GENEVA – Lakhdar Brahimi has seen faces like these before, barely able to remain in the same room, much less speak to each other. Lebanese, Afghans, Iraqis, now Syrians. Even, two decades ago, Algerians like himself.
For days now, the veteran U.N. mediator has presided over peace talks intended to lead the way out of Syria's civil war. He brought President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition face to face for the first time on Saturday, while still ensuring that they don't have to enter by the same door or address each other directly. He is 80. He is patient.
"I am often accused of being too slow. But I think that being slow is a better way of going fast than precipitation. If you run, you may gain one hour and lose one week," he told journalists at the end of another long day. "So, we are going slow, and I hope we will continue to go slow."
He speaks deliberately and fluently in French, English and Arabic, often switching among the three. Without a microphone, he would be nearly inaudible. By the end of several days of negotiating in Geneva, the creases in his face seem deeper and he enters the room slowly before easing into a chair. But he inevitably has enough spark left for a gently sarcastic comment or two — just enough to draw laughs.
Brahimi's negotiating style is famous among diplomats. Young ones emulate him, and veterans hope for favorable comparisons.
"One of the keys to his success is that he is I would call strategically patient. And he knows when to be firm, and he knows when to be patient, and he understands the dynamics of peace processes," said Michael Moller, a Danish diplomat who is acting head of the U.N. office in Geneva.
Brahimi has lived through two dark periods in his own homeland of Algeria, during the country's battle for independence from France and later in the 1990s when an estimated 200,000 people died in a civil war between the government and Islamists. Officially retired, he lives much of the time in Paris, where he was educated as a young man.
Outside Algeria, he has been involved in some of the world's most intractable conflicts.
During seven years as undersecretary-general of the Arab League, Brahimi served as the organization's special envoy trying to mediate an end to Lebanon's civil war. There were several failed attempts to end the fighting, he said, but he negotiated a cease-fire on Sept. 24, 1989, that finally held, leading to the Taif agreement that ended the 15-year conflict. He went to South Africa as apartheid ended, ultimately seeing the election of Nelson Mandela.
Brahimi worked in Afghanistan both during and after the Taliban's fall. And, with the support of the second Bush administration, he negotiated an interim government in Iraq after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein. His daughter, Rym, was a CNN correspondent who covered the war until her marriage to a Jordanian prince.
He is also a member of The Elders, the international group of prominent statesmen founded by Mandela.
His work in Afghanistan was not without criticism. The 2001 negotiations in Bonn, Germany, helped solidify the place of warlords in the country's leadership — and allowed them to avoid trial for human rights abuses. Human rights defenders express concerns about that in the current talks.
"We have not seen appropriate emphasis that there will be accountability and Mr. Brahimi's track record in a comparable situation — in Afghanistan — leaves us concerned," said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch. "My point is not that this be the first order of business but rather it be in the room."
Members of the Syrian opposition, who have seen Brahimi every day during the talks, are respectful.
"He is a calm and collected man and he tries to be as just as possible," said Murhaf Joueijati, who was at Monday's session. "He is a man who is doing his job and I think he is doing it well, I do not think he could have done better than he is doing today."
Brahimi came out publicly against a military response to the chemical weapons attack last August that the U.S. and others blamed on Assad, and his ties to Syria's ruling family date to the 1980s.
"Brahimi is a man of consensus. He's a cool, distant man who does not voice his opinions strongly in public," said Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Arab and Mediterranean Studies Center. "Today he finds himself dealing with a crisis which is much graver than the Lebanese war, but the players are almost identical."
He tends to avoid negotiations without strong international backing for his cause, and nowhere is this more true than in Syria, where even the U.S. and Russia — backing opposite sides — are pressuring the antagonists to stick it out in Geneva, whatever the result.
"I think Brahimi and the Geneva conference represent the last life-vest, the last political and diplomatic chance for a solution," said Abidi, "but Brahimi without the help of the Americans and the Russians cannot do much."
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed.