As cluster bombs explode in war-torn Syria, it’s hard to tell what exactly Lakhdar Brahimi is up to.
Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, has been the United Nations special envoy to Syria since August. He took up the mantle from Kofi Annan, who resigned in frustration after being unable to implement a cease-fire or establish a clear path to peace.
Since then, the problem has only become more intractable. For 19 months, bands of rebel fighters (mostly Sunni Muslims) have been fighting to overthrow the Alawite (an offshoot of Shi’a Islam) regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime’s formidable army and vast store of weapons have kept it in power despite frequent defections and near-universal international condemnation.
It is now Brahimi’s job to cajole both sides into a fruitful dialogue, a monumental task considering the disorganized, disconnected nature of the opposition forces and Assad’s insistence on treating the rebels as "terrorists."
Internationally, too, the situation is sticky. United Nations action against the Assad regime has been hobbled by dissenting votes from Russia and China in the Security Council. Outside the U.N., Western military superpowers like the United States are unwilling to intervene after more than a decade of demoralizing warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During Monday's debate, Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama both condemned Assad but rejected the idea of military involvement in Syria.
In the middle of the morass is Brahimi, a bespectacled grandfather who spoke at length with Kofi Annan as he prepared to accept what may well be the world’s most difficult job.
“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently from [Annan],” he said in a September interview with the BBC. “I’m 78 years old, coming into this with my eyes open, with no illusions that it is going to be easy.”
Brahimi’s most recent proposition is an unmonitored cease-fire -- self-imposed on both sides -- during Eid al-Adha, a holy Islamic holiday that begins Thursday and typically lasts for three days.
Brahimi has already traveled extensively to discuss the plan with diplomats from Turkey, Jordan and the Arab League, all of which support the Syrian rebel movement, and Iran, which backs the Assad regime. All have conveyed their support for the cease-fire.
The U.N. envoy then went to Syria, meeting with opposition fighters as well as President Assad. Both sides expressed guarded amenability to the idea.
Brahimi is careful to note that the Eid cease-fire is not part of an official plan for peace -- only a respite that might help to move things along.
“I'll come back after the Eid. If there was calm during it, we would build on it, and even if there wasn't, we would work to realize [peace],” he said at a press conference after meeting with Assad on Sunday.
Brahimi and his colleagues at the U.N. have been keeping mum about broader plans as they investigate various possibilities.
One potential initiative was the establishment of a peacekeeping force involving 3,000 troops from several Western nations, not including the U.S. or UK. The Telegraph reported in mid-October that those plans were in effect, but a spokesman for Brahimi flatly denied it days later.
New reports indicate that the outcome of the Eid cease-fire may dictate the next steps in Syria. The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations told Brahimi that it would be possible to send 3,000 monitors to Syria if the self-monitored cease-fire got off to a good start, according to Reuters.
That’s a big "if." Annan’s own effort to implement a cease-fire -- even with monitors on hand from the very beginning -- failed before it began. And unless Brahimi has some tricks up his sleeve, there’s a good chance this one will too.
Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the devastating violence that threatens to upend the entire region. What began as an anti-government protest in a fairly stable society has morphed into a religious and sectarian conflict, drawing surrounding countries -- Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq -- into the fray. Radical extremists are increasingly infiltrating the rebellion, muddling prospects for a peace in post-Assad Syria.
Above all, the death toll is mounting.
Opposition groups like the highly cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, or SOHR, estimate that more than 30,000 people have died as a result of the conflict -- more than 50 people every day since March 15, 2011. But a neat average is deceiving, since the carnage has worsened considerably in recent months. Now, SOHR reports that the number of people killed daily often reaches 200.
The organization also claims that most of the dead are civilians, a viable assertion since the regime targets sympathizers as well as militants and uses indiscriminate air strikes and cluster bombs for blanket attacks.
To keep the true cost of the conflict in focus, SOHR keeps lists of the deceased on its website. The details include names, dates, towns and sometimes neighborhoods. Where possible, side notes are added.
Ghiyath Matar, from a suburb of Damascus, was “a peaceful activist, married, and his baby was born after he died under torture.”
Mohammad Monsour Khaled Al- Wahsh “was wounded when taking humanitarian aid to his town Talbeesah and then detained and later given to his family with torture marks.”
Nasir al-Sabe was from Homs. “From the Alawite sect,” says his note. “16 years old.”
All of those deaths occurred last year, well before the violence reached its bloodiest levels. It is no surprise that Brahimi, as he was gearing up in September to pore over solutions to Syria’s catastrophe, admitted fear in the face of adversity.
“I’m scared of the weight of the responsibility,” he told the BBC.
“People are already saying, ‘People are dying. What are you doing to help?’ And indeed we are not doing much. That in itself is a terrible weight. I realize the importance and the difficulty of the responsibility. This is I think what being scared means.”