‘Syria is melting away before the eyes of the world’

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is key to a nonviolent solution in Syria

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi: “The Russians and Americans are now talking to one another, and that is very positive.” Photograph: Reuters

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi: “The Russians and Americans are now talking to one another, and that is very positive.” Photograph: Reuters


When Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore expressed Ireland’s opposition to lifting the Eu ropean Un ion arms embargo on weapons to Syria at the start of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting which ends in Dublin today, he noted Ireland “supports the work of the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi ”.

If there is to be a nonviolent conclusion to the war in Syria, it is likely to come through Brahimi’s endeavours. He negotiated the end to the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war and later served as UN special representative for Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and South Africa. A former foreign minister of Algeria, Brahimi is the St Jude of international diplomacy, summoned in the most desperate crises.

Brahimi said he “could not intervene in [the] purely European debate” over the arms embargo, but he made it clear where he stood.

“The secretary general of the United Nations says all the time that the flow of arms must stop,” he said.

“The secretary general and I repeat constantly that there is no military solution to this problem. What is terribly important, and what is lacking, is more urgent [political] work from all sides.”

Russia and Iran send weapons to the regime of President Bashar al Assad; Saudi Arabia and Qatar – soon to be joined by Britain and France – send them to the rebels.

“There are arms going to both sides,” Brahimi said.

How could the UN prevent it? “The secretary general has no army and no authority except moral authority,” he said with a sigh.

At least four parties would have to subscribe to a political solution: Assad; the rebels fighting to overthrow him; and their respective chief backers, Russia and the US.

Brahimi last saw Assad in Damascus at the end of December. Asked about the Syrian leader’s state of mind, Brahimi replied: “He’s facing very serious difficulties but he is certainly in no state of panic. I think he thinks that he is in control of things. The speech he made after that, on the 6th of January, I found very unconstructive. It was not the speech of somebody who thought he was losing ground. On the contrary: it was war, war, war.”

The opposition rejected as “insufficient” a subsequent “offer of dialogue” by Assad’s office, Brahimi said.

There have been mixed signals from the opposition too. Sheikh Ahmed Moaz alKhatib, a former rector of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus and the figurehead leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), said at the end of January he was willing to negotiate with the Assad regime under certain circumstances.

“Mr Khatib definitely made a very imaginative and constructive proposal, and we thought something could be built on it,” Brahimi said.

“His colleagues have not agreed with him. Mr [Ghassan] Hitto [who was this week chosen as the SNC’s prime minister] seems to be saying no negotiations. It’s certainly not progress.”

Agreement between the US and Russia is crucial to a settlement in Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, last month called US insistance that Assad step down “the single biggest reason for the continuation of the tragedy in Syria”.

Diplomats say the Russians don’t necessarily insist Assad remains in power but they refuse to accept regime change as a precondition.

‘Key element’
“The Russians are a key element in the equation,” Brahimi said.

“I think they should play a role and I believe they are willing to play a role ... The Russians and Americans are now talking to one another, and that is very positive...

“The two foreign ministers have spoken to one another several times these last few weeks. We arranged the (December 6th, 2012) meeting in Dublin between Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, and that led to meetings between myself and the deputy foreign minister of Russia and the US deputy secretary of state in London a few days ago.”

Asked what he would consider an acceptable outcome to his mission, Brahimi replied: “My mediation is not important. What is important is that what is happening in Syria is absolutely horrible. Syria is melting away before the eyes of the world. The suffering that its people are subjected to is indescribable. That must stop.”