Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is no stranger to difficult missions. During his long and colourful career the 74-year-old has served as a special UN envoy to conflict-ridden countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. But now he has accepted the incredible challenge of seeking a political settlement to the 17-month-long Syrian crisis, which has turned into a bloody civil war and has so far claimed the lives of more than 20,000 victims. He replaces former special envoy Kofi Annan who has admitted defeat blaming divisions in the UN Security Council.

Brahimi’s mission will possibly meet a similar fate unless he can achieve concord on the Syrian issue in the Security Council. While Russia welcomed Brahimi’s appointment, Washington’s reaction was cool with the White House saying it would seek clarifications on the terms of his mandate.

But how can Brahimi succeed when the task before him appears ever more difficult? He knows that stopping the civil war in Syria will require more than good will on the part of those involved. But even that is missing.

Since Annan admitted defeat the conflict has spiralled into a brutal military confrontation with the regime of President Bashar Assad deploying its arsenal of fighter jets and ground forces to bomb rebellious cities and villages all over the country. On the other hand, the rebels have put up a stern resistance in Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, in the north and in other besieged cities like Homs and Hama. They now have access to weapons including anti-aircraft guns.

No one is talking about implementing Annan’s six-point plan anymore. The regime is engaged in a life or death fight and is bent on ending the uprising through force. It has suffered politically in the past weeks with the defection of senior figures including a prime minister and top ranking generals. But so far that has not affected the resolve of the Syrian Army or the integrity of the political and military structures of the regime despite daily defections.

The opposition fighters, fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have “liberated” large areas, especially in the north and east of the country.

According to defecting Prime Minister Riyad Hijab the regime has lost control over two thirds of the country. But that is not to say that the fighters are close to their goal of toppling Bashar Assad or overtaking Damascus. Brahimi will have to pick up from where his predecessor has left. The solution to the Syrian crisis will not be found in Damascus or in the meeting rooms of the Syrian National Council (SNC), but in the capitals of countries that are directly involved on both sides of the conflict. The internationalisation of the crisis has greatly complicated things for intermediaries. Brahimi will have to solicit the help of decision makers in Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh and Doha. He will have to talk to the Chinese and convince the Russians to end their opposition to a stern international warning to President Assad that could pave the way for military intervention. On the other hand, Brahimi must tell the backers of the opposition that a military solution will not work in Syria and that civilians are paying a high price.

With the departure of international observers from Syria this week, after a 120-day failed mission, the special joint UN-Arab League envoy has less influence on the day-to-day progress of the conflict. In addition he has to keep an eye on the mounting humanitarian crisis which has resulted in over 200,000 displaced Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, and over a million inside the country. He will have to find ways to convince Damascus to allow international aid and humanitarian help to reach hundreds of thousands of needy citizens all over the country.

But finding a political solution to end the civil war there will be his toughest challenge. He has already been criticized by the opposition for his ambiguous stand on Assad’s departure. This is a key demand by the rebels and their supporters, one which Moscow and Beijing reject overwhelmingly.

Brahimi opposes direct military intervention in Syria, which does not endear him to Washington. While in Turkey last week US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up her country’s position by saying: “We are continuing to increase pressure from the outside. Our number-one goal is to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime.” A possible game changer could be the imposition of a no-fly zone along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan.

Chances are that Brahimi’s mission will be doomed from the start. It is unlikely that he will be able to break the political stalemate at a time when Washington and Moscow are engaged in reckless brinkmanship.

He will head to the Security Council one more time, but there are no signs that the position of the superpowers will change this time around. Without a unified Security Council behind him Brahimi’s task looks daunting at best. His track record proves that he speaks his mind even if that angers the great powers. He did it in Iraq before when he criticized Iraq’s post-invasion administrator Paul Bremer. At his age and with the respected international standing he holds, Brahimi has nothing to lose by being bold.

As the civil/sectarian war rages on in Syria, the new international envoy can do little to stop the daily carnage. The conflict will go on so long as the combatants can rely on outside military support. There are no signs that this sad reality will end soon.                        –Arab News