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Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has given a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, as he takes up his new post.
In a recent interview with BBC, the veteran Algerian diplomat described his mission as “nearly impossible”.
Lakhdar Brahimi was appointed after his predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned, saying he no longer saw a way to fulfill his mission after his peace plan failed to achieve a meaningful ceasefire.
Fighting in Syria has been escalating.
In the latest – still unconfirmed – incident, opposition activists say a warplane killed as many as 18 people in a single strike in Aleppo province.
Activists say 20,000 people have died since the uprising against the Syrian government began last March.
On Sunday, the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 5,000 people were killed in August alone.
The conflict has increasingly come to resemble a full-scale civil war, forcing an estimated one million Syrians from their homes.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has given a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, as he takes up his new post
Last month, the United Nations wound up the observer mission that had been tasked with monitoring the ceasefire in Syria under the six-point peace plan negotiated by Mr Annan.
“I’m coming into this job with my eyes open, and no illusions,” said Lakhdar Brahimi.
“I know how difficult it is – how nearly impossible. I can’t say impossible – [it is] nearly impossible.”
With few people believing that Lakhdar Brahimi can do much, it seems he sees his job as keeping expectations low.
Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to visit Syria and meet President Bashar al-Assad on 8 September.
The spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, said Syria would “give Brahimi all that he needs to make his mission a success for the interest of the country”.
A former Algerian foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi has also held a series of key UN appointments, including that of UN envoy to Afghanistan and mediator of the peace deal that ended the Lebanese civil war.
Analysts say he has a formidable reputation at the UN and his appointment has been widely welcomed.
But Lakhdar Brahimi admitted to some trepidation about his new mission, saying he could understand those frustrated with the lack of international action in Syria.
“I’m scared of the weight of responsibility. People are already saying: <<People are dying and what are you doing?>>
“And we are not doing much. That in itself is a terrible weight.”
Lakhdar Brahimi said he had so far failed to see “any cracks” in the “brick wall” that had defeated Mr Annan – an “intransigent” Syrian government, escalating rebel violence and a paralyzed UN Security Council, where China and Russia have vetoed several resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Damascus.
He said he would keep Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan – now seen by many as irrelevant – in his “tool box” for possible adaptation, but admitted he “had ideas, but no plan yet”, apart from talking to as many people as possible.
Addressing the Syrian government, he said the need for political change in Syria was “fundamental and urgent”, but – as he has previously – refused to be drawn on whether President Bashar al-Assad should step down, as the opposition and several Western leaders are demanding.
“Change cannot be cosmetic,” he said.
“There will be a new order, but I do not know who will be the people in the order. That’s for Syrians to decide.”
He also sought to keep a distance between himself and the rebels, who have criticized him for his cautious stance.
“Please remember I am not joining your movement,” he said.
“I am working for two international organizations, the United Nations and the Arab League, and I do not speak the same language as you.”
Lakhdar Brahimi’s comments came after another day of violence inside Syria on Sunday.
In Damascus, an explosion hit a district where major military and security compounds are located, reports say.
State TV described the blast – involving two bombs – as “terrorism” and said four people had been lightly injured.
Activists said more than 100 people were killed on Sunday, at least 25 of them in the village of al-Fan near Hama, when it was stormed by government forces.
Many of the 25, all men, were killed by army shelling, activist groups said, but they named at least nine who they said had been summarily executed in their homes by government forces or militia.
State television said security forces had attacked what it called an armed terrorist group in the area, killing all of them.
Rebels and government forces have been involved in a fierce battle for Damascus since July.
The building affected was a base for officers guarding the joint chiefs of staff offices nearby but was empty at the time, officials said.
Bomb attacks in Damascus and the largest city, Aleppo, have become increasingly frequent in recent months, with the authorities often blaming them on “armed terrorist gangs”.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has made his first appearance in public since a bomb attack in Damascus last month killed several senior officials.
State TV showed Bashar al-Assad performing prayers in the capital’s al-Hamad mosque at the start of the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan.
Across the country, many people marked the holiday with prayers and anti-government demonstrations.
But opposition groups reported fierce bombardments of rebel-held areas.
Parts of Aleppo and Rastan have been shelled, and clashes reported in Herak, Deraa province, the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Protests were held at cemeteries and mosques around Syria including Damascus, Hama and Idlib, opposition activists said.
Bashar al-Assad was shown seated on the mosque floor and standing to shake hands with clerics.
Syrian state TV showed Bashar al-Assad performing prayers in the capital's al-Hamad mosque at the start of the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan
Correspondents say that in previous years he was generally filmed arriving or leaving in his convoy, but this did not happen this time.
The Syrian president has not been seen in public since giving a speech in parliament on 4 July.
Two weeks later, a bombing in the state security headquarters killed four senior officials including Bashar al-Assad’s brother in law, Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat.
There have also been several defections in recent weeks by senior officials, notably Prime Minister Riad Hijab.
However, on Saturday officials denied rumors that Vice-President Farouq al-Shara, the most senior Sunni Muslim in the Damascus regime, had gone over to the opposition.
The international community has welcomed the appointment of the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.
The 78-year-old succeeds Kofi Annan who resigned this month as his peace plan had failed to achieve a real ceasefire.
Analysts say he has a formidable reputation at the UN but is also seen as independent of the major powers.
Officials in Damascus have also given him their support.
However, opposition groups have expressed skepticism about his ability to accomplish his mission.
Lakhdar Brahimi has said it is too soon for him to demand that Bashar al-Assad should step down. Kofi Annan had said it was clear he should leave office.
Meanwhile, the mandate of the UN observer mission in Syria ends at midnight local time. The observers were deployed to monitor a ceasefire brokered by Kofi Annan, but no truce ever took hold.
Announcing his resignation earlier this month, Kofi Annan had said he was unable to fulfill his role because of the growing militarization of the conflict, as well as deadlock in the UN Security Council.
Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.
Activists estimate about 20,000 people have died since anti-government protests erupted against the Assad regime in March last year. Tens of thousands of people have also fled the country.
The United Nations has decided to end its military observer mission in Syria, days before its mandate expired.
A small, civilian office will be set up instead to maintain political contacts.
“The conditions to continue UNSMIS were not filled,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud said after a Security Council meeting.
The United Nations has decided to end its military observer mission in Syria, days before its mandate expired
The UN mission had been part of envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. But continued violence made the observers’ mission increasingly difficult.
A bomb exploded close to their hotel in Damascus on Wednesday. The observers’ patrols were suspended in mid-June because of the “significant risk to their lives” and diplomats said the condition for renewing their mandate – a reduction in violence – had not been met.
Russia warned earlier that pulling out of Syria would have “serious negative consequences” for the region.
Moscow’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said Russia, which has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, wanted the UN to make an international appeal for the Syrian conflict to end.
Kofi Annan resigned as UN-Arab League envoy to Syria a fortnight ago, complaining of a “clear lack of unity” in the Security Council.
Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.
Vitaly Churkin said Russia had called for a meeting on Friday of Security Council members as well as representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran to discuss the crisis.
Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet in the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks over Syrian crisis.
The ministers are expected to discuss a new envoy to Syria to replace Kofi Annan, who resigned earlier this month.
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the US and Turkey are working together on detailed plans to support the Syrian opposition.
Fighting has continued in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the second city of Aleppo.
Speaking on a visit to Istanbul, Hillary Clinton said both the US and Turkey were making preparations to respond to the possible collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the use of chemical weapons and increases in the number of cross-border refugees.
Kofi Annan resigned from his position as UN-Arab League envoy to Syria earlier this month, after his proposed six-point peace plan failed to come into effect and violence escalated.
Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet in the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks over Syrian crisis
On the agenda for foreign ministers attending Sunday’s emergency meeting in Jeddah will be Kofi Annan’s replacement – tipped by diplomats to be the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.
At the table will be envoys from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – leading backers of the rebels in Syria.
The mandate of the United Nations observer mission in Syria – which now comprises some 150 observers – is due to run out in a week’s time.
But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says there still need to be people on the ground to make impartial assessments of the military situation.
The Security Council will discuss the issue on Thursday, but there is little consensus on the council, with Syrian ally Russia calling for an extension and the US skeptical about prolonging the mission.
Instead, the US is taking steps outside the structures of the UN to support Syrian opposition groups, such as the setting up of the working group with Turkey announced by Hillary Clinton in her meeting with her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday.
“Our number-one goal is to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime,” she said.
“Our intelligence services, our military have very important responsibilities and roles to play so we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that.”
A “range of contingencies” was discussed, including the possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, Hillary Clinton added.
Meanwhile, inside Syria fighting is continuing.
Syrian state TV said authorities were hunting “terrorists” who had set off a bomb in Marjeh, an exclusive district of Damascus near the central bank, and who were “shooting at random to spark panic among citizens”.
At about the same time, another blast went off near Tishrin Stadium close by, reported state news agency Sana.
Hours later, Sana reported that a bus had been attacked in a Damascus suburb, said AP news agency, with six passengers from the central province of Hama killed. It blamed the attack on the “terrorists”.
Violence erupted again between the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and government forces in the country’s largest city, Aleppo.
Activists said the army pounded areas south-west of Salah al-Din, from which the rebels retreated on Thursday.
Reports from Syria are difficult to confirm because of restrictions on reporters working there.
The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages.
It passed a non-binding resolution, which also condemns the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons, by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.
The move came after the resignation of UN envoy Kofi Annan and failure of his six-point peace plan.
Government forces backed by tanks have launched a new assault in Damascus.
The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages
Shelling also continued on Friday in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.
The resolution passed at the UN expresses “grave concern” at the escalation of violence in Syria and deplores “the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”.
“The first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities,” the resolution said.
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the envoy for Saudi Arabia which is the driving force behind the resolution, had urged the Assembly to maintain its moral and humanitarian values by approving the resolution.
Syria’s envoy, Bashar Jaafari, reacted to the passing of the resolution by saying his government still supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.
Accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of having undermined the plan before coming out in support of it, he said: “You cannot be a fireman and an arsonist at the same time.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict in Syria had become a “proxy war” and called on powers to overcome their rivalries in an effort to end the violence.
“The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes,” he said.
Russia and China have blocked attempts in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Damascus.
Kofi Annan is quitting as UN-Arab League envoy, the UN has announced.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Kofi Annan had decided not to renew his mandate when it expires at the end of August.
Kofi Annan authored a six-point peace plan for Syria which was intended to bring an end to the fighting.
But the plan was never fully adhered to by either side and the violence has continued.
Kofi Annan is quitting as UN-Arab League envoy
Ban Ki-moon said Kofi Annan deserved “our profound admiration for the selfless way in which he has put his formidable skills and prestige to this most difficult and potentially thankless of assignments”.
He said he was in discussion with the Arab League to find a successor to “carry on this crucial peacemaking effort”.
“I remain convinced that yet more bloodshed is not the answer; each day of it will only make the solution more difficult while bringing deeper suffering to the country and greater peril to the region,” he added.
Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Video published on the internet purportedly from Homs showed intermittent shelling and black smoke.
UN mediator Kofi Annan is concerned civilians have been trapped in Homs and al-Haffa, a town in Latakia province also said to be under attack.
The US says it fears the government may be planning “another massacre”.
Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said civilians had been trapped in both Homs and al-Haffa.
Kofi Annan was demanding immediate entry to al-Haffa for UN military observers be allowed, he added.
Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad
As joint envoy for the UN and the Arab League, Kofi Annan brokered a six-point peace plan, including a ceasefire which came into nominal effect two months ago but has now been virtually abandoned.
Syrian army appeared to be using an unmanned surveillance drone to select buildings as targets for shelling.
A steady stream of mortar rounds landing in the old city of Homs at a rate of about one a minute.
The UN team – which has been trying for two days to gain access to the old city – has still not succeeded.
All the UN can do is stand by and watch.
US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was “deeply alarmed” at “reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organizing another massacre”.
Such an attack could happen, it suggested, in al-Haffa or the towns of Deir el-Zour, Homs or Hama, or in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 74 people were killed across Syria on Monday.
An activist website, the Violations Documenting Centre, said there had been 29 deaths in the past week from bombardment in al-Haffa. All but three of the dead were civilians, it added.
These reports cannot be confirmed independently because Syria heavily restricts journalists’ freedom of movement.
The Syrian government blames the violence on foreign-backed armed terrorist gangs.
Separately, UN monitors and human rights activists said Syrian government forces had used helicopters to bombard the town of Rastan, in Homs province.
The town has been under intermittent army shelling “for months”, the Observatory said.
UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said monitors had seen Syrian helicopters firing on Rastan and another rebel stronghold, Talbisa.
In Talbisa, rebels from the Free Syrian Army captured soldiers from government forces, she added.
The United Nations Security Council has been accused by Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan of indirectly supporting the oppression of the Syrian people by failing to unite on Syria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the UN Security Council was standing by with its “hands and arms tied” while the Syrian people were dying every day.
Russia says Syria has promised to pull its forces from cities by 10 April.
In Damascus, the head of Red Cross has been meeting top Syrian officials.
Jakob Kellenberger has been trying to get Syria to allow aid workers better access to those who have been wounded or displaced by the conflict.
He will also press the Syrian authorities to implement a daily two-hour ceasefire, as stipulated in the peace plan proposed by the UN and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the UN Security Council was standing by with its "hands and arms tied" while the Syrian people were dying every day
The president of the UN General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, says he has asked Kofi Annan to brief the world body on his Syria peace mission.
No date has been set, but Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser said he had suggested 13 April, after the 10 April deadline for the military pullback and a mutual ceasefire has passed, our correspondent adds.
Russia’s foreign ministry says Syria’s government has informed Moscow it has started implementing Kofi Annan’s plan to end the unrest.
The ministry said in a statement that the Syrian ambassador to Moscow told Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov that Damascus had begun fulfilling its obligations under the plan, the Associated Press news agency reports.
The statement did not give any further details.
Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, said on Tuesday that an advance team from the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) would arrive in Damascus “in the next 48 hours” to discuss the deployment of international monitors.
The team would be made up of five to six people, he added.
The announcement comes the day after Kofi Annan urged the UN Security Council to set a deadline of 10 April for a ceasefire plan to come into force.
Syria says it has agreed to the deadline.
But activists say government forces have continued to attack opposition strongholds.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said by not taking a decision on Syria, the UN Security Council had “indirectly supported the oppression. To stand by with your hands and arms tied while the Syrian people are dying every day is to support the oppression”.
He told members of parliament from his governing AK Party that Turkey would not turn its back on the Syrian people.
China and Russia have twice vetoed resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for turning the army on civilians.
On Monday, Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council that President Assad had agreed to withdraw security forces from major population centres by 10 April, diplomats said.
Kofi Annan also asked the Security Council to plan for the deployment of UN observers to supervise the ceasefire by all parties, as set out in his peace plan.
UN officials and diplomats said the monitors would probably be drawn from other peacekeeping forces in the region and could not be established without an end to the fighting, agreement by all parties and a Security Council mandate.
The ceasefire is only one part of Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which also calls for a political process to address the “aspirations” of the Syrian people, release of detainees, delivery of humanitarian aid, free movement for journalists, and right to protest.