Syria Diplomacy at Impasse as Envoy Cites Endless Tragedy

United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi offered the grimmest picture yet of Syria’s descent into chaos, leaving little doubt that diplomatic paths have been exhausted as the conflict drags on indefinitely.

Syria is unraveling before the eyes of the world, Brahimi told the UN Security Council yesterday, according to an account provided by two UN officials who asked to not be named because the meeting was closed to the public. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has defied forecasts of imminent collapse and is surviving with no end in sight, even though its legitimacy has been irrevocably lost, said the two officials.

Not only is Syria being destroyed “bit by bit,” the conflict is pushing the region into a situation that is “extremely bad and extremely important for the entire world,” Brahimi told reporters after the session in New York.

He said any new diplomatic prospects depend on further measures by the divided Security Council. The UN’s most powerful body has been hamstrung by Russia’s unwillingness to support additional pressure on the Syrian regime.

“Brahimi is sadly confined to playing the tragic chorus in a drama over which he has no control,” Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said yesterday in an interview.

U.S. intelligence and military officers and diplomats, along with those of nations such as Britain, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, are increasingly worried that what they consider the slow death of Assad’s regime will destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, unleash new Kurdish passions for independence and could put chemical weapons in the hands of both Sunni and Shiite extremists.

Too Late

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters and international discussions, two U.S. officials yesterday said it may be too late for the U.S. and other nations to prevent some or all of those outcomes.

They called the reluctance of President Barack Obama’s administration to provide more than humanitarian aid for Syrians and limited military assistance to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon understandable in light of its desire to avoid a potential quagmire. Still, the consequences of caution now threaten to outweigh the risks of greater involvement, they said.

Aside from seeing Hezbollah or militant Sunni groups such as al-Nusrat with links to al-Qaeda groups in Iraq obtain chemical or biological weapons, they cited the danger to Jordan’s pro-Western King Abdullah. His fall, were it to happen, would create new instability on Israel’s western border and inspire radicals elsewhere in the Arab world, they said.

Aleppo Massacre

The news of the latest massacre in Aleppo -- where the bodies of dozens of young men shot in the head with their hands tied back were found along the muddy banks of a river -- served as a harrowing backdrop to Brahimi’s update.

A seasoned Algerian diplomat, Brahimi has been under few illusions that he could succeed where his predecessor, Kofi Annan, had failed. Back in September, Brahimi said a peaceful settlement in Syria was “nearly impossible.”

Annan, a former UN Secretary-General, resigned six months after his peace plan, a cease-fire followed by talks on a transition, never got off the ground. Like Annan, Brahimi has devoted a lot of time to trying to get Russia to break its ties with Assad and call on him to step aside. Instead, Russia has dragged out the diplomatic process and used its veto three times to block council resolutions.

Apologizing for sounding like a broken record, Brahimi used strong language to describe the situation in Syria. UN officials said he called it a playground for competing forces, an endless tragedy and an unparalleled horror.

‘Frank’ Assessment

His assessment was “very frank and grim,” the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said later to reporters. With divisions in the council, she said, “there is no obvious way forward.”

At times, Brahimi sounded as if he had lost patience as he chided the Security Council for not doing enough, the officials said.

“I told the council I am embarrassed to be saying the same thing,” Brahimi said afterward. “Syria is being destroyed bit by bit,” and the “Security Council simply can’t continue to say ‘we are in disagreement.’”

Russia last night was to host a dinner for Brahimi and the other four permanent members of the UN’s decision-making body -- the U.S., France, U.K. and China. Brahimi, who unlike Annan never had a personal audience with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was in New York for ten days meeting with envoys individually.

‘Sense of Duty’

Asked by reporters if he plans to resign, Brahimi replied, “I’m not a quitter.” He said, “Maybe stupidly, I feel a sense of duty,” though “the moment I feel that I am totally useless, I will not stay one minute more.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group that supports the opposition, said it has identified 17 of the 65 bodies pulled yesterday from the al-Quweiq river in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo. The death toll may be as high as 80, as bodies were still floating in the water, the group said.

The U.S. yesterday announced $155 million in humanitarian relief for Syria, bringing its total $365 million. That’s a fraction of the $1.5 billion the UN set as a target last month as debt-laden Western nations have curtailed foreign aid. Kuwait is hosting a donor conference today to raise funds for Syria’s humanitarian needs.

Obama Video

Obama released a three-minute, Arabic-subtitled video statement to the Syrian people yesterday, saying “we’re under no illusions” the conflict will be resolved soon. “The days ahead will continue to be very difficult,” he said, offering no timetable for when “the Assad regime will come to an end.”

What began as anti-government protests on the back of the Arab revolts two years ago has mutated into a fight to the death between an Alawite minority clinging to power and a Sunni-led opposition that counts Islamist fighters among its ranks.

“The rebels are intent on winning a decisive victory and Assad is willing to fight to a bloody finish,” Gowan said.

A year ago, Western leaders including then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron asserted Assad’s days were numbered. Now that certainty is gone.

“There are no positive signs for the solution we want, which is the fall of Bashar’s regime,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during a Jan. 24 news conference in Paris. “Nothing is advancing in Syria.”

With a countless number of casualties -- the UN estimates more than 60,000 Syrians dead -- a growing concern is that chemical weapons may fall into the wrong hands.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Jan. 27 that Israel must prepare for the threat of a chemical attack from Syria as the Israeli army deployed its new Iron Dome anti-missile system near the border with its northern neighbor.

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