Lakhdar Brahimi says he prefers to navigate by sight. By this, he means that to find ways out of war, he looks for a course while talking. It distinguishes his mediating style, those who have worked with him say, and it has worked in his favor in the many conflicts he has mediated on behalf of the United Nations: holding elections in Haiti, forming a government in Iraq, ending a civil war in Lebanon.
His latest mission — starting Syrian peace talks — has proved to be among the most stubborn, and navigation by sight has proved perilous, so far at least.
Those fighting on the battlefield do not seem eager to talk peace, nor do the powerful countries that support them. Scholars of the region say neither the United States nor Russia, nor the regional powers with a direct stake in Syria, can agree on what an acceptable outcome would be — let alone how to get there.
When asked on Friday when he believed peace talks could start, Mr. Brahimi struck a darkly facetious note. “Maybe 2016, isn’t that better?” he said at a news briefing in Damascus, the Syrian capital, before adding, more soberly, “We hope it will take place in the next few weeks, not next year.”
The difficulties aside, he has refused to stop talking about talks. He was due to meet with American and Russian officials on Tuesday in Geneva to discuss how to best persuade the parties to negotiate; that session was to be followed by a meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, then one with four of Syria’s neighbors. It is the diplomatic equivalent of drafting invitations to a party that no one seems keen to attend. Mr. Brahimi insists on the participation of both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of the opposition.
All the while, he has been buffeted by insults and grandstanding. A pro-Assad newspaper criticized him over the weekend as being “one-eyed and many tongued.” The Syrian opposition parties accused him of overstepping his role when he said last month that Mr. Assad’s government should play a role in talks, and then on Sunday they further complicated Mr. Brahimi’s work by insisting that they would talk peace only if Mr. Assad set a deadline to step down, according to Reuters.
A main rebel patron, Saudi Arabia, rebuffed Mr. Brahimi by refusing to meet him during his weeklong visit through the region. As for the United States, it has repeatedly said that it supports Mr. Brahimi, but it has not defended him from attack. On Monday, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said the White House welcomed Mr. Brahimi’s call for “the Assad government to participate” in talks, known as Geneva II, as long as Mr. Assad has no role in a new Syrian government. As one Western diplomat said, “Putting together a peace conference when no one wants one is not very straightforward.”
Those who follow the war in Syria say conditions have not yet ripened for talks, though letting them ripen means letting more Syrians die. The death toll has already surpassed 100,000. An estimated 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes within the country, a substantial jump in recent months, the United Nations said on Monday. Millions more have crowded into neighboring countries.
“Because Brahimi is such a realist, I doubt he thought it was going to get better anytime soon,” said David M. Malone, the rector at United Nations University, a research affiliate of the United Nations, who has known Mr. Brahimi for years. “He is very unsentimental.”
Mr. Brahimi, by all accounts, did not necessarily want the job. He was asked to take it after the first envoy, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, resigned in frustration 15 months ago. One of Mr. Brahimi’s former assistants says he took the job because he knew no one else who would even try. Another said the prospective collapse of a secular, multiethnic Syria pains him. Mr. Brahimi lives in Paris and is equally at home in the West as he is identified as an Arab nationalist. Clearly, peace in Syria is both a legacy issue for Mr. Brahimi, who is nearly 80, and for the world body.
Dr. Malone described him as “a man of principle” who enjoys the trust of both Moscow and Washington. “No other U.N. envoy today enjoys his stature in either of those two capitals,” he said.
Still, others say that both capitals have made it exceedingly difficult for him to get anything done.
Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, blamed the Obama administration for insisting, on the one hand, that Mr. Assad must step down and, on the other, refusing to help the rebels oust him.
“Brahimi is stuck with this two-faced approach,” Mr. Landis said. “He gave it the college try. He did what the Americans wanted, which is to really push for this political solution, but it’s quite clear there is no backing for it either among the Syrian opposition or among Western politicians.”
Mr. Brahimi is best known as Algeria’s former foreign minister. But those who know him say that his role in his country’s independence movement against French colonial rule was equally formative. Mr. Brahimi, as a young man, was responsible for raising international support for the movement.
A former United Nations official who has spoken to Mr. Brahimi recently described him as “his own greatest skeptic.”
“He thinks if talks do happen, it’s by no means assured anything concrete will come out of it,” said the former diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private, adding that he believed that if Geneva II did not happen in the next few weeks, Mr. Brahimi would step down.
He has once before, under somewhat similar circumstances. Mr. Brahimi spent two years, starting in 1997, trying to stanch low-intensity fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan.
He talked to commanders on the ground and every neighboring country that had influence over them before finally resigning in September 1999.
“We kept going around in circles, the fighting continued, and the people of Afghanistan were held hostage to those groups whose interest seemed to be in the continuation of the conflict, not in its solution,” he said in a speech last year. He said he told the Security Council that “I was giving up because I felt I had no real support from them.”