UN envoy to Syria visits region to resurrect cease-fire efforts

The United Nations' envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, visited Beirut today touting a fresh cease-fire for Syria. Damascus said it could support the plan, but said rebel disunity is a key obstacle.

Hasan Shaaban/Reuters
United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati (not pictured) at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday.

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United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Beirut today as part of a tour of the region, advocating a fresh ceasefire in Syria pegged to the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha later this month. However, like plans put forward by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, there is doubt whether the regional, national, and rebel support necessary for success is there.

Mr. Brahimi asked Iranian officials to help broker a truce earlier this week, and yesterday the Syrian government offered “the slenderest of hopes” when a spokesman said it was studying the proposed plan, reports the Telegraph.

“In order to succeed in any initiative, it takes two sides,” said Jihad Maqdisi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman.

A Western diplomat told Reuters that a ceasefire “could open the door to something more sustained" in Syria. "But it's not clear how realistic this idea is. Annan tried and failed to do the same thing," the diplomat said.

Though there are plenty who say the ceasefire is improbable, if not impossible – all international efforts to date to end the 19-month conflict in Syria have failed, with both rebels and the Syrian government ignoring previous ceasefires – some say a pause in the violence that has killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people according to the UN and rebel groups is desperately needed. Kaveh Afrasiabi, author of “After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy,” writes in an commentary for the Asia Times:

A temporary respite is desperately needed for the civilian population throughout the country, many of whom have become refugees or are bunkered inside their homes, as well as by the plethora of stakeholders in the Syrian theater, whose diverse interests may be converging toward a ceasefire.

As the Syrian conflict increasingly tears the country apart and risks the stability of neighboring countries, the timing of Brahimi's new push for a ceasefire is right...

The UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations told Brahimi it could put together a monitoring group of up to 3,000 people who could potentially separate the rebels and the regime in order to ensure fighting doesn’t pick up again after the ceasefire, reports Reuters. However, sending any monitors would require a UN Security Council mandate, and no Western countries have pledged troops yet. A previous observer mission to the country was disbanded because violence prevented them from being able to get out and monitor the situation. 

“The Syrian side is interested in exploring this option,” Syria’s Mr. Maqdisi said in reference to the ceasefire proposal, also noting the government was waiting to hear the results of Brahimi’s tour, The Telegraph reports. He will also visit opposition backers Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Syrian regime supporter Iran, as well as Iraq and, as of today, Lebanon.

It is unclear whether Brahimi will travel to Damascus after Beirut, reports the Associated Press.

Syria wants to know if influential countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are on board, and if they will pressure rebel groups “that they host and finance and arm” to abide by such a ceasefire, said Maqdisi.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has accepted two international ceasefire proposals in the past, only to intensify the conflict, according to the Telegraph.

The divisions among rebel groups are another obstacle to the regime putting faith in a ceasefire: It has no guarantee that because one rebel group agrees to the proposal, the others will as well. There are myriad rebel groups, many of which work autonomously and without information sharing, according to a separate AP story, and there is no unified leadership among the rebels.

Today, state-run newspaper Al-Thawra said the biggest challenge to a potential ceasefire is the rebels' lack of unity.

"There is the state, represented by the government and the army on one front, but who is on the other front?" reads an editorial in the newspaper, according to AP.

Others have echoed concerns about the disjointed rebel front, but still say intervention is necessary. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes that by focusing on concrete problems, these fragmented groups have an opportunity to unite, and outside nations like the United States have an opportunity to help:

There are no real military options in Syria and I understand the arguments against arming the rebels. To date, the Syrian opposition has failed to coalesce around a single idea, structure or leadership. Nobody wants to pump more weapons into a region already awash with guns, especially if it is not clear who might end up using them or for what purpose. Yet, keeping the distance does not remove the US from the conflict, nor does it absolve America from responsibility for the outcome….

If the West is absent, if we can’t provide moral and material support for a liberal, secular alternative – a constitution that guarantees minority rights, an inclusive political order and an open economic system — then there might not be one at all.

America is not entirely powerless, though. Some areas of Syria, abandoned by the Al Assad regime, are now controlled by local coordination committees. The US should be there to help them – and not just with emergency aid…. [I]t is also possible to start thinking, now, about the economics of post-war Syria, a country whose budget is being drained and whose infrastructure is in ruins. By focusing on concrete problems, the opposition, the rebels and the coordination committees may find that they can unify around the solutions.

Two rebel groups announced yesterday that they have agreed to set up a joint leadership in order to meet the international calls for unity, according to a separate Reuters report.

"The agreement has been reached, they only need to sign it now," one rebel source said. Foreign supporters "are telling us: 'Sort yourselves out and unite, we need a clear and credible side to provide it with quality weapons'."

The new leadership will include FSA leaders Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa Sheikh – criticised by many rebels because they are based in Turkey – and recently defected General Mohammad Haj Ali, as well as heads of rebel provincial military councils inside Syria like Qassem Saadeddine, based in Homs province.

Even if a unified rebel front can be created, outside powers also present hurdles. The UN Security Council has been deadlocked over how to move forward in the war-torn country for months. Russia and China have vetoed three UN resolutions thus far.

"There will never be unity inside Syria unless the countries supporting the revolt agree because each group is supported and backed by (one) country," a rebel source told Reuters.

"Now the countries are becoming nervous and the Syrian issue has become bigger than they expected and almost out of control."

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