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United Nation's Role In Syria To Change


The United Nations role in Syria is changing and so too is its personnel. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is expected to tap a veteran U.N. troubleshooter to take over from International Envoy Kofi Annan. At the same time, U.N. military observers are wrapping up their mission. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the latest.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: By next week, all of the unarmed U.N. military observers will be out of Syria. A top U.N. peacekeeping official, Edmond Mulet, says the idea now is to have about 20 or 30 military advisors, human rights and aid experts set up an office in Damascus. But a big diplomatic push seems far out of reach.

EDMOND MULET: It is clear that both sides have chosen the path of war, open conflict, and the space for political dialogue and cessation of hostilities and mediation is very, very reduced at this point. But that doesn't mean we should not be engaged in that.

KELEMEN: When Kofi Annan told reporters he was resigning as envoy, he complained about the finger pointing in the U.N. Security Council. French ambassador, Gerard Araud, says the council is still divided and the international envoy's job seems impossible. But he too says it's needed.

AMBASSADOR GERARD ARAUD: We need to have somebody who could be available if there is any prospect of launching a political process. But, of course, it's a tough job.

KELEMEN: It's a job Lakhdar Brahimi has been hesitant to accept, though diplomats say the job is his if he wants it. The former Algerian foreign minister is a longtime U.N. troubleshooter. He helped broker the Lebanon peace accord and helped Afghanistan stand up a new government after the Taliban was ousted. Brahimi was tapped to do the same in Iraq. James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation says the U.S. was fighting insurgencies at the time and begged for the U.N.'s help.

JAMES DOBBINS: And Brahimi was successful in pulling together an interim government that had more credibility than one would if it had been selected purely by the United States.

KELEMEN: Dobbins says Brahimi is widely respected and would be a competent administrator of whatever the U.N. actually tries to do in Syria.

DOBBINS: He's a very sagacious person. He tends to shun the limelight, and he's always open to thoughtful argument. He's not an ideologue. He's a supreme pragmatist.

KELEMEN: And he's well liked in Washington, where he was given an award last year by the Middle East Institute.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: What I have learned in that business, is that there are two things that are important. One is understanding. The other one is humility.

KELEMEN: Brahimi joked about how proud he felt after calming tensions between Iran and Afghanistan back in 1998. A couple of years later he got a letter from the man who was interpreting a key meeting with Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

BRAHIMI: Some of the things you said may have angered Mullah Mohamed Omar, so I didn't translate them.


BRAHIMI: And some of the things Mullah Mohamed Omar, I thought would have angered you too.


BRAHIMI: So I didn't translate those either. I wouldn't have deserved an award for that.

KELEMEN: The 78-year-old Arab diplomat would need no translation in Syria. But he does want a more united international front. In a statement last week, Brahimi said millions of Syrians are clamoring for peace, adding world leaders cannot remain divided any longer, over and above their cries.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.