U.N. envoy to Syria expected to offer bleak forecast for ending conflict

January 28, 2013

The United Nations’ envoy to Syria plans to tell the Security Council on Tuesday that he has no plan to offer for ending the bloody civil war, according to Western diplomats, the latest blow to the prospects for a peaceful settlement to a conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

The expectations of a bleak assessment from the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, follow a meeting Monday in Paris that saw new recriminations between Syria’s U.S.-backed opposition coalition and its international supporters.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told an emergency gathering of representatives of 50 nations that Syria faces collapse and the “risk of extremist groups gaining ground” in the Middle East.

“The chaos is not tomorrow, it is today,” he said, according to reports from the meeting. He pleaded with countries that had promised aid to the Syrian Opposition Coalition to make good on their pledges.

The Paris meeting, attended by three senior officials from the Syrian coalition, came two days before a major donor gathering in Kuwait.

Timeline: Major events in Syria’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

“The Syrian people are angry at this dubious silence of the world,” Riad Seif, a coalition vice president, said according to an Associated Press report from Paris. The coalition “can’t keep coming back
empty-handed.”

Brahimi, who has promoted a settlement between Bashar al-
Assad’s government and the opposition that would lead to a transitional government, was “quite negative” during talks with Security Council diplomats over the past week, according to a council diplomat.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic considerations, the person said that Assad continued to refer to the opposition as “terrorists,” while opposition leaders say they have no interest in talking unless Assad first steps down.

Brahimi has also made little headway in persuading Russia — which has blocked attempts by the United States and other Western powers to ratchet up pressure against Assad in the Security Council — to press Assad to step aside.

“The guy is stuck. He has no good news,” said a senior U.N. colleague of Brahimi’s. “Everything he has tried to do is not working.”

A third U.N. diplomat said that Brahimi is likely to continue to argue for a negotiated settlement to avert a chaotic collapse of Syria’s institutions, but he said the picture is “very grim.”

U.N. officials warned Monday of increasingly desperate conditions for about 4 million Syrians inside the war-torn country and about 650,000 in refu­gee camps outside. The officials said that only a small percentage has been donated toward a $1.5 billion U.N. aid target. According to U.N. figures, more than 60,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began nearly two years ago.

A look at the Syrian uprising nearly two years later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

The United States is the largest individual donor, with humanitarian assistance totaling more than $200 million, and has met its pledges, according to a senior Obama administration official.

But the State Department is frustrated that little of its aid is apparently reaching the most needy deep inside Syria, and that the opposition coalition is not organized enough to receive and distribute the assistance.

“We said to the coalition, ‘Great. Here it is, what are you going to do with it?’ ” the administration official said. “ ‘We have the stuff, who is it going to go to? . . . Where’s your depot? Where’s your guy?’ ”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the administration’s frustration, said the United States is not getting credit among Syrian civilians for aid being delivered.

The frustration is mutual. Opposition activists noted that the bulk of the administration’s aid goes through the United Nations and the Syrian Red Crescent, both of which operate under the supervision of the Assad government, which is still recognized as official by the United States and others.

The administration helped organize the coalition in November as an alternative to an earlier group, the Syrian National Council, which many felt was dominated by expatriates and by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. With members from local revolutionary councils and minority groups inside Syria, the coalition was designed to draw support away from Assad.

Although recognizing the group as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, Washington held out the prospect of full recognition as the Syrian government until the organization and its support had more solid foundations. But the coalition says it cannot win more support until it has more assistance.

“They’ve said we have to see a demonstration of your capacity before we fund you, without providing the resources to develop that capacity,” said Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The question of weapons aid to the opposition poses a similar Catch-22. The United States and other Western powers have declined to provide weapons for the opposition — a stance they base both on international law and concern about further militarizing the Syrian uprising.

Fighting ability and weapons aid from Persian Gulf states has boosted the credibility of Islamist militants fighting alongside the main rebel forces. But the rising prominence of the militants has increased the reluctance of Western governments to supply arms.

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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