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February 17, 2013

Brahimi Urges Syria's Government, Opposition to Meet at UN Offices

by Michael Lipin

International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is urging Syria's government and opposition to meet on U.N. premises to discuss a political solution to the two-year rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.


Speaking Sunday in Cairo, Brahimi said a U.N.-hosted dialogue between the Syrian opposition and an "acceptable" government delegation would help Syria to start emerging from what he called its "dark tunnel." He did not specify a location for such talks.


The leader of Syria's exiled opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has said he would be willing to meet Syria's ceremonial vice president Farouk al-Sharaa to discuss a peaceful departure of the Assad government. Khatib's Syrian National Coalition also has offered to talk to other government representatives not directly involved in Mr. Assad's violent crackdown on the revolt.


Brahimi said the opposition initiative "challenges" the Syrian government to live up to its pledge to hold a national dialogue. Mr. Assad called for such a dialogue last month, but gave no details about whom he would negotiate with.


The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the importance of supporting a "viable" Syrian political process by using their respective influence on the parties in the conflict. It said Kerry and Lavrov addressed the issue during a half-hour conversation on Sunday.


The State Department said Kerry emphasized the "urgency of ending the bloodshed, preventing a further deterioration of the institutions of the state, and protecting the rights of all Syrians and helping them to resist extremism and further sectarian strife."


Washington has supported Syrian opposition calls for Mr. Assad to step down and be held accountable for alleged atrocities committed by his forces. Moscow has repeatedly rejected Western demands for the ouster of Mr. Assad, a longtime Russian ally and buyer of Russian arms.


Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said Sunday the government has offered "all necessary guarantees" to make a dialogue possible and urged the Syrian people to join the process. But, he reiterated warnings that Damascus will exclude any opposition figure it perceives as "pretending" to represent the national interest while secretly supporting alleged "foreign agendas."


Opposition leader Khatib has demanded that Mr. Assad release tens of thousands of prisoners and renew the passports of Syrian exiles before any talks begin. The government has ignored those conditions.


In the latest fighting, Syrian opposition activists said pro-Assad Hezbollah militants from Lebanon attacked several rebel-held Syrian villages near the border between the two countries on Saturday. They said the fighting happened in the Qusair district of Homs province.


Syrian rebels have repeatedly accused Islamist group Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria to support its ally, Mr. Assad. Hezbollah has not confirmed the allegations.


In other violence, Syrian activists said rebels attacked government forces at the Nairab air base near the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday and Sunday. Rebels apparently seized the Jarrah air base near Aleppo earlier this month as part of a campaign to prevent the government from using its superior air power against outgunned rebel positions. Details of the fighting could not be independently confirmed.