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Former U.N. Envoy To Syria: Iran Has 'Too Much Influence In The Region'

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's a job not many could imagine taking on - being in charge of ending the civil war in Syria. Until about a year ago, that was the job of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. For 21 months, he's served as the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria. He spoke with NPR's Alice Fordham about why his mission was probably doomed from the start and what lies ahead in the Middle East.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: When Lakhdar Brahimi became U.N. envoy to Syria, he was in his late 70s. A lifetime of diplomacy formed his legacy, and he was taking on a job that former U.N. Chief Kofi Annan had just walked away from. So why did he do it?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Well, probably because I'm not very intelligent.

FORDHAM: A little wry humility goes a long way in Middle Eastern negotiations. Speaking from London, he says someone had to keep trying to help Syria even though it was May 2012 and the Syrian rebellion was careening towards extremism while the regime rained barrel bombs on civilians.

BRAHIMI: You know, when you take on these jobs, they all look almost impossible, but some are more impossible than others. And certainly in 2012 and '13, Syria was very much the most impossible job probably on earth in those days.

FORDHAM: He led talks between representatives of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition and points out most players now at least say there can't be a military solution in Syria, only a negotiated peace, although...

BRAHIMI: There are still too many weapons being pumped in, too many attempts at finding a military solution, while repeating all the time there is no military solution.

FORDHAM: Eventually, he thinks all sides and their regional proxies will be exhausted and cut a deal.

BRAHIMI: But, you know, after how many thousands of dead and how many cities being destroyed?

FORDHAM: Brahimi contends the key driver of the war in Syria is the influence of Iran, a Shiite country which supports Assad, who follows a kind of Shiite Islam, against a largely Sunni rebellion.

BRAHIMI: You know, they have much more influence than any other country in the region or the Americans or the Russians.

FORDHAM: Brahimi also condemns another Shiite-led government in Iraq for being too close to Iran and treating Sunnis badly.

BRAHIMI: I sometimes say that the original sin in what is happening today in the eastern part of the Middle East - the Arab world - the original sin is really the invasion of Iraq.

FORDHAM: That's a controversial proposition. After decades of the Sunni Saddam Hussein's brutal repression of any opposition coming from the Shiite majority, it was all but inevitable that any elected government would be Shiite and close to neighboring Iran. And, I point out, it's not just Iran which is sectarian - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar - all are backing Sunni factions, but he insists...

BRAHIMI: The Saudi's are angry and unhappy because the Iranians have too much influence in the region.

FORDHAM: It's now a year since he stepped down as U.N. envoy amid the failure of the talks he brokered. His impossible tasks remain unfinished. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.