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Brahimi tries to kick start talks between Syrian regime and opposition

The UN envoy for Syria proposes that an 'acceptable delegation' from Damascus should meet opposition figures in UN premises. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Lakhdar Brahimi, left, the United Nations envoy for Syria, called for talks between the opposition and representatives of president Bashar Al Assad after a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo
Lakhdar Brahimi, left, the United Nations envoy for Syria, called for talks between the opposition and representatives of president Bashar Al Assad after a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo

DAMASCUS // Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy for Syria, yesterday called for talks between the opposition and representatives of president Bashar Al Assad, in a renewed effort to broker a diplomatic solution to the country's civil war.

Mr Brahimi gave few details, proposing that an "acceptable delegation" from Damascus should meet opposition figures in UN premises, as a way of getting negotiations off the ground.

"We believe that if a dialogue begins at the offices of the United Nations, at least at the start, between the opposition and an acceptable delegation from the Syrian government, we think this will be a start to get out of the dark tunnel," he said, following an Arab League meeting in Cairo.

Arab League chief Nabil El Arabi announced he would be travelling to Russia on Tuesday for talks on Syria. Moscow is a key international ally for Mr Al Assad's regime.

There was no immediate public response to Mr Brahimi's comments from the Syrian government, but there appears to be little prospect of a breakthrough - even to the extent of getting the regime and opposition to sit down together.

Mr Brahimi has little credibility with both sides. Last month, supporters of the Syrian president branded him a conspirator in an international plot against Damascus, after he said Mr Al Assad must hand over his powers to a transitional government to end the crisis.

Opposition activists have accused Mr Brahimi of fruitlessly recycling the same unfulfilled demand for talks, buying time for the regime while doing nothing concrete to halt a conflict in which almost 70,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates.

The Syrian regime says it is amenable to negotiations but has made it clear that Mr Al Assad's position as president is not up for discussion and that opposition groups taking part in talks must surrender their weapons.

In contrast, the opposition sees talks as a way of managing Mr Al Assad's departure from power after more than four decades of Assad family rule over Syria, and has demanded regime forces cease their military operations.

What constitutes an "acceptable delegation" is also certain to be a sticking point.

Moaz Al Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, proposed Syrian vice president Farouq Al Sharaa for the job but there appears little prospect of Mr Al Assad nominating him as his representative, even in preliminary talks.

Although technically the Syrian president's deputy, Mr Al Sharaa is not part of the decision-making inner circle and has been highly critical of the regime's violent response to dissent.

"Brahimi is a fool, here we are again with more talks about talks when every one knows there nothing these two sides can side down and talk about, they have no common language," said a resident of southern Damascus.

A regime supporter in the same neighbourhood also brushed aside the idea of negotiations, saying they were a trick by the international community seeking to unseat Mr Al Assad and seize control over Syria.

"We will fight for our freedom, victory or death," he said.

That the war in Syria is spiralling further out of control was underlined yesterday with the Syrian National Council, a major opposition faction, accusing the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah of intervention in the conflict.

It said members of the group had attacked Syrian villages near the Lebanese border, causing civilian casualties and prompting hundreds to flee.

Also yesterday, electricity was restored to many parts of Damascus after a 17-hour citywide power cut on Saturday night. Power cuts, often lasting hours at a time, are now routine in and around the capital, and across the rest of Syria.

psands@thenational.ae