Envoy Appears in No Rush to Put Forward Plan to End Violence
In their first meeting since Lakhdar Brahimi became the U.N. Special Representative to Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked him to help unify opponents of embattled president Bashar al-Assad.
“The Secretary was very much encouraging Special Representative Brahimi to himself be very focused on this element of it,” says a senior State Department official who was in their talks, “that as he tries to pursue diplomacy, it is in his interest to help contribute to a more cohesive opposition that can play an effective role in carrying out the transition.”
The failure of civilian and military opponents to come together behind a single strategy has complicated efforts by the so-called “Friends of Syria” to fund and arm their campaign against Damascus.
That comes as no surprise in a country where the Assad family has spent years sowing division among the minority groups, says Cato Institute Middle East analyst Malou Innocent.
“There is infighting in terms of what they want from the Assad regime. Some want a no-fly zone. Some don’t want any Western interference,” she says. “Some want more rights from the Assad regime. Some only recently have been willing to not speak with the Assad regime.”
“The one thing that is uniting them is opposition to Assad and his crackdown, but not really an inclusive vision of what they want in a post-Assad Syria,” Innocent says. “That inability to cobble together a meaningful political settlement in the future is really what’s dividing them and limiting their ability to create more cohesion.”
Friends of Syria meet in New York
Some foreign ministers from “Friends of Syria” countries will meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, and U.S. officials say opposition disunity will again top the agenda. More than 80 nations have taken part in meetings of the “Friends of Syria” group, which is largely made up of the United States, the European Union and members of the Arab League.
“This is a complicated, multi-sided, diplomatic effort involving people on the inside and people on the outside, involving people of different backgrounds and different professions and different regions of the country,” says a senior State Department official. “It is not surprising that it takes both time and real spadework to try to create a cohesive opposition that can effectively steward a transition.”
“Taking steps related to opposition cohesion is something I think [Secretary Clinton] sees as an important predicate to an effective transition, an effective diplomatic process that produces the result we’re looking for.”
Kurds have been stumbling block
Among the obstacles to that cohesion is the position of Syria’s Kurds, who have walked out of previous efforts to unify the opposition.
At the start of the uprising, President Assad granted political rights to Kurds in an attempt to keep them from joining rebels. Analyst Malou Innocent says that has successfully led to divisions within the Kurdish community.
“They don’t know where to put their loyalties,” she says. “They don’t know how this will pan out, especially when we see the FSA (Free Syrian Army) with light weapons. They have been somewhat effective, but they are still up against a very-capable Syrian army and one of the strongest militaries in the region.”
Given Syria’s military stalemate, U.S. officials say Special Representative Brahimi appears in no hurry to offer another peace plan following the failure of his predecessor, the former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
“Brahimi is very focused on how you create the conditions for some kind of diplomatic process to unfold,” says a senior State Department official. “But he was also realistic; that right at the moment, we’re not around the corner from a diplomatic process being launched, and more work needs to be done to lay the ground.”
“He was clear with [Secretary Clinton] that he is not going to rush into putting a plan on the table,” the U.S. official says, “that he wants to be systematic in doing his consultations, he wants to look for opportunities and openings, he wants to find as many building blocks as he can piece together to ultimately come up with a strategy that he believes is workable.”