Lakhdar Brahimi, the international Special Envoy for Syria (photo: dpa)
Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Syria

Mission Impossible?

While in Damascus, Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi also met with representatives of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change – a domestic Syrian opposition coalition that is opposed to violent revolution. Details by Peter Steinbach in Damascus

There was a small sit-in demonstration in front of the American embassy in Damascus. Otherwise, the recent film deriding the Prophet Mohammed, which has led to violent protests in other countries, is not a major issue in Syria. "People here have far more important concerns," says a hotel owner in the Syrian capital.

The Arab country has been in a state of civil war for the past 18 months. The war is an ever-present reality in Damascus, although life continues as usual in most of the city's districts. Thick clouds of smoke rise over the city and, at night, the sound of exploding grenades can be heard non-stop. In the suburbs to the south of the capital, troops loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are in battle with the remaining positions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which had begun an offensive against Damascus in mid-June.

The constant grenade fire most certainly could not have escaped the notice of Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN Special Envoy for Syria. He has taken over the post from Kofi Annan, who stepped down in August.

Lakhdar Brahimi with Bashar al-Assad on 15 September 2012 in Damascus (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
No political breakthrough in sight: After a meeting with Syrian President Assad on 15 September, Special Envoy Brahimi declared it was no secret that the two sides in the conflict were far apart


Hearing out all conflicting parties

"A peace mission is impossible in light of the increasing militarisation of the conflict and the lack of unity among members of the international community," explained the former UN Secretary General at the time of his resignation.

Neither the Syrian government nor the FSA has adhered to the cease-fire, which had been the basis for the implementation of Annan's peace plan. In addition, the rebels continue to be supported financially by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The Syrian government, by contrast, enjoys the firm support of Iran, Russian, and China.

"I don't have a plan," assured Brahimi over and again while in Damascus. Unlike Annan, the Algerian diplomat will first hear out all of the conflicting parties before offering any suggestions. He expressed the hope that this approach might open up channels of communication and thereby lead to an end to the crisis.

At least 23,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011. A 300 member observer mission agreed upon by the UN Security Council was discontinued last month. The observation group of the Arab League met with no greater success. To date, no one has been able to stop the fighting.

President Assad has assured UN Envoy Brahimi his "full cooperation" in ending the crisis. The precondition, however, is that his efforts are "neutral and independent". This promise has been made many times over the course of the conflict, but has never been kept.

FSA fighters in a suburb of Idlib (photo: AP)
Armed opposition is hopeless: According to the NCC opposition group, the armed struggle by the FSA against the regime has led to a dead end. The conflict could continue along the same lines for months and cost thousands of more lives


Strife within the opposition

While in Damascus, Brahimi also met with representatives of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) – a domestic Syrian opposition coalition made up of 13 left-wing political parties, as well as 3 Kurdish parties and an Islamist party. The NCC supports peaceful transformation and has decidedly opposed any violent revolution. As such, the group is tolerated by the government. For this reason, the Syrian National Council based in Turkey and the FSA regard the coalition as "agents of Assad".

"Brahimi is making a very serious effort to achieve success with his mission," said Hassan Abdulazim, spokesman for the NCC, after his meeting with the UN envoy. Abdulazim was feeling confident before his flight from Damascus to Beijing for negotiations on the crisis in Syria with Chinese government representatives. "The Syrian regime seems to be becoming more sensible," claims Abdulazim. "Assad used to think that he could put down the revolution by force, but now he realizes that this will never be possible."

Other members of the NCC hold similar views. In the offices of the opposition alliance, which is located near the court building in central Damascus, there is a strong sense of confidence. They believe that their hour will soon arrive. According to the group, the armed struggle by the FSA against the regime has led to a dead end and could continue unabated for months, leading to thousands of more deaths.

"We will be having a meeting with all of our members on 23 September to discuss a resolution to solving the conflict," said Edmond Dahwash. The meeting should encounter no interference from the side of the Syrian state. "The Russians have managed to obtain a guarantee from the Syrian authorities." Moscow is apparently interested in promoting the existence of a peaceful opposition as an alternative to the militant FSA.

Ahmed al-Assroui (photo: Olaf Wyludda)
Ahmed al-Assroui, member of the NCC executive council: "The government must immediately halt all of its military operations and order the troops back to their barracks"


In the dungeons of the regime

"Our principles are non-violence, complete religious tolerance, and a rejection of foreign intervention," explains Ahmed al-Assroui, who serves on the NCC's 25 member executive council. One month ago, al-Assroui was released after being detained in prison for over six weeks. He was imprisoned on "suspicion of supporting the FSA".

"We were around 150 prisoners being held in a 32 square metre cell," reports the over sixty-year-old al-Assroui. He was not beaten, he says, as he is too old and too well-known a figure in the opposition. "My son has also been imprisoned once and my daughter three times, because she took part in protest demonstrations," he explains laughing.

Al-Assroui was satisfied by his meeting with Brahimi. The meeting lasted 45 minutes and the NCC was able to convey its demands to the UN envoy. "The government must immediately halt all of its military operations and order the troops back to their barracks," begins al-Assroui in listing their demands.

"All political prisoners must be set free and complete freedom of opinion must be permitted in the media and in public." Only then will it be possible to negotiate with the Syrian government on the political future of the country.

Then even the FSA will adhere to a cease-fire, maintains al-Assroui. Assurances have already been given. "Yet, the FSA is not a homogenous group," interjects Edmond Dahwash decisively. "There are many various organization, and they all do what they want." As such, no one knows if a cease-fire is really possible.

The rebels, who are fighting in Aleppo against the Assad regime, issued a statement on Brahimi's visit to Damascus. "We are certain that the UN envoy will fail just like all the previous envoys," said Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi of the FSA. "However, we do not want to be the reason for his failure." Al-Okaidi together with two other commanders held a video-conference with Brahimi via Skype. The two other rebel representatives were the FSA spokesman Colonel Qassem Saadeddine and Colonel Khaled Hobous, the former FSA leader in Damascus.

There is no great hope for peace in Syria. Thus far, neither the FSA nor the Syrian regime has shown any interest in a peaceful solution. But they are not the only parties deciding over war and peace. Brahimi must also convince Russia, China, and Iran, as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to come on board. And he can't leave out the USA, which until now has been relatively restrained in terms of active and direct involvement in the crisis.

"The crisis is dangerous and increasingly threatening," said Brahimi in Damascus. "It is a threat for the Syrian people, for the region, and for the world." Indeed, if the Algerian diplomat fails to achieve success in his mission, the threat could soon become reality.

Peter Steinbach

© 2012

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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