The Cable

Syrian Peace Envoy Finally Admits Defeat

In a sign of just how completely the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis have collapsed, joint United Nations and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi handed in his resignation today, expressing sorrow for leaving Syria in "such a bad state."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted Brahimi's resignation, which will go into effect on May 31. Ban also criticized U.N. Security Council members for not doing more to push for a resolution to the conflict, saying that their inability to support Brahimi's efforts "is a failure of all of us."

For over a year, Brahimi had raised the possibility of his resignation whenever the mediation efforts between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition hit a particularly hopeless juncture. "Every time I wake up and I think I should resign, but I haven't," he told reporters in April 2013. In early March of this year, Brahimi again threatened to resign in a meeting with Russian diplomats if Moscow did not exert pressure on the Syrian regime to negotiate seriously.

"I knew it was coming, we all knew it was coming, it was a long time coming," said Ahmad Fawzi, who served as Brahimi's communications advisor on Syria and had worked with the Algerian diplomat for 20 years. "It's been a very long and frustrating road."

While Fawzi praised Brahimi for leading "a master class in conflict management and conflict resolution," he said that there was simply no common ground between the Syrian regime and the opposition on which to forge a deal. "You know the saying: ‘Where there's a will, there's a way?'" he said. "Well, where there's no will, there's no way."

Brahimi's resignation comes amid deepening concern about the fate of Syria. Speaking Tuesday at press breakfast in Washington, DC, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that what started as a "small rebellion of tens of youngsters" in Syria is developed into a wider "international conflict" involving multiple foreign backers.

"The risk is it could keep on during years and years," he said.

France, he noted, has obtained worrying evidence that "hints" at the Syrian government's continued use of chemical weapons, including chlorine, in more than eleven areas across the country. He said French authorities as well as the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, are currently investigating reports of prohibited use of chemicals.

France's top diplomat also accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of assisting the country's purportedly anti-government extremists. "We have proof Bashar al Assad has spared a lot of them, he has freed a lot of them," Fabius said. He also claimed the Syrian government has shared some of the country's oil resources with extremists. 'In fact they are helping each other," he said.

Fabius made clear that despite Syria's actions France has no intention of supplying the opposition with weapons. Paris, he added, is also not considering renewing calls for air strikes against Syria if it tries to preserve remnants of its chemical weapons program.

Last year, the United States put off plans to conduct air strikes against Assad's government in exchange for a commitment by the government to eliminate its chemical weapons program. France was committed to participating in the attack.

But Fabius defended France's less belligerent position on Syria, saying Paris has taken a tougher approach there than its Western allies.

"Who has been the first to say there were chemical weapons in Syria? The French," he said. "Who has been the first to propose a strike. France."

"I would like to say- not being arrogant - that on the field of firmness we don’t have any lessons to take from anybody," he added.

In fact, Fabius, seem to suggest that the situation in Syria might have turned out differently with the use of Wesern firepower. "If there had been a strike on Syria things would have been different, both for Syria and probably to Russia as well," he said.

While Brahimi described his job as "nearly impossible" during the beginning of his mission in 2012, recent developments in Syria likely made it completely impossible. The direct negotiations between the regime and the opposition in Geneva ended in failure in February, leading Brahimi to apologize to the Syrian people for not making more progress. And in the wake of the talks' collapse, the Syrian regime has pushed forward with presidential elections scheduled for June -- a vote that Western nations have denounced as a farce, and Brahimi criticized as undermining the peace process.

"[Brahimi] has always said presidential elections mean the end of Geneva...You cannot discuss a political transition when one side is organizing elections," said one senior diplomat.

As the obstacles piled up, however, the same diplomat said that Brahimi reached for a metaphor in Greek mythology to describe his predicament: "I am ready to push the Sysiphean rock up the hill -- but the problem is I can't even push the rock," he said. "It doesn't move."

Brahimi's public opposition to the Syrian presidential election deepened his rift with the regime. The Syrian Foreign Ministry denounced Brahimi's statement, saying the decision to conduct the election was "a purely sovereign Syrian decision, that it does not allow anyone to interfere in," while Syrian state media added that Brahimi "tends to take sides when he is supposed to be an objective mediator."

Brahimi's contacts within Syria were dealt a serious blow even before that latest dust-up with the resignation of his deputy, Mokhtar Lamani, after the collapse of the Geneva talks. The veteran Moroccan diplomat had run Brahimi's office in Damascus, providing a vital direct channel to both the regime and the rebels. Following his resignation, Lamani, in a conversation with an acquaintance, likened his position to that of a character in an novel by Franz Kafka, describing sitting in the neatly-manicured garden of the Sheraton Damascus Hotel while fielding calls from desperate civilians and political figures fighting for their lives a few miles away. "The absurdities have no end," he said.

With Brahimi's entering his last two weeks on the job, the question occupying the U.N. is what comes next for the diplomatic track. Some European powers have encouraged Ban and Brahimi to put forward their ideas for a political settlement, in an attempt to force the Security Council to adopt the plan.

At the press conference today, Ban made no mention of who Brahimi's successor would be. Some of the names floated so far as replacements include former Tunisian Foreign Minister Kemal Morjane and former British diplomat Michael Williams. If nobody is named in the short-term, Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, and Ban himself will likely manage the Syrian file for the time being.

Whoever the replacement is, they'll have their work cut out for them.

This story has been updated

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

E.U.'s Newest Sanctions Targets: Crimean Firms, Not Russian Ones

European leaders expanded their sanctions against those involved in the unrest in Ukraine Monday, but with a surprising twist: the new targets included Crimean firms, not Russian ones.

European Union foreign ministers voted to freeze the assets of two Crimean oil and gas companies, Chernomorneftegaz and Feodosia, that were expropriated after Crimea was annexed by Russia. One of them, Chernomorneftegaz, the Crimean subsidiary of Ukraine's state-owned oil and gas company, was already blacklisted by the U.S. on April 11.

The EU also went after an array of powerful Russian and Ukrainian figures linked to the ongoing political crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian groups held a controversial referendum Sunday that they said showed broad support for self-rule for the area. On Monday, one of the separatist leaders went even further and said eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region would formally ask to join Russia the way Crimea did earlier this year.

The newly-targeted individuals include Putin's first deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, as well as several Russian officials who had led the successful push to annex the Crimean peninsula. Ukrainian separatist leaders, including the self-declared mayor of Slovyansk, Viacheslav Ponomariov, were also added to the list. Somewhat surprisingly, Denis Pushilin, a prominent separatist and the self-appointed head of the Donetsk People's Republic, wasn't on the list.

"To the extent that the sanctions appear timid they are not having the message in Moscow that they could have," said Steve Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. 

The new sanctions further highlight a divide between the U.S. and Europe over how aggressively to use financial blacklists as a tool to cow Moscow. While President Obama has said the U.S. is ready to impose sanctions against whole sectors of the Russian economy, European leaders have been more reluctant because their countries have lucrative and longstanding business relationships with Russian firms. European leaders have steered clear of the powerful businessmen the U.S. has targeted because of their close relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin and gone after political and military leaders instead.

The foreign ministers, in a joint statement after their meeting in Brussels, condemned Sunday's vote for separation in Donetsk and Luhansk, and said they wouldn't recognized the polls or any other "illegitimate and illegal referenda.'"

"The E.U. is alarmed by the continued efforts by pro-Russian separatists to destabilise Eastern and Southern Ukraine," they said in the statement.

The ministers also warned that further sanctions could come if Moscow meddles in Ukraine's upcoming presidential election on May 25. Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a White House press conference earlier this month to warn that Russian attempts to derail or delay the election would trigger further sanctions, but it's unclear what sort of interference, short of an invasion, would bring the truly punishing measures against Russia's energy or defense sectors that the U.S. has threatened.

Though American and European officials have tried to show a united front against Russia, E.U. leaders have been more hesitant to use the full arsenal of economic tools available. Europe has stronger trade ties with Russia, which could mean that any effort to cut off Moscow could also damage the E.U. member states' fragile economies. While the Obama administration has tried to squeeze businessmen, like Rosneft chief Igor Sechin, who U.S. officials say are close to Putin, the E.U. has steered clear of sanctioning Russian companies and businessmen.

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Europe's economic concerns may be overblown.

"Lots of money will run out of Russia if there are financial sanctions," he said. "The private sector is running away from Russia."

Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty