The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, seemed as if he was walking between land mines during his "exploratory" visit to Damascus, which ends today, Dec. 27. In seeking to advance the Geneva initiative, Brahimi was careful not to allow the plan to be misinterpreted. Brahimi was especially careful in making sure that the specifications for the transition period, the extension of the president's powers and the immunity for the army and the security apparatus, in addition to the role of the foreign-based opposition, were not misunderstood.
Brahimi previously told the opposition that he might extend his visit to Damascus until he received a response from the Syrian regime regarding his offer. He also said that President Bashar al-Assad referred him to a committee in charge of studying his proposal, and that the head of the Syrian state promised to meet with him before he leaves the country. However, no date for a meeting was specified.
Reports suggest that the international envoy was set on leaving Damascus today [Dec. 27] for Beirut, before heading to Moscow on Saturday, where he will meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss the outcome of his first attempt to convey the Geneva initiative to Assad.
It is clear that, so far, there have been few encouraging signs in Brahimi's quest. Had there been, he would not have decided to head to Moscow — Assad's strongest ally and the only side that can exert pressure on him.
Moreover, the visit of Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad to Moscow ahead of Brahimi may have been planned in order to put Russia in the picture before Brahimi's arrival, according to one European diplomat.
Syrian sources said that Brahimi was very cautious in his approaches, whether it was during his meeting in the presidential palace or with the domestic opposition leaders of the National Coordination Committee. According to these sources, Brahimi informed the opposition that he has conveyed the idea of a transitional government to Assad. However, he did not discuss details regarding the powers of this government, which will be based on the agreement reached in Geneva. The role of the president during this period, which will extend until spring of 2014, is also unclear.
Furthermore, Brahimi told the Syrian opposition that he avoided talking to Assad about stepping down from power, or about the restructuring of the army and security. According to sources, Brahimi did not deal with these issues in depth so as to avoid any clashes between the two sides during this tentative visit, which is designed to pave the way for an understanding between Russia and the US on the Syrian crisis. An understanding between the US and Russia will be crucial in generating a dynamic diplomatic atmosphere that Brahimi's success depends on.
According to one prominent Syrian dissident, it is too early to talk about a transitional government, especially given that there are no indications that the regime is ready to make any concessions.
While Assad totally rejects being banned from future presidential elections, the opposition is as obstinate in the other direction. It demands that the transitional government be granted full powers to amend the constitution and restructure the army and security apparatus.
Syrian sources have stated that Brahimi thinks that his work has not yet produced a fruitful Russian-US understanding on the crisis in Syria. Brahimi allegedly told those he met that he is still working on this quest and that he would continue to explore what can be applied from the Geneva plan.
Brahimi's visit to Syria is seen as a daunting task. In order to advance his mission he had to obtain concessions from Assad, and at the same time convince Russia and the US to climb back on board the Geneva initiative. Washington and Moscow previously agreed on this before deciding to send Brahimi to Damascus.
Without returning to Geneva in order to get a clear and unified description of the transition period and the powers that the government and presidency would have during this time — that is, whether they are to be absolute or expanded — Brahimi will surely not be able to make much progress.
Diplomatic sources told As-Safir that Brahimi communicated the issue of a transitional government and its powers to Syrian officials, and noted that “the [Syrian government] agreed on some of these powers, but not all of them.” The officials also allegedly refused plans for Assad to resign or for the army and security forces to be restructured. The sources said that Assad told Brahimi that he intended to run in the 2014 presidential elections.
The sources stated that Brahimi may go on a tour to Moscow, Cairo and Geneva, after his visit to Damascus, and that this tour may culminate in a UN Security Council resolution whose terms differ from those of Chapter 7, which provides for possible sanctions and military intervention. The sources warned that the failure of Brahimi’s mission may result in the West entering the battle in Syria more directly through more overt arming of the opposition.
On Dec. 25, a UN diplomat stated that Assad “didn’t respond to Brahimi this time also.” The source also said that the UN Security Council is “far from providing him with the necessary support, and the armed opposition no longer wants to settle.”
Meanwhile, diplomatic sources told As-Safir that Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous arrived in Moscow yesterday [Dec. 26] in an unplanned visit. Miqdad last flew to the Russian capital less than a month ago. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and Brahimi are expected to be in Moscow next Saturday, after Brahimi’s request for talks, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
Miqdad and Arnous will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Bogdanov today [Dec. 27]. The meeting is supposed to follow up with the results of the meeting between Assad and Brahimi, who will hold a press conference in Damascus before he leaves.
According information leaked on a news website close to the Syrian authorities, the meeting between Brahimi and Assad did not result in any significant convergence and the proposals of the experienced diplomat were all rejected and faced with counterproposals. Perhaps Miqdad and Arnous will both seek to explain the issue to Moscow, which has thus far displayed enthusiasm for Brahimi’s ideas. However, Moscow has made the implementation of Brahimi’s ideas conditional on their being accepted by all parties. Arnous is likely to visit Tehran for the same reason. After Moscow, Brahimi will speak with the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby in Cairo.
The Damascus News Network (DNN) Facebook page published a post stating that “there is a minimum agreement between Russia and the US” regarding Assad’s survival. Pro-regime news sites considered this [supposed] development a defeat to “the Gulf monarchs.”
The site has based its analysis of Brahimi’s proposal (as a way out to these countries) on information leaks orchestrated by Damascus, and can be summarized in the following main points: The international envoy proposed “a ceasefire to be guaranteed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but it does not include the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra.” Brahimi also allegedly proposed “the survival of Assad with limited powers, and for the rest of the powers to be granted to the prime minister, who will be from the opposition and outside the Doha coalition, during the transitional phase to democracy.” The UN envoy requested guarantees that Assad would not run in the 2014 elections.”
According to the same website, Assad “categorically rejected Brahimi’s proposals,” and insisted “that no one who had called for foreign intervention be allowed to take part in the dialogue or government; and that the Muslim Brotherhood be categorically excluded from any future dialogue.” He also demanded that “all foreign fighters be withdrawn, and an immediate end be put to the financing and arming of gunmen in Syria.”
The website characterized Brahimi’s visit as a failure and described him as leaving the meeting “empty handed.” Although the website is not considered a reliable source of political information in Syria, and its source of information was not named, it has become commonplace — in the last two years — for information to be leaked that the government would find difficult to own up to either politically or professionally. Such material would thus become fodder for political squabbling despite the fact that it neither is confirmed nor emanates from a known source, making the information in question easily deniable. Despite these shortcomings, the information closely resembled material leaked from multiple other sources.
Brahimi and the NCC
Yesterday [Dec. 26], Brahimi met in Damascus with Zhang Xun, the Chinese Ambassador to Syria, who said “we have agreed that the situation in Syria is very dangerous and there is an urgent need for a political solution." He further added that Beijing was hopeful that “the various international parties cooperate and jointly endeavor” to reach such a solution.
In a meeting held two days ago with a delegation of the internal opposition, Brahimi warned that the absence of a political solution would lead Syria towards a devastating war. He also discussed political developments with a delegation from the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), whose chairman, Hassan Abdel Azim, stated that he “would strive to encourage international consensus aimed at solving this crisis,” especially between the “Russians and Americans.”
The NCC’s secretary general, Raja al-Nasser, stated that a “political solution is the only way out,” and this it is predicated on “the establishment of a new democratic system, and the removal of the current regime.” He stressed that the only way out of the Syrian crisis was to form “a transitional government with full authority to lead the country to safety.”
In a statement it gave after its meeting with Brahimi, the NCC pointed out that “all Arab and international efforts were still below par, and, in fact, some foreign intervention had negative connotations, as if the aim was to destroy Syria.” Brahimi was quoted as “recognizing the seriousness of the Syrian crisis and its effects on the region; as well as the necessity to lay the internal foundations for broad participation in finding an adequate political solution, and the necessity to overcome the opposition’s divisiveness, unify it, and transform nominal unity into real unity.”
The statement went on to add that Brahimi stressed that “a Russian-American accord is pivotal in reaching a political solution. It therefore is necessary that these two parties reach a comprehensive agreement.” According to the statement, Brahimi also warned that “any military solution would lead to the extinction of the Syrian state,” expressing concern “about what the day after would bring on the internal front,” while stressing the “necessity that the state remains standing, and that the Iraqi scenario must not be repeated.”
But the Local Coordination Committees, which represent the activists on the ground, rejected any settlement with the regime or the granting of immunity to any of its officials. They emphasized the need for “Assad and all of his regime’s military, security and political officials to relinquish power, as a prerequisite for the success of any initiative.”
The Muslim Brotherhood leaned towards espousing the same stance, steadfast in its defense of the people’s right “to hold the tyrannical, corrupt regime and all its minions accountable,” noting that “murderers and criminals will not have a place in a future Syria.”
The president of the National Coalition for the Syrian Opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, also rejected — the day before last [Dec. 25] — any agreement that would not entail Assad’s departure.
The Turkish daily Hurriyet quoted Turkish diplomatic sources as saying that Ankara rejected a plan reportedly approved by Russia and the US to solve the Syrian crisis, adding that “Turkey believes it no longer possible for a transitional process to be adopted while Assad remains in office.”
This article was translated by Joelle El Khoury, Sahar Ghoussoub and Kamal Fayyad.
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