x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syria: no plan, no timetable, no peace

The UN special envoy repeats calls for political change but has left Damascus with no sign that a stillborn peace deal struck in Geneva this summer has been revived. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Members of the Free Syrian Army carry their wounded comrade in Idlib December 26, 2012. Picture taken December 26, 2012. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST) *** Local Caption *** SYR09_SYRIA-CRISIS-_1227_11.JPG
Members of the Free Syrian Army carry their wounded comrade in Idlib December 26, 2012. Picture taken December 26, 2012. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST) *** Local Caption *** SYR09_SYRIA-CRISIS-_1227_11.JPG

DAMASCUS // The UN special envoy yesterday repeated calls for political change in Syria but left Damascus with no sign that a stillborn peace deal struck in Geneva this summer had been revived.

Lakhdar Brahimi said a transitional government wielding the full powers now solely in the hands of Bashar Al Assad must be in place before elections.

But after five days of talks, including a meeting with the president, he said nothing to suggest his mission was any nearer success. He specifically said he was not yet proposing a "complete plan" to end the civil war.

"Change should not be cosmetic: the Syrian people need and require real change, and everyone understands what that means," the envoy said.

"We need to form a government with all powers … which assumes power during a period of transition. That transition period will end with elections."

But Mr Brahimi gave no indication a timetable for political transition had been agreed upon or that Mr Al Assad had consented, even in principle, to hand over his authority to an interim government. The envoy is due for talks in Moscow tomorrow with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov,

Meanwhile on the ground the war continued with fighting across much of the country. Damascus suburbs experienced the usual shelling, skirmishes and car bombings, and there were street battles in Aleppo and military operations by regime and rebel forces in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor and Deraa.

At least 67 people had been killed by early evening yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists.

The need for a transitional administration, as well as genuine democratic reforms, an end to violence, freedom for thousands of political prisoners and greater access for aid agencies, were all formally spelt out in June's Geneva communique, which was backed by the international community and endorsed by Syria.

None of the deal's clauses have since been implemented and the conflict has only worsened. More than 23,000 people have been killed since Geneva, according to rights monitors - more than half the total death toll since the uprising began in March 2011.

Mr Lavrov said yesterday that the implementation of a peace deal was crucial.

"The alternative to a peaceful solution is bloody chaos," he said. "The longer it continues, the greater its scale — and the worse things get for all,"

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the few groups attempting to monitor casualties in Syria, has documented at least 45,000 deaths, and says the real number could be as high as 100,000.

Despite Mr Brahimi's assertion of there being consensus over what "change" in Syria means, the enormous divide between the regime and opposition factions, and their backers, appears as wide as ever.

Opposition groups have said there can be no place for Mr Al Assad in any transition, but supporters of the president insist he is still popular and could win an election in 2014 - when the next presidential election is due under the existing constitution.

In fact, there is still no clear consensus as to what the Geneva communique entails. As soon as it was signed, Russia and the US gave differing interpretations of the deal: Washington insisted it meant Mr Al Assad must stand aside, Moscow was equally adamant it said no such thing.

Recent talks between the US and Russia, mediated by Mr Brahimi, a flurry of diplomatic activity and comments from Russian officials implying their support for Mr Al Assad may be waning have led to growing speculation that the two big powers are closer to agreeing a pact on Syria.

Rebel advances have only added to hopes among Mr Al Assad's opponents that he is weakening and may now be ready to negotiate a peace deal.

Both Mr Brahimi and Russia yesterday appeared to be tamping down speculation that some kind of breakthrough might be near, however.

The UN envoy and the Russian foreign ministry specifically said no behind-the-scenes deal over the transition of power in Syria, or Mr Al Assad's fate, has been done.

Mr Brahimi also said he was still seeking wide agreement on a peace deal and, if that should fail, that the issue would be referred to the UN Security Council - which has repeatedly been unable to agree on how to tackle the crisis.

"What is preferred is that we don't present such a plan until we feel that all sides have agreed to it. That way, implementing it is easy. If that doesn't happen, the other solution could be to go to the Security Council to issue a binding resolution for everyone," Mr Brahimi said.

psands@thenational.ae