member of the Elders group, along with Annan and Nelson Mandela.

Brahimi is seen as a mediator of extraordinary depth and experience with what the author Harriet Martin calls a “chiselled charm and patrician manners”. But his advantages are national too: Algeria was a pillar of the non-aligned movement and well-placed to act as a go-between between north and south.

It was instrumental in negotiating the release of the US hostages held in Iran in 1980. In the 1990s it experienced its own bloody civil war after the military tried to crush Islamists.

Acquaintances say he is a patient man and without illusions. “He has acquired the unique talent of a man who sees a glimmer of hope in the darkest situation and where others do not,” said the Egyptian journalist Ayman al-Amir. “In accepting the assignment, he must have seen a chance that is worth exploring.”

Brahimi, who like Annan will also represent the Arab League, said he felt as if he was “standing in front of a brick wall”, looking for “cracks” that may yield a solution. “I'm coming into this job with my eyes open, and no illusions that it is going to be easy,” he told the BBC. “It’s a duty to try.”

Brahimi is expected in Damascus soon. But the government there made clear on Monday how it saw the situation. “The conditions for success for Lakhdar Brahimi in his mission is for specific countries — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — to announce their commitment to the [UN’s] six-point plan and completely stop sending weapons [to rebels] and close borders to fighters and close training camps,” said Assad’s information minister, Omran Zoabi.

Reflecting on the Syrian crisis when his appointment was announced, Brahimi said: “Civil war is the cruellest kind of conflict, when a neighbour kills his neighbour and sometimes his brother. What’s necessary is to stop the civil war and that is not going to be easy.”

By arrangement with the Guardian

Updated Sep 04, 2012 09:23pm

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