Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

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UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said.

“Geneva I did not speak about Assad one way or the other,” the Algerian diplomat, 79, said. “But  I think this leads to a new Syria. The time for cosmetic change in Syria is passed. [Across the region], people are demanding transformation of their societies and [Syria] is no exception.”

Brahimi discounted the strategic importance of recent gains by Assad forces on the ground, saying “making progress and winning are two different things.”

“They are doing well for the moment, but they are not doing well everywhere,” Brahimi said. “That is why I, the USA, and Russia say there’s no military victory for anybody. One day the opposition [makes gains], and the next day, the regime. But the war is going on killing. We need to get out of this vicious circle.”

He also said he disagreed with the view cited by some in the US administration and European capitals that changing the balance on the ground in favor of the opposition is crucial to persuade Assad to accede to a transition government. At the “UN, our position is very clear: arms do not make peace,” Brahimi said. “We would like to see the delivery of arms to stop to all sides.”

The envoy’s comments came as top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey delivered a sobering assessment of possible US military options on Syria to the Senate armed services panel.

Advocating a regional approach to try to limit the conflict's spillover as well as limited support to bolster the moderate operation's capabilities, Dempsey warned that both intervention and not doing enough to bolster the opposition would be risky.

“We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, wrote in the unclassified document (.pdf) prepared at the request of Senator Carl  Levin (D-Michigan). “Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

(Photo: UN/Arab League envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. File photo.)

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