United Nations-Arab League peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said sent a strong message to Bashar al-Assad that his promises of government-sponsored reforms would not be enough to stem the spreading violence in Syria. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

The new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria offered a downbeat assessment Monday on the prospects for peace in the war-torn country, saying that he would be powerless to avert worsening civil and sectarian strife as long as the United Nations’ biggest powers, including the United States and Russia, remained divided.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter, also sent a strong message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that his promises of government-sponsored reforms would not be enough to stem the spreading violence in Syria.

“I think there is no disagreement that the situation is extremely bad and getting worse,” Brahimi told reporters after the meeting. “I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward; you cannot go back to the Syria of the past. I think I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough. What is needed is change.”

Despite the grim report, Brahimi offered a sliver of hope, saying that although there are no immediate prospects for progress diplomatically, his travels to the region had given him cause to believe “we will find an opening in the not-too-distant future.”

Brahimi’s remarks, which followed his first briefing to the Security Council on Syria, reflected a growing consensus among U.N. officials and some Arab leaders that an easing of the crisis is all but impossible without some sort of agreement between Russia and the West on a process for political transition in Syria.

“If I do not represent the entire council, I am nothing,” Brahimi told reporters. “I need to be seen to represent a united council and a united League of Arab States, and I think the Security Council understands that perfectly well.”

Brahimi’s visit to U.N. headquarters comes on the eve of the annual General Assembly debate of world leaders, and Brahimi said he would use the occasion to consult with key regional and international leaders in New York before returning to the region. For the time being, Brahimi said that he had no fixed peace plan for Syria, but that “I do have a few ideas” that he intends to discuss with key foreign powers this week.

The U.N. Security Council has remained at a stalemate on Syria since July, when Russia and China cast their latest vetoes on a resolution that outlined a blueprint for the establishment of a government of national transition and that threatened sanctions against Damascus if it failed to halt its attacks on residential areas.

Behind closed doors Monday, Brahimi, a former Algerian diplomat, told the 15-nation Security Council that he saw few signs that either Assad or the fragmented armed opposition are prepared to engage in substantive peace talks, according to council diplomats present.

“On the side of the government, the aim is still to keep, or return to, the old Syria, even if much is said about dialogue and reform,” Brahimi told the council. “Popular demand for change, not reforms, is hardly recognized by the government. The crisis is seen mainly as a foreign conspiracy engineered from abroad.”

The Syrian government, Brahimi told the council, continues to dismiss the role of popular unrest in fueling anti-government sentiment, arguing that Damascus is the victim of a foreign conspiracy and that its troops are up against as many as 5,000 foreign fighters. The armed opposition, meanwhile, maintains that the crisis is the result of four decades of state-backed terror against ordinary Syrians.

“They say there is no turning back,” Brahimi told the council. “Indeed it bears repeating that the solution to Syria’s problems demands a clean break with the past.”

Brahimi said the opposition’s attempts to unite behind a single platform “have been disappointing until now,” but he said he saw “some signs” that its members were trying to improve coordination.