Monday, September 24, 2012

At United Nations, New Syria Envoy Gives Appraisal

September 24, 2012

At U.N., New Syria Envoy Gives Bleak Appraisal

New York Times

UNITED NATIONS — Prospects for any settlement in the Syria conflict remain dismal, but not impossible, the new Syria peace envoy said Monday, telling Security Council diplomats that the government of President Bashar al-Assad still clung to the notion that pre-revolution Syria could be resurrected.

It was the first report to the Security Council by Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran United Nations troubleshooter and former Algerian foreign minister who took on the job of Syria peace envoy three weeks ago after his predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned in frustration. The envoy serves both the United Nations and the Arab League.

“The situation in Syria is dire and getting worse by the day,” Mr. Brahimi told reporters after briefing the council in a closed meeting. Food shortages loom because the harvest was bad, and Syria’s former self-sufficiency in goods like pharmaceuticals has evaporated with so many factories destroyed or closed by the spiraling violence, diplomats quoted him as saying.

A political solution has proved elusive since the fighting began in March last year.

“There is a stalemate; there is no prospect today or tomorrow to move forward,” Mr. Brahimi said to reporters. But “now that I have found out a little bit more about what is happening in the country and the region, I think we will find an opening in the not too distant future.”

Council diplomats said he told them that in talks with Mr. Assad last week, he found that the Syrian leader wanted to return to the old Syria rather than install any serious political change.

“I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward, that you cannot go back to the Syria of the past,” Mr. Brahimi said at the news conference. “I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough anymore, what is needed is change.”

Still, he stressed that he did not have a specific new plan, but was relying on the never-implemented six-point peace plan, basically a cease-fire, first proposed by Mr. Annan, as well as a communiqué calling for a political transition that many nations, including Syria’s staunch supporters Russia and China, signed off on in June.

Senior Arab officials and many United Nations diplomats have suggested that that plan needs to be revisited because although all five council members had signed off on it, they all objected to it later, but the plan does call for a political transition.

The Security Council has been sharply divided on the issue of Syria, with Moscow and Beijing vetoing three resolutions. Many officials believe without that split, Damascus could not continue its violent, widespread oppression that, according to United Nations estimates, has killed more than 20,000 people.

Mr. Brahimi also told the council that senior Syrian officials continue to argue that the uprising is a foreign plot rather than a peaceful protest movement and to claim that there are 5,000 foreign fighters in the country.

Although Mr. Brahimi stuck basically to a factual narrative of the situation, there was an undercurrent of frustration in the way he described it, diplomats said. He told Mr. Assad that his reforms were insufficient, and pointed out that most of those being detained by the government were Syrians, not foreigners, they said.

The raging conflict is expected to be the focus of the United Nations general debate this week, with some 120 heads of state or government gathering in New York. Although no new initiatives on Syria are expected, some new ideas are being floated.

The opposition must develop a “common, democratic pluralistic platform” to reassure several hundred possible high level defectors that they have a future in Syria, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, told reporters. “This includes religious and ethnic tolerance.”

Representatives of many council nations, including Russia, India, France and Portugal, expressed the need to do more to reassure the Alawite religious minority that rules Syria that its rights would be guaranteed, diplomats said.

Still, the usual divisions on Syria were on display in the closed-door meeting, diplomats said. The Russians said more had to be done to stop the arming of the opposition, while the West blamed the Assad government.

Mr. Brahimi said the full council needed to unite behind his efforts, and members seemed ready to give him the necessary time to come up with a plan. He is expected to return to the region next week and to visit Moscow and Beijing.

“It is premature for any plan of action,” said Mohammed Loulichki, Morocco’s envoy to the United Nations, who attended Mr. Brahimi’s briefing.

“He gave a realistic, very factual assessment,” he said. “If you want to prevent yourself from being disappointed, you have to be very cautious.”

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