Cease-fire in Syria? Support from Iran and Turkey boosts UN envoy's bid

Iran and Turkey back opposite sides in the Syria conflict, but the two powers are united in support for UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's proposal for a cease-fire later this month.

Ali Jarekji/REUTERS
UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (l.) speaks during a joint news conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (r.) in Amman October 18, 2012.

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A fresh cease-fire proposal for Syria received a much-needed boost today when Iran and Turkey, two regional powers who back opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, declared their support for the plan being shopped around by United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi

Although the actual fighting has been limited to Syria, other countries are providing funds, arms, fighters, and de facto safe havens, making outside support for the cease-fire critical to its success.

Mr. Brahimi has spent the week making his rounds of the region to garner support for the cease-fire, which would be slated for the three-day Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha later this month. His hope, The New York Times reports, is that a holiday "universally respected by Muslims could be the basis not only for a pause in the fighting but perhaps the beginnings of a dialogue in Syria."

The envoy said today that rebel leaders had pledged to observe the cease-fire, but that they insisted the government halt its fighting first, BBC reports.

"We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone [else] we met that, if the government stops using violence, 'We will respond to this directly'," Brahimi said from Beirut today.

"The Syrian people are burying hundreds of people each day, so if they bury fewer people during the days of the holiday, this could be the start of Syria's return from the dangerous situation that it has slipped and is continuing to slip toward."

Brahimi also warned regional leaders today that the 19-month conflict could not be contained within Syria's borders for much longer. Syrian Army shelling has already landed in both Lebanese and Turkish territory multiple times, Agence France-Presse reports.

"This crisis cannot remain confined within Syrian territory," he told reporters. "Either it is solved, or it gets worse... and sets [the region] ablaze."

With support from Iran and Turkey secured, the next obstacle facing Brahimi is the Syrian opposition's lack of a unified leadership. The Syrian government has cited this as a key reason it has been unwilling to reach any previous agreement with the rebels, saying that even if one representative of the rebels signs an agreement, the number of factions means there is no guarantee of total buy-in from the opposition.

Other countries have put significant pressure on the rebels to put aside their differences. Reuters reports that Qatar and Turkey have brokered an agreement to unite the various factions fighting the Assad regime.

"The agreement has been reached, they only need to sign it now," one anonymous 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.' "

But it appears that at least some countries are not waiting for greater unity among rebel fighters. The Wall Street Journal reports that video footage of fighting in Syria earlier this week shows rebel forces firing advanced portable antiaircraft weapons – the first such instance in the conflict, according to rebels and regional experts. According to fighters, they have managed to down Syrian Army helicopters.

Weapons that give rebels the ability to shoot down regime aircraft could be a game-changer for a conflict in which regime forces have so far enjoyed vast military superiority, particularly because of the Air Force's ability to bomb rebel positions.

"Northern Syria is awash with advanced antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The situation has changed very quickly," a Syrian who coordinates weapons supplies from outside Syria told the Wall Street Journal. 

According to rebels, the weapons, known as man-portable air defense systems (Manpads), were smuggled into the country via Turkey and Lebanon in the past two months, although Lebanon has recently cracked down on weapons smuggling and Turkey has insisted it is not involved in weapons supplying. 

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