The international envoy to Syria warned yesterday that as many as 100,000 could die in the next year if a way cannot be found quickly to end the country's civil war.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for the Syrian crisis, told reporters in Cairo that if the crisis continues Syria will not be divided into states "like what happened in Yugoslavia" but will face "Somalisation, which means warlords, and the Syrian people will be persecuted by those who control their fate".
Mr Brahimi's comments came as Russia despatched a third warship to its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus in readiness for a possible evacuation of its nationals and as Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees that victory over the "tyrant" president Bashar Al Assad was at hand.
Since starting his job in September, Mr Brahimi has sought to advance an international plan, reached in Geneva six months ago, that calls for an open-ended ceasefire between rebels and government troops and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until elections can be held.
Over the past week, Mr Brahimi went to Damascus where he met Mr Al Assad then flew to Moscow, one of Syria's closest international allies, where he discussed ways of ending the country's crisis. "The situation in Syria is bad. Very, very bad," Mr Brahimi said after meeting Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby. "It is getting worse and therefore if nearly 50,000 were killed in nearly two years if, God forbids, this crisis continues for another year, it will not only kill 25,000. It will kill 100,000. The situation is deteriorating."
Activists say about 45,000 people have been killed in the crisis, which began with pro-democracy protests but has morphed into a civil war.
Mr Brahimi said that peace and security in the world will be threatened directly from Syria if there is no solution within the next few months. "I warn of what will come. The choice is between a political solution or of full collapse of the Syrian state."
Asked if there is any willingness by Mr Al Assad and the opposition to go into a political process, Mr Brahimi said, "No, there isn't. This is the problem." He added that the two sides don't talk to each other and there is need for help from outside.
Mr Brahimi hinted that the Geneva plan might be adopted by the UN Security Council, saying, "We have a suggestion and I think that this suggestion will be adopted by the international community." Russia and China have so far vetoed three Security Council draft resolutions seeking to force Mr Al Assad's hand with the threat of sanctions. Mr Brahimi held talks in Moscow on Saturday with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on his end-of-year bid to accelerate moves to halt the conflict that monitors say has killed 45,000 people.
The talks came amid signs that Russia was beginning to distance itself from Mr Al Assad's government. Moscow sent another naval vessel to the eastern Mediterranean yesterday in readiness for a possible evacuation of Russians, many of them women who married Syrian men during the Cold War years of close relations. The Novocherkassk landing ship joined the Azov and Nikolai Filchenkov amphibious vessels already en route for Syria since Friday and is expected to dock in Tartus in the first 10 days of the new year, Russian news agencies reported. The Tartus base is Russia's only remaining naval station outside the former Soviet Union and is seen as a major strategic asset for Moscow.
The Turkish premier also visited a Syrian refugee camp near the border accompanied by armed opposition National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib. "I can see it clearly that the help of God is near," Mr Erdogan said. "You have suffered so much but do not despair." Turkey is currently home to almost 150,000 Syrian refugees. It is also the principal rear-base for the rebels. On the ground, at least 63 people were killed in violence yesterday, 40 of them civilians, according to a preliminary toll from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Among seven people killed in an air raid in the central province of Hama were a man, his wife and young daughter, the Britain-based watchdog said.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse