Some might say that Lakhdar Brahimi is crazy to try to end the Syria conflict, but the veteran troubleshooter says he has never believed there is a war that is too “hopeless” to tackle.
The 78-year-old former Algerian foreign minister, who was a UN envoy in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, is being brought out of retirement again.
He will replace another veteran UN peace envoy, Kofi Annan, in what looks to many to be a hopeless quest to end the slaughter in the war between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Syrian rebels.
Brahimi takes over as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria after Annan, his former boss at the United Nations, quit in bitterness at the lack of international support he said he was given by the divided major powers.
Annan was asked when he resigned whether he doubted the sanity of anyone who took his job. “Let me say that the world is full of crazy people like me, so don’t be surprised if someone else decides to take it on,” Annan replied.
The Algerian diplomat appears to relish such challenges.
“Never in my career have I felt that a situation is hopeless or that change is impossible — despite what other people may have told me,” he once said.
Brahimi cut his diplomatic teeth in Algeria’s war of independence against France from 1954 to 1962. Brahimi left his studies in Paris in 1956 to become the National Liberation Front representative in Southeast Asia.
After independence, Brahimi was Algeria’s ambassador to Britain, Egypt, Sudan, and the Arab League in Cairo.
He first made his name on the international scene in 1989 when, as an Arab League envoy, he brokered an agreement to end Lebanon’s 17-year long civil war. That brought him into close contact with the Syrians he must now try to calm.
Brahimi was Algeria’s foreign minister from 1991 to 1993 and then became a peace-maker for the United Nations in some of the world’s most troubled regions.
He led the UN mission in South Africa during the 1994 elections that brought Nelson Mandela to power. He was sent to help end Yemen’s civil war in 1994, and served as UN special representative in Haiti until 1996. He was later UN envoy in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Sudan, Burundi, Liberia, Nigeria, Angola, Ivory Coast and Afghanistan.
After 9/11, Annan told Brahimi to return to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004 to head the UN mission helping launch the government and rebuild the country.
From there, Brahimi was moved to another country in crisis as Annan’s envoy in Iraq — where sectarian strife was building after the US led invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein.
Brahimi also made his name at the United Nations by leading an inquiry into how to reform UN peacekeeping after its failure to respond to the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and the massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995.
Alongside Annan, Brahimi is a member of the Elders, the statesmen including Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Martti Ahtisaari who attempt to mediate in wars.
“We’re extremely careful not to claim that we’re going to take a problem and solve it. What we’re saying is that from time to time, in certain situations, a problem needs a little push,” Brahimi says on the Elders website.
“Brahimi may be the last person with the courage and the credibility in the Arab world to pull off such a trick, but even with his optimism he knows that this is a desperate situation,” said one Western diplomat.
Brahimi, born on January 1, 1934, studied law and political science in Algeria and France and is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He is married with three children.