UN envoy for Syria shops a cease-fire idea. Will there be any takers?

Lakhdar Brahimi is proposing a Syria cease-fire built around an upcoming Muslim holiday. But regional experts say neither side appears tired enough from fighting to be interested.

Hadi Mizban/AP
UN envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi speaks during a joint press conference Hoshyar Zebari, unseen, in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Oct. 15.

The United Nations and Arab League envoy for the Syrian conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, is proposing a means of moving the war from deadly fighting to dialogue: start with a cease-fire built around an upcoming Muslim holiday and use the resulting breathing space to transition to negotiating a political settlement.

But the key that may determine whether the Algerian diplomat’s idea can work is whether the two sides are exhausted enough by months of horrendous violence – or by the prospect of many more months of the same.

Neither side appears ready (or tired enough) to silence their weapons and try negotiations, many regional experts say.

Syria’s rebels, although disappointed by their inability to acquire heavy weapons such as antiaircraft missiles from their international supporters, are nevertheless buoyed by territorial gains over recent months. Such gains have allowed them to carve out “liberated zones” primarily along the Turkish border where the regime of Bashar al-Assad is no longer in control.

And some experts who had predicted Mr. Assad would have fallen by now say the regime is probably on more solid footing than it was in the summer.

The result may be that neither side will sniff with interest the cease-fire plan. The UN’s first Syria envoy, Kofi Annan, orchestrated a cease-fire in April, but it never took hold. Mr. Annan ended up stepping down over what he said was a lack of unity from the international community on a way forward in Syria.  

That is not stopping Mr. Brahimi from shopping his plan around the region. The seasoned diplomat was in Baghdad Monday promoting his idea for a cease-fire that would start with the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, which this year is later this month. Before his meetings with Iraqi leaders, Brahimi was in Tehran, Iran, over the weekend, where he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In addition to discussing his plan for a truce, Brahimi also called on all international parties to stop supplying arms to the sides fighting in Syria. Iran is known to be supplying arms and military advisers to Assad’s forces.

Brahimi’s call for a halt to supplying arms to any side in the civil war found an echo at the UN in New York Monday, where a senior UN official said at a Security Council briefing that stopping the flow of arms is only one of the steps required if a cease-fire is to take hold.

“Human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture, and summary executions, continue unabated,” the UN’s undersecretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said. “There must be a collective effort by all sides inside Syria, in the region, and beyond” for a truce to take hold.

Also over the weekend, Brahimi discussed his cease-fire plan with Turkish leaders and members of the exiled Syrian opposition, and he is set to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia next.

Saudi Arabia has joined Qatar in supplying some weapons to Syria’s rebels, officials in the region say. Some of the arms supplied by the region’s pro-Sunni regimes are landing in the hands of some of the more extremist Islamist groups arrayed against Assad’s Alawite (Shiite) regime, say some Western officials with close knowledge of the conflict.

The Obama administration has opposed sending in US arms to Syria’s rebels, arguing that rebel groups remains deeply fractured – and that arms could too easily fall into the wrong hands, including those of fighters aligned with Al Qaeda.

President Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, says he favors arming the rebels, but he does not say specifically that the United States should do the arming. He says he would ensure that only rebels “who share our values” would receive weapons, though he does not say how he would do that.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, addressed the same UN briefing Monday where Undersecretary Feltman spoke. While the US supports Brahimi’s efforts, she said, it is also not waiting on a political solution before aiding Syria’s civilians and its democratic opposition.

The US has provided more than $130 million in humanitarian assistance, Ambassador Rice said, and is working with Syrians in the liberated zones to help them begin building a post-Assad country.

“The opposition is getting stronger.... Syrian citizens are banding together to administer towns, reopen schools, and rebuild their economy,” Rice said. The US, she added, is engaged on the ground by “providing the unarmed civilian opposition with help to organize in support of the transition plan ... for a democratic, pluralistic Syria where all of its people have a say in how they're governed.”

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